Review: Samurai Spirit

Samurai SpiritSamurai Spirit is essentially Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai in boardgame form.  The players are samurai tasked with defending a village from an onslaught of bandits that attack in three waves.  If the players can protect at least one family and one farmstead in the village, they win.  If the village falls, or if even one samurai dies, it’s all over.

I think I have an unhealthy relationship with co-operative games.  I love the concept in theory.  Get together with friends and work together to solve a problem.  The issue is that pure co-operative games almost all suffer from the same issue: “quarterbacking”.  Because these games are effectively a collaborative puzzle, and because there’s no hidden information, there are usually one or two “best” moves that the players can agree on.  Unfortunately, this allows for dominant and/or very experienced players to take over a game, while shy or less-experienced players end up feeling marginalized and often don’t actually get to play much of the game.  This frustrates me to no end, and yet I still rush out and eagerly buy each new co-op game that comes out, hoping for some innovation that fixes this problem.

Some games, such as Space Alert and Escape: Curse of the Temple, skirt these issues with a built-in time limitation;  players are so busy dealing with their own problems that they can’t hold anyone else’s hand.  Other games, such as Battlestar Galactica and Dead of Winter, get around this with a “traitor” mechanic; perhaps everyone shouldn’t blindly listen to that dominant player, as he may be working against the group.

When I read that Samurai Spirit was going to be a pure co-operative game, I worried that no matter how good Antoine Bauza’s pedigree as a game designer may be, the game would likely suffer from quarterbacking.  After all, as much as I love Bauza’s co-operative classic Ghost Stories, it’s also one of the most striking examples of this problem.

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

Components: When I picked up my copy of Samurai Spirit at Gen Con, I was a bit underwhelmed; the box seemed extremely small.  While there’s a lot more to a good game than several pounds of cardstock and wooden bits, nice components can add a lot of flavor to a game.  Fortunately, what’s in the box is well-crafted.  The character cards are thick cardboard, and the artwork is spectacular — each board contains a player’s samurai on one side, and its “spirit animal” form on the other side.  The bandit cards are similarly well-drawn, though I’d like to see more variety.  All of the cards of a given value (except for the 6-value “bosses”) have the same artwork.  The other bits (counters and tokens) are fairly standard boardgame fare.

The only real downer is the game board itself — it’s tiny!  While the board is serviceable enough, this game is designed for up to seven players.  At a large table with a lot of people, it can be hard to see the remaining barricades.  These are minor issues, and if these were the design decisions required to hit the game’s $30 retail price point, I feel they were worth it.

Accessibility: Samiurai Spirit is simple to learn, with only a few available actions available each turn.  On most turns, players will encounter a bandit, and will then choose to fight it or defend the village from its specific attack type.  The only other possible moves are to Support by passing the character’s unique ability token to another player, or to Pass, which takes the player out of the current round entirely.  I’ve taught this game to nearly a dozen people now, and almost everyone picked up the rules and basic strategy within a turn or two of starting.  I’m not sure the barrier to entry is quite as low as, say, Forbidden Island, but this definitely shouldn’t require a lot of gaming experience to pick up.

Depth: I’ve played Samurai Spirit several times now with a few distinct groups of people, and so far we haven’t come across an obvious best strategy.  While there aren’t as many moving parts as a more complex co-op game like Ghost Stories or Shadows Over Camelot, there are still difficult decisions to be made.  Ultimately, the samurai are attempting to hit their “kiai” values as often as possible — this is the point where the total value of the bandits a samurai is fighting matches his maximum fighting capacity.  Going over this value knocks the samurai out for the round, but hitting it exactly fires off a unique power and removes a bandit from the field of battle.  This can seem like a blind gamble, as in most situations the players have no idea which bandit card will be drawn next.

In fact, there are a lot of “press your luck” situations in the game.  Defending the village is another example: failing to defend against an attack type can have dire consequences at the end of a round, but keeping a character’s defend icons free allow a player to deal with a high-valued bandit card without getting knocked out.

Fortunately, there are some more complex (and subtle) choices.  While the Support action most obviously confers a samurai’s ability to another player, it can also be used strategically to avoid drawing a card.  Strategic passing can be useful as well; when the deck gets low, a player who has fulfilled his or her defense goals may want to bow out and let the other players get more chances as the icons they need.  When a character becomes damaged to half his starting life value, he shifts into a more powerful animal form (my first character turned into a katana-wielding raccoon — how badass is that?).  There’s a decision here as well: dying loses the game, but getting to half-health makes a character more effective in battle.

Theme: I really dig the samurai theme, and the gameplay mechanics fit in well.  The game effectively conveys the feel of defending a particularly vulnerable village from an endless onslaught of bandits; it may feel overwhelming at times, but it also feels like the characters are legendary heroes capable of fighting off the hordes.  Firing off a kiai power is particularly satisfying and effective, and the rare opportunity to chain two or three of them together is spectacular — watching a hopeless situation turn into a pile of dead bandits because of a clever play is quite rewarding.

Fun: The first few times I played Samurai Spirit, it was with a well-balanced group of four to five players.  We didn’t overthink most of the turns, and we mostly let players make their own decisions unless there was a very pressing need for a different action.  We actually hadn’t planned on playing more than once, but the game was so much fun that we wanted to keep trying new strategies to try to get a win.  The games flowed very quickly, with the first learning session lasting about 60 minutes, and the two subsequent games taking about 45 (with the final game including a win!).

I played a few nights later with a seven-player group consisting of different people.  The difference here is that we had several “alpha gamers” who wanted to analyze and second-guess every move.  This not only turned a fairly light game into a 90+ minute ordeal, but it made some of the less-dominant players feel left out.  A few times I even had to remind people not to simply take other players’ turns for them.  We won, but I had a lot less fun with this group.  Seven players seems like too many for a quick game; four or five seems to be the ideal number, but more can work if the players agree to keep the game moving.

Despite the one poor experience, I absolutely adore Samurai Spirit.  It contains traces of Ghost Stories without being a remake — this isn’t a Forbidden Island / Pandemic relationship.  The game flows with a beguiling simplicity, but there are enough subtle choices to keep things interesting.  The only major flaw is the aforementioned quarterbacking issue, which is more an indictment of pure co-operative games as a genre than anything specific to Samurai Spirit.  You may want to avoid this game if your regular gaming group has a tendancy to meta-game, or if it contains very strong personalities that may attempt to “take over” the game.

For anyone else, especially if you have friends who enjoy co-ops, Samurai Spirit is a charming, easy-to-play game with a deceptive amount of depth behind its simplicity.

Rating:
4star
4 out of 5

Review: Black Fleet

BOX Black Fleet.pdfSpace Cowboys have had a great first year as a company, with their initial release Splendor selling out repeatedly and being nominated for the Spiel des Jahres. There second release, Black Fleet by Sebastian Bleasdale, is now here, and it is a much different game from the straightforward mathematics of Splendor. Now, pirates, merchants and navy ships battle it out on the high seas with lots of special abilities and action cards. Will Space Cowboys be as successful with a totally different kind of design? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

[Edit: Turns out the final MSRP is $60, which is more along what I would expect. However, I left what I wrote below because this game really is classy enough to have that $70 price tag.]

blackeetcomponentsComponents: There might be a bit of sticker shock with this game’s $70 MSRP. However, Space Cowboys is clearly establishing themselves as publishers of truly boutique games with gorgeous components – unsurprising, considering Sebastian Pauchon (one of said cowboys) is also the owner of GameWorks, which seems to operate on a similar principle. Splendor may have seemed overpriced at $40, but those poker-chip-like gems truly made the game. Likewise, Black Fleet’s incredible production makes the game a truly high-end experience. There are only ten ships, but their molds are incredibly detailed and designed to hold the goods cubes, the coins are a nice clinky metal, the cards are all on quality cardstock and the game board is just lush with color. All the little details are there – the development cards form a panorama, the insert has a skull and crossbones on it, and there’s so much more. You really do get what you pay for with this one.

Accessibility: You can often tell how difficult a game will be by the rulebook, and this one is not particularly thick. A turn simply involves playing a Navigation card and moving the appropriate ships, and then doing up to one Action per ship. Actions can be things like Merchant Ships selling and loading goods, Pirate Ships attacking Merchant Ships, and so on. The mechanism for the winning the game is also somewhat unique yet easy to explain: players get four Development cards costing 5, 8, 11 and 14 coins that they can build in any order to get new special powers, and once they’ve done that, they pay 10 coins to flip their “I Win” card. No mechanism feels particularly new, but they’re mixed in exciting new ways that make the game necessarily easy to learn. If I had a complaint, it’s that some of the abilities on the cards aren’t as completely clear as they could be.

Depth: This is a one-hour, family weight game, and it’s very tactical. You are playing one of only two Navigation cards, constantly getting new Action cards and new abilities from Development cards, and so is everyone else. The ships are always in new places as well, not only due to the shared movement of the Navy ships, but also because when ships “die” they simply reenter the board from an appropriate edge. This means a turn typically involves just figuring out what you can pull off that turn in that particular situation. However, since the game is only for 3-4 players the situations can’t change that much from turn to turn, and you tend to pay attention to how things are developing and changing on other people’s turns just because the cool pieces make it that fun to watch. So while I don’t think the game has much in the way of long-term strategy other than planning in what order you might do your Development cards, there’s still a lot to consider on your turn as you decide what move is best that turn. And it doesn’t feel like “oh, there are no decisions or strategy in this game” – it feels like you’ve got a lot of good options on any given turn, and that’s a fun feeling for a game to have.

Theme: There are certainly inconsistencies with the theme – why am I allowed to move a pirate, and a merchant, and a navy ship? Despite that, the game does feel properly “piratey”, simply because attacking is exactly what you want to be doing every single turn. (Thankfully, the penalties for being attacked feel relatively minimal, so the game isn’t especially cruel.) The Fortune (action) cards and Development card abilities definitely give you a feeling of uniqueness from the other players and the cool sense of “My guys can do THIS!” and make you feel like your crew is especially powerful (even if the cards are fairly balanced). I think the theme comes through fairly well, and you’ll find yourself “Arrrr”’ing a few times, although for me personally, I was abstractly number-crunching for a victory from the beginning – but that’s just my nature and no fault of the game’s.

Fun: The first few turns of this game were relatively unexciting and had me worried that it wouldn’t live up to expectations. As soon as the abilities and Fortune cards come flying out, though, this game becomes highly interactive and enjoyable. After someone mixes some abilities for some clever move against your ships, you can come right back with “Oh yeah? Well I can do this and this and THIS!” and get some revenge (and some money too). This is one of those rare “Take that” games that shouldn’t result in any hurt feelings, which is a major design accomplishment in and of itself. Lots of interesting decisions and a fast-and-loose feel to the gameplay make for an extremely fun, light game.

 

Black Fleet is a gorgeous, fun game worthy of its [not that high] price tag, masterfully mixing old mechanisms in new ways to make a “take that” game without any of the negatives of the genre.

Rating:

4star

4 out of 5

Review: Abyss

abyssboxI can’t believe just how many new releases Asmodee had at Gen Con in 2014 – it was close to ten, if you count games like Madame Ching that had just snuck out less than a month prior. Yet, one game naturally stood above them all, for the art direction if nothing else: and that game was Abyss. Although the game has a great pedigree in codesigners Bruno Cathala and Charles Chevallier and publisher Bombyx, the artwork of Xavier Collette (which seemed to be quite a deviation from his usual style) had gamers foaming at the mouth. That’s a lot of pressure for the gameplay to live up to… Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

abysscomponentsComponents: Like I mentioned, we can’t really start anywhere but the amazing art design. From the creepy five (!) different covers, to the wonderfully illustrated Lords and Locations to the functional and gorgeous game boards, this game might have the best art direction of any board game ever made. The unique theme accentuates the art design even more, but I think the art is so majestic that it even stands apart somehow from what it represents. Prints of this stuff should be in an art museum.

As for the actual pieces, they are cleanly and carefully designed, and show just how much care went into the pieces: you even get little plastic “pearls” for currency to go with the theme. However, this does lead to some niggles I have with the pieces. The pearls require little plastic cups, because if you try dropping one on the table, trust me, it’s gone. They’re so tiny that they’re definitely choking hazards for babies and pets, and they will end up on the floor at some point. (Can you tell I’m a dad now?) The insert is nice, and even leaves enough space in the card well for sleeves… except the wells aren’t deep enough once the cards are sleeved! Ah, someday we’ll get there, I suppose.

I really like the thick, large location tiles and also think the cards have appropriate (if unorthodox) card sizes and good thickness. However, one strange thing is that the location tiles use the symbols from the back of the Ally and Lord decks and then color-code them to identify which race they might be referring to, but it’s rather confusing because it’s different symbolism from the Lord cards, which use the individual race icons… but then have different names for the races (the “job” of the Lords) than the Ally cards, which is completely unnecessary and confusing. They should have been called “Squid Lord,” “Crab Lord,” and so on instead of “Merchant Lord,” “Solider Lord,” etc. It just takes a little bit longer to grok than it would have otherwise, but it’s not a big hurdle to overcome. The $60 MSRP seems a bit high for what you get compared to miniatures-heavy games like Lords of Xidit, but obviously a lot of work went into the art direction and I’d be shocked if a gamer passed on this game because of the price. Despite these complaints, the artwork is so good that I can’t help but feel positively overall about the components.

Accessibility: Other than my comments about symbols and names, this is quite a simple game. Although the “drafting” is very unique, it’s simple to understand, and the game is basically just a set-collection game where the sets are used to buy cards with special abilities. There’s some more subtlety than that, for sure, but I think the complexity is more on the level of Carcassonne or Settlers of Catan than something like Trajan or Village. Even in our first game, we understood what a basic strategy would look like and the tactics of the draft only a few turns in. We immediately a played a second game and knew the mechanisms well enough already to have a proper mental showdown.

Depth: Though this is, in reality, a medium-light family-level Euro with a short playing time, there’s a lot going on here. There’s a risk-taking element with the draft, where you might consider stopping on a weak card early simply so that your opponents can’t buy a good card from you. There’s the angling around piles you create at the Council and considering what Lords other players might pursue. In fact, much of the game seems to be about pushing your luck and mitigating risk, as you have the same factors to consider when deciding how many Location tiles to reveal. There’s also a tough battle about deciding when to get that third key and give up those precious special powers. The game is full of agonizing decisions each turn, where even in retrospect the right decision isn’t always clear – and even if that’s just the illusion of depth, it’s still dang good game design.

abysspicTheme: This is where people may be disappointed. The astounding artwork really draws you into what you’re looking at and can even be mesmerizing at times, but mechanically, this game is themeless. There might be a connection to the names of the Lords and Locations and their special powers, but that’s really it. You could play this game with abstract symbols and icons and the gameplay would be identical. You could literally ‘paste’ any theme on. That being said, this is such a unique theme, and the art direction is so amazing, that I still feel drawn in to that underwater world by the art if not by the mechanisms.

Fun: Although there’s nothing really new mechanically in Abyss, it remixes old ideas in refreshing new ways. The game has tense gameplay with interesting, tough decisions and feels fresh and new, largely because of the art and theme, but the mechanics don’t feel tired at all. It might not be as intense and complex as some were hoping, but for those who enjoy middle- and lite-weight Euros like myself, this game just hit all the right notes. If I had a complaint, it’s really just more of a worry, and that’s that there might be too few Lords (35) and Locations (20). Judging by the many copies I saw being sold at Gen Con, though, surely an expansion is inevitable. In the meantime, I eagerly look forward to my next game of Abyss, as it’s one of the best games of the year as far as I’m concerned.

Though the theme only goes as far as the art direction, Abyss’s amazing look and fresh spin on old mechanisms make for a tough, enjoyable, quick journey through underwater politics that will have you wanting to play again straightaway.

Rating:

4star
4 out of 5

Hillary’s Play On Con Top 5

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As you may already know, Play On Con is one of my favorite conventions to attend every year.  So much so that I started volunteering several years ago. This year was my first year as Assistant Programming Director, which is every bit as busy as it sounds, but fifteen times more awesome than you probably think. I also hear some of you asking “Assistant Programming Director, but she’s a gamer girl…?”  This is true; honestly, I’m still trying to figure this one out…

Role confusion aside, this year’s POC was amazing and extremely fun. Here are the top moments from this year’s con (in no particular order, as usual):

1. Strolling through the lobby with my friend’s baby and being played soothing  lullabies by Marc Gunn.

Long story short: Things happened as they do at a con and we were in need of an electronics guru on short notice. The one I happened to have in my back pocket (because what Assistant Director doesn’t have a random collection of people, items, and information that seems useless until you need it “right now”) had a nine-month-old.  After a while, the-nine month-old became bored with being cooped up in the theater watching daddy draw LED circuits on the whiteboard. So, I took him for a walk around the property. The baby and I were delighted when Marc Gunn pulled out his autoharp and began playing beautiful instrumental music fit for soothing any impatient baby’s soul. Baby and I danced together for a couple of songs, thanked Marc profusely, and went back to the theater in a much happier state.

wpid-wp-1407344908051.jpeg2. Being a fangirl and having that be okay.

In preparation for my new role at Play On Con, I knew I would need to familiarize myself with parts of the con I hadn’t interacted deeply with before, including our guests. This year, we scored renowned southern Gothic and Steampunk author, Cherie Priest. I asked my director what I should read by her, and his answer was, “Read Boneshaker first, but Dreadnought is better.” Somehow, between real life, creating costumes, and all the promotion and preparation for Play On Con, I managed to read both… And in the process, I became a huge fan. Like really really huge. By the time the con rolled around, I was so super excited to have the chance to meet the person who wrote those books that I wasn’t sure that I could form a coherent sentence when I met her.

So, when one of the other directors introduced me to her, I simply said “Hi, it’s nice to meet you” and went on about my business. Throughout the weekend, I continued this trend of being cordial but not saying much, so as to avoid turning our conversations into an episode of “The Chris Farley show” from SNL.

Right before Cherie’s last panel of the weekend, I caught her at the door and said, “I don’t know what to say without sounding like a huge fangirl, so I’ll just say ‘thank you’.” To which she replied, “No, it’s okay. Thank you.” Right that second, my director Wes walked by and said to me, “Did you tell her you liked Dreadnought better than Boneshaker? It’s okay, she feels the same way…” Which spawned a conversation about my reactions to both.

The great part was the part where I realized Cherie was smiling during this conversation and seemed genuinely happy with my fangirl reaction. When I told her that I was shaking when I finished Dreadnought and that this is a rare reaction to a book for me (both absolutely true), she grinned and said excitedly, “I’ll take it! Thank you!” It was such a great moment to finally get to talk to someone whose work I really admire and have her not just endure the fangirlishness, but be okay with it and even genuinely happy.

wpid-wp-1407344966104.jpeg3. Actually having fun at a party.

I am not much of a partier, mainly because I am not much of a drinker. POC’s over-21 parties are the stuff of legends, but the stories I hear are always of alcohol-induced shenanigans. This year, I promised my friend Zakura that instead of hanging out in the gaming room all night like I usually do, I would go to her party. I can assure you that me agreeing to this was only because she’s an awesome friend and totally had absolutely nothing to do with her agreeing to loan me one of her gorgeous kimonos to wear.

However biased it may be,  my view of parties is that they are an excused to get hammered in costume.  However, when I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised; there was a definite “party” atmosphere, but the hostess had carefully crafted the vibe: great music, visuals provided by a muted geisha movie in the background, lovely handmade decorations, a flavorful signature drink, and plenty of food. She managed to create a place where both heavy partiers and wallflowers could be comfortable, which is not an easy feat. The Hanamachi party was amazing, and I wish more convention parties were like this one.

Oh yeah, and there was that moment where the hostess’ boyfriend cut his birthday cake with a katana. So rad.

4. Being beaten by a boy at a video game.

Friday afternoon, I actually found myself with free time, and I noticed that the schedule boasted a Dance Central tournament right when I happened to be free. So I ran to my room, got some hasty assistance getting out of my costume — because no matter how entertaining it might be for everyone else, I was not about to try to play a intense motion game in a corset and heels — and hightailed it across camp.

I love Dance Central, and I play now and again, so I thought I would at least do okay. My confidence was even bolstered a bit when someone else in the competition said they might as well not even participate based on my practice performance. Then I went up against my opponent, a somewhat shy, but seemingly nice, geeky guy. After a moment, I noticed that said geek was in costume, and that he wasn’t even watching the screen half the time we were dancing — and was still hitting every move. I laughed at how badly I got my butt kicked, thanked him profusely for the stiff competition and watched in awe as he went on to win the tournament.

wpid-img_20140725_171348.jpgwpid-img_20140725_171348.jpg5. Fire, nitrous, and chemical reactions in the “kitchen”.

Every year, POC hosts a variety of cool panels on different subjects, and this year was no exception: we had costuming panels, panels on literature, game shows with geeky themes, and even a group shooting off paper rockets. This year, my favorite panel was Gastronomic Chemistry (which was not actually held in a real kitchen for a number of reasons). Rob from Mindgear Labs in Huntsville led a panel explaining some of the cool things you can do with geeky kitchen gadgets, a little know-how and some unusual ingredients. It was all entertaining and informative but the best part was watching him use a mini-blowtorch to caramelize sugar on apples. Even better, it produced a tasty snack on which to place the caramel whipped cream he had made with a cool gadget that uses tiny nitrous oxide canisters! Of course, if no one had been around, I probably would have been happy to eat that fluffy caramel-y goodness straight out of the whipped cream can…

Of course, five things never sums up all the cool things that happened at Play On Con, but rest assured, it was epic, and I can’t wait for next year.

Review: Prophecy

ProphecyWhen I first decided to review the Z-Man Games reprint of Vlaada Chvatil’s fantasy adventure game Prophecy, my goal was to do it without any mention of Talisman.

I should give some background here.  During the early-to-mid-90’s — my high school years — most of my Saturday nights were spent hanging out in the loft at my mom’s house with my friends.  During these pizza-and-Mountain-Dew-fueled evenings, our go-to activity was playing Talisman.

Now, let’s not put too fine a point on it.  Talisman is not a very good game.  You roll a die, you move around the board, and you spend endless hours trying (often futilely) to level up your character.  The game takes so long that by the end you’re often just relieved to have it over with, win or lose.

And yet, as each of those long nights of my youth ended (often with the first rays of sunlight peeking in the window), I’d hear a familiar quote: “Same time next week?  I’ll bring the soda.”

Talisman was my first real non-family board game, and it caught me at just the right time in my life: that moment when you begin to discover the person you’re going to be, and when you realize it’s perfectly okay to be a nerd.  Because of this, I have a nostalgic attachment to Talisman that is reserved for very few other things I’ve encountered before or since.  Every few years I’ll see some of those old friends, and we’ll get together and play a session.  I don’t think any of us really cares for the game anymore, but it evokes memories that we all still cherish: the camaraderie, the inside jokes, the carefree spirit of being young.

“But Christian,” you’re probably saying.  “That was a lot of words about Talisman, considering you just said you didn’t want to mention Talisman.”

It’s impossible.  Prophecy is a direct update of Talisman, in spirit if not in name.  You’re moving around a fantasy-themed board, collecting items, building up your stats (the same stats, in fact), and eventually running a gauntlet of imposing boss monsters to collect powerful treasures and win the game.  Even the final player-versus-player battle is almost identical to obtaining the Crown of Command at the end of a Talisman game.  Because of the striking similarities, and because the elder game has obtained such a classic status, for better or worse, I can’t talk about one without referring to the other.

This game was originally described to me as “an improved Talisman, as designed by Vlaada Chvatil”.  If you’ve been reading MeepleTown for a while, you know that I am the Chief Executive Fanboy in the Cult of Vlaada.  The problem is, Prophecy suffers from a bit too much Talisman and not quite enough Vlaada.

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

Components: The quality of Prophecy‘s components is very hit-and-miss.  The thick game board and player cards are very nice, and there are quick reference sheets for each player that lay out the phases of a game turn.  Meanwhile, the plastic cubes used to track Health and Magic feel incredibly cheap, and the plastic stands for the character tokens are impossible to use without employing a screwdriver to pry them open.

And then there’s the art.  For a game that should be theme-heavy, the artwork is a massive disappointment.  While the cover art and card borders are attractive, the line art used for the characters and monsters ranges from mediocre to poor, with heavy, shaky lines and drab color choices.  The game board itself is the worst offender: it’s cluttered, uninspiring, and flat-out ugly.  I understand that this is a reprint of an existing game, and modifying components would have a cost attached, but it was a mistake not to commission an artist to re-draw the board for the new release.

Accessibility: Here’s another example of a missed opportunity; a reprint was a great opportunity to introduce improvements to the rulebook.  The rules are poorly laid out, and some key information (for example, what all of the “civilized” spaces do) is difficult to find.  My group ended up using player-made reference guides downloaded from BoardGameGeek rather than trying to slog through the printed rulebook.  Fortunately, Prophecy isn’t all that complex, and the game includes quick reference sheets for each player.  Once you get through the initial learning curve, it’s fairly intuitive and should be easy to teach to new players.

Depth: Here’s where Prophecy diverges a bit from its predecessor.  While Talisman uses a very basic roll-and-move system with few real decisions to be made, Prophecy tends to offer players interesting choices each turn.  Eliminating the movement rolls is my favorite change; instead, a player can decide to walk one space for free, rent a horse for one gold to move two spaces, or use one of several built-in transit options (such as ports and magic gates) scattered around the board.  One of my biggest problems with Talisman is that cards are drawn after arriving in a space; you might waste your turn encountering a broken shield or a dragon you’re not ready to face yet, but there’s no way to know until you’ve already moved.  In Prophecy, adventure cards are placed face-up on the board between turns, so players will have an idea where it might be beneficial to move.  And there’s still a level of risk and mystery — if a second card is placed on a space, it remains face-down until the first card is encountered.

I also enjoy the Ability system in Prophecy.  In addition to leveling up the primary stats of Strength and Willpower, characters earn experience points that can be spent at one of five guild spaces to buy unique abilities.  For example, one might find a skill that allows fast travel between any Forest space, or one that grants free healing if a character chooses not to move.  My only criticism here is that only two ability cards from each guild are available at any given time, and a few of the abilities are pretty lackluster.  Still, it’s one of the few truly unique distinctions that set this game apart from Talisman.

Theme: Prophecy‘s theme is a collection forgettable fantasy tropes.  You’ll run around the board killing vampires and giant spiders while collecting weapons, potions, and… *yawn* What’s that?  Sorry, I dozed off.  I feel like Prophecy‘s designer and artists missed an amazing opportunity to set this game apart with a unique setting and original content to encounter.  The charm of this type of game isn’t in the mechanics; I want to tell an interesting story with my hero as he conquers evil and discovers untold riches.  Instead, I feel like I’m playing Generic Warrior #1742 who just clubbed a Giant Rat to death with his Staff of Hitting Things.

Fun: When it comes down to it, this type of game is all about the thrill of adventure: delving into the unknown, taking risks, and coming out as a celebrated hero or a pitiable corpse.  It’s the same reason people enjoy tabletop RPG’s, and it’s an element that many adventure-themed board games struggle to capture.

I did get a taste of this excitement from Prophecy.  After a difficult, multi-turn battle with a Vampire, I was rewarded with a magic staff that augmented my character’s skills and abilities very well.  Just a few turns later, it was tragically wrenched away from me by one of the other players just as I was about to start storming the Astral Plane, where the end-game “mini-bosses” live.  Hard-fought victory and loss: the hallmarks of a great adventure.  The more mundane moments were more common, however; all too often I was forced into moving to an empty space, or give up my turn sitting in a village to heal my wounds.

The play time is also very long, running more than an hour past the box’s claim of three hours.   The primary attributes of Strength and Willpower are ultimately what allow you to win the game, but opportunities to increase these stats are relatively rare.  More often, you’ll receive experience points that can be used to buy new abilities, and most of these enhancements don’t directly aid in battle.  I understand the point of a slow build-up in the pursuit of making a game feel epic in scope.  I just felt like the run time could be an hour shorter without sacrificing any of the game’s flavor.

I guess it’s time to answer the million-dollar question: Is Prophecy better than Talisman?

The answer is a qualified “yes”.  For all its rough spots, I find Prophecy to be more engaging.  There are more interesting decisions to be made, gameplay flows better, and downtime between turns seems much shorter.

Prophecy attempts to refine the adventure board game formula with limited success.  The mechanical improvements, such as the movement options and ability system, will be appreciated by fans of the genre, while many of the same frustrations that plague similar games are present here.

This is a fine “beer and pretzels” game to play with good friends on a Saturday evening, and I hope a new generation of youngsters builds memories with Prophecy the same way I did with Talisman.  Unfortunately, the grown-up in me expects something more from my games.

Rating:

2star

 

 

2 out of 5

Four GenCon games that are now on Hillary’s radar

As a member of Meepletown, I demoed and got the “elevator pitch” on many games at Gen Con. I honestly can’t think of one that wasn’t in some way intriguing, but there were a few that particularly stood out as interesting, including one that no one else on staff got their hands on!

The demo for Draco Magi.

The demo for Draco Magi.

Draco Magi by Robert Burke (Cartoona, Battle for Souls) and Richard Launius (Arkham Horror, Dragon Rampage)

I was fortunate enough to get in a demo from designer Robert Burke. In Draco Magi, you are trying to win gems. Better yet, you are trying to win gems by battling with dragons! Players place dragons on one of three different battlefields in a manner that you feel is most advantageous to you and least advantageous to your opponent. Determining what is “most advantageous” and “least advantageous” is where the depth comes in. Each dragon can have a number of different factors including ranged attack, melee attack, defense, and bonuses that it gives to itself or other dragons on the same field. Depending on these different factors, you will draw from different decks in an attempt to attack and defend on a given battlefield. You go until someone wins the round, and the game continues until someone wins enough gems.

Learning game play seemed a little awkward at first.  To be fair, I got lost and showed up to the demo late.  The game actually seemed very simple to pick up once you just started playing through your turns. As easy as it is to just place dragons, choose battlefields, and evaluate attack values, this game has a lot of complexity. From what I played (one full round — probably about half to a third of a game) it seems like the game contains a nice balance of strategy and luck. I can’t rate the game without a few full playthroughs, but I can say that this appears to be a pretty solid two-player game, and it should appeal to anyone who likes Summoner Wars, Ascension, and the like. It’s worth noting that while I do tend toward more combat-oriented games, I do not love Summoner Wars but was duly intrigued by this game and would like to get my hands on it again.

The booth for Incredible Expeditions looked... incredible.

The booth for Incredible Expeditions looked… incredible.

Incredible Expeditions: Quest for Atlantis by Liz Spain, Independent first-time designer

When I was walking around the indie games area, I saw an amazing steampunk-styled booth with an interesting looking game. The booth looked so professional, the costumes so detailed, and the artwork so lovely that I honestly wondered if Gen Con didn’t mistakenly put a large publisher in the wrong section. I was intrigued, but the booth was consistently busy and there’s only so much wandering around a hall full of thousands of people that I can do without my head exploding, so I didn’t really get a good look at it.

On Saturday, it just so happened that a random stranger we shared a breakfast table with at our hotel’s crowded complimentary breakfast was the game designer’s husband. When he mentioned that he was a part of this booth, we started asking all kinds of questions, which he was more than happy to answer. When we revealed ourselves as press, he invited us by the booth later.

Unfortunately we did not have the time for a demo of the game, but they did show us some of the cards and the basic gist of the game. Between that and what I have read online, I am very excited and really hope to get a copy of this to play soon.

The general idea is that you are an expedition leader trying to venture out into unexplored seascapes and hopefully get to the lost city of Atlantis. To do this you have to hire crew, buy equipment, and so on.  On your turn, you can either take a rest turn during which you replenish crew and buy gear, or you can take an encounter turn. During an encounter turn, you can encounter something in your current location, or you can venture forth to a new location. All of your resources (equipment, crew, etc.) has a few different values that you compare to the encounter cards to see if you “win” the encounter. It seems like they really tried to go for a deep gaming experience without it being fiddly or hard to understand. I’m definitely going to keep an eye on this game and try to get some plays in sometime soon. It’s hard to judge a game almost sight unseen and without an opinion from a trusted friend on it. However, if they put half of the kind of polish and attention to detail into their gameplay as they did into their card design, booth, and costumes, Incredible Expeditions promises to be impressive.

Designers Anders and Olle Tyrland show off their new game.

Designers Anders and Olle Tyrland show off their new game.

The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade by Anders and Olle Tyrland

The buzz on this game prior to GenCon was huge, and, from what I saw the hype was well deserved.  We were fortunate enough to be able learn this game from the designers, and we were able to get a pretty good feel for how it went (we played about the first third and last third of a full game).

Kemble’s Cascade uses an ingenious design of trays and cards to simulate a 80’s side-scrolling shooter video game like Gradius.  Turns are fairly simple, but you have plenty of options for what you can do.  Players can choose to move and shoot or take a recharge turn where they can replenish energy, buy ship upgrades, etc.  You can shoot at enemies, asteroids and even other players.  This game manages to feel sufficiently “Ameritrash” while maintaining reasonable fairness and balance.  I can’t believe how well they managed to translate the feel of a side scrolling shooter into a board game.

This has all the nostalgic fun of a classic video game without the infuriating setbacks that just made you want to throw your controller.  But at the same time, it doesn’t feel too easy to win.  If at some point it does get too easy or too hard, you can choose to change the difficulty, as the tracks you set up in the game are modular.  Anders and Olle told us that they tried to look at everything in the game — from the pieces, to the track design, to the actions, to the balance mechanisms — through the lens of “what is right for the game”, and it absolutely shows.  From what I saw, everything in this game contributes to making the experience fun and feeling like you’re actually playing those games back in the 80’s.  I am really excited to play Kemble’s Cascade once we can get our hands on it, and I think it will probably be one of my new favorites.

Unfortunately, we didn't get a photo of Floodgate's very attractive booth.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get a photo of Floodgate’s very attractive booth.

Legacy: Gears of Time by Ben Harkins, independent designer and owner of Floodgate Games

On our last day at Gen Con, we happened to stumble upon a booth for a publisher we had never heard of:  Floodgate Games.  In talking to the staff, we learned that they are an independent publisher started by Ben Harkins that, so far, has only published his games.  We were fortunate enough that Ben came back while we were still in the booth and was able to chat with us briefly about his games and his company.

From what he told me, I was very intrigued by Legacy: Gears of Time.  Unfortunately, we did not have time for a demo, but he was able to show us some of the cards and the general gist of how the game works.  You are trying to travel back in time to influence technology in your favor.  This game has time travel mechanics and an expanding tech tree mechanic that make it look really interesting.  It looks deep but not overly complicated and certainly very unique.  Of course, I only have so much to base this on, but I really hope we can get more time with this game.  I love games with unusual and new mechanics, and this certainly looks like it might fit the bill.

So, this is what I’m looking forward to playing over the next few months, in addition to a whole gaggle of other great games we picked up at Gen Con and, of course, some old favorites too.

This wraps up MeepleTown’s coverage of Gen Con 2014.  Look for full reviews of the games released at Gen Con in the days and weeks to come!

Christian’s Gen Con 2014 Recap – The Experience

gen-con-logoAs I mentioned last week in the first part of this article, Gen Con is not just a gaming convention.  Sure, there are hundreds of opportunities to sit down and play any manner of tabletop game, but it offers many other unique experiences as well.  I already talked about the new board games I played, so here’s just a taste of the other activities that occupied my weekend…

A somewhat blurry photo of the Goon meetup at Colts Grille.

A somewhat blurry photo of the Goon meetup at Colts Grille.

SomethingAwful Meetup

You’ve probably heard stories about the SomethingAwful “Goons”.  They’re scourge of the Internet: Their forums are full of tasteless garbage and horrible pictures, and they troll online games incessantly. They ruin everything.  As someone who has been posting on these forums for over a decade, I’ve found that the reputation is (mostly) undeserved.

Throughout Gen Con weekend, the SA community used the GroupMe mobile app to coordinate several meetups, including a massive pub crawl.  Not being much of a drinker, I passed on the night of drunken revelry, but I did get a chance to attend a pre-con meetup at Colts Grille.  The restaurant featured a hilarious nerd-themed menu, and they were running a “bar trivia” contest throughout the night.  Goons being goons, we did come up with a team name so filthy that the trivia announcer couldn’t read most of it over the PA system.  Other than that, everyone was pretty tame and we had a fantastic time talking about games and Gen Con experiences past and future.

It was great to be able to put faces to names that I’ve known online for so long.  And as much as the SA Goons may revel in their reputation, don’t let them fool you — they’re just like everyone else.

Our stalwart Dungeon World party

Our stalwart Dungeon World party.

Dungeon World

MeepleTown is primarily a site about board games.  However, the inner nerd in me still remembers my Dungeons & Dragons roots.  I’ve largely abandoned the Critical Hit tables and Monster Manuals of yore in favor of Euro-gaming’s more streamlined experience, but the yearning to smash my way through a dungeon with some good friends never quite disappears.

This is where Dungeon World comes in; it’s a story-based roleplaying game system that eliminates the need for large tomes of rules and charts.  Everything the players need is printed on their character sheets, and everything that happens comes from the GameMaster’s summarized scenario notes and — more importantly — from his mind.  It’s not a strict storytelling game, in that there are rules and systems; it’s just that they’re secondary to the fiction.  A lot of old-school RPG grognards dismiss this type of game as “D&D for Dummies”, but it takes an imaginative group of players and a skilled GameMaster to really make Dungeon World shine.

At Gen Con, our talented GM ran us through his version of Lair of the Minotaur, a quick “one-shot” adventure that would fit into our assigned time slot.  My character was a Mage with an affinity for movement and freedom, which often ended with hilarious results.  One of Dungeon World’s core mechanics is the idea of partial failure: you get what you wanted, but also something you didn’t plan for.  In the case of my character, it was frequently my magic going crazy and doing much more than I intended.  In trying to create magical armor around our Druid’s bear pet (conveniently named “Bear”), I accidentally outfitted everyone in invulnerable armor — including our enemies.  Later, while trying to create the illusion of a bonfire, I conjured an enormous, blazing wall of very real flames that split up our party.

You may have already read Hillary’s account of the bone-chilling Crabopotamus, and that was the kind of imagination-fueled experience that is Dungeon World at its best.  In the end, we conquered the titular minotaur, but only at great cost — our Slayer sacrificed himself to end the minotaur’s curse.  It was one of my favorite activities of the weekend. If you can find a skilled GM, I’d recommend trying Dungeon World to anyone, even if you have no prior roleplaying experience.

Happy players after Flight of the Zephyr.  Not shown: Angry players after Viper's Pit.

Happy players after Flight of the Zephyr. Not shown: Angry players after Viper’s Pit.

True Dungeon Adventures

While I’ve enjoyed Gen Con since I started attending, last year’s True Dungeon experience was the primary factor in deciding to return this year.  We had an incredible amount of fun fighting and puzzling our way through last year’s dungeon, and this time was going to be even better: We had a large group of friends who were all going to run through the dungeons together!

If you’re not familiar with True Dungeon, it’s an attempt to bring tabletop roleplaying games to life.  Each year, they take over an entire exhibit hall at Gen Con and build an actual, real, life-sized dungeon.  There are well-crafted props, customized lighting and sound effects, and costumed actors.  Players choose one of a variety of standard fantasy character classes (I played a Wizard, while Hillary split her time between Cleric and Druid).  Those that survive the dungeon are rewarded with “loot” — poker chip shaped items that represent armor, weapons, potions, and other items that can be used in future adventures.  This year featured two distinct dungeons to run, so we booked our party for a session in each.

Flight of the Zephyr was an excursion through a crashed (and oddly abandoned) Gnomish airship.  This dungeon was fairly well-designed, with lots of panels, consoles, and blinking lights to play with.  The puzzles revolved around getting the airship’s systems back online: in one case we had to reroute reactor power using physical tubes that slotted into the walls, and later we had to calibrate the guidance system by cooperatively activating a series of linked switches.  The final encounter took place aboard the bridge of the airship as it took to the skies.  Most of the party engaged a pack of wyverns that were assaulting the airship, while a few of us solved real-time puzzles to keep the ship flying and evading attacks.  We emerged victorious and were rewarded with treasure tokens.

Sounds fun, right?  Well, it wasn’t quite as glorious as it sounded.  Our first adventure was barely a day into the convention, and several of the rooms were already having technical problems.  On the switch puzzle, some of the lights weren’t working correctly, and the staff member in our room said something to the effect of, “Uhh… your Bard tells you he heard something about Panels 2 and 4 not working, so ignore them.”  Not exactly what we wanted to hear, considering how expensive these sessions are.  Other areas suffered from poor puzzle design; in one room we were punished for making a wrong decision, while a subsequent puzzle (with a very similar theme) could only be solved via trial and error, with no penalty for wrong guesses.  And the combat encounters were disappointing as well; the previous year featured actors in elaborate costumes and a huge animatronic treant.  In this adventure we fought an “invisible” air elemental that the designers didn’t bother to add any effects for — not even a cheap fan to blow some air around!  Still, my party enjoyed Flight of the Zephyr for all its rough spots, and we looked forward to tackling the other dungeon later that evening.

Which leads me to Into the Viper’s Pit, in which our party fought their way through an evil serpent god’s temple, trying to close a mystical portal before a group of cultists could summon their deity.  And here’s where everything fell apart.  The puzzles were much more difficult than any we’ve encountered in the past, and it seemed like there was never enough time to implement a solution.  Our Rogue was regularly discovering clues, which were supposed to help solve the puzzles, but in most cases they were misleading or poorly worded.

Professional costumes at the D&D castle. Maybe True Dungeon should have hired them.

Professional costumes at the D&D castle. Maybe True Dungeon should have hired them.

One of the rooms required the characters to trace runes in a sand pit and then “bleed” into the grooves using a ceremonial dagger.  The creators designed a Kinect-based system that actually detected the distance to the sand, and it projected colored lighting effects where the runes were drawn, even causing digital “blood” to appear and fill up the grooves.  The problem is, the system didn’t work correctly at all.  The camera often completely failed to detect where we had dug out the sand, even in cases where we cleared all the way to the bottom of the “pit”.  The GM who was supposed to be guiding us through the room was unnecessarily strict; despite the fact that we had obviously figured out the puzzle and were performing exactly the right steps, he wouldn’t allow us to proceed until the defective camera system figured out what we were doing.  We ran out of time and failed the room.

In fact, we failed almost all of the rooms in this second adventure.  In most cases, we had the solution figured out, but there just wasn’t time to execute.  I feel like most of the designers’ time went into the Zephyr adventure, and Viper’s Pit felt like an afterthought.  Even the set-pieces were extremely disappointing; most of the rooms resembled a big black cloth box with one or two rubber snakes laying around.  My party was extremely disappointed, and despite actually surviving the dungeon, several of my companions were angrily taking to social media to vent their frustration as they exited the True Dungeon hall.

Based on this year’s experience, I can’t recommend True Dungeon.  Despite raising the price this year (to $48 a person for a two-hour adventure), the new dungeons felt like a step back, both in design and production values.  There were far fewer costumes, no animatronics, and even the most impressive props suffered from technical issues.  The puzzle design wasn’t great, and a jerk GM did his best to ruin our experience.  The first adventure was mildly disappointing, but the second one left us feeling ripped off.

Cardhalla, a build-and-destroy card castle for charity.

Cardhalla, a build-and-destroy card castle for charity.

…And the rest…

Those were the highlights (and lowlights?) of my weekend, but I did so much more!  Here are a few other things that caught my interest:

Shut Up and Sit Down – These wildly popular game reviewers from Britain were on hand to record a live podcast.  While nothing particularly crazy happened at the panel, the SUSD cast was entertaining and engaging, mixing stories about their Gen Con experience with chatter about their favorite games.  The cast handed out Jenga blocks to the first few rows of the audience to write questions on.  They then played “Q&A Jenga”; whoever pulled a block from the tower also had to answer the question written on the block.

Professor Shyguy – The good Professor always puts on an amazing performance, and this year’s Gen Con was no exception.  Even if you’re not into his style of music (chiptune/electro-pop songs, mostly about gaming and being a nerd), you can’t help but to be drawn in by his charisma and stage presence.  I’ve known Professor Shyguy since he first played at Play On Con a few years ago, and in addition to being a great stage performer, he’s also a super-nice guy and a hardcore gamer — we even played a round of Space Alert during a rare moment of downtime.  He works a fairly heavy convention schedule, so if you missed him at Gen Con, be sure to catch him at another event near you.

D20 Burlesque – MeepleTown is a family-friendly site, so I won’t go into this one too much.  This is one of the rare Gen Con events that allows grown-ups to be grown-ups.  The performers put on a great stage show, and they knew their audience well: routines ranged from the titillating assembly of a MouseTrap board game to a very… confusing… Cthulhu-themed… uh… dance.  Yeah.

The stampede to get in the doors on Thursday morning.

The stampede to get in the doors on Thursday morning.

It was recently announced that Gen Con set a new attendance record with over 56,000 attendees this year.

I worry somewhat about continued growth.  The Vendor’s Hall remained packed for most of the weekend, and the food trucks outside the convention center were struggling to keep up with demand.  There were hours-long waits at many of the bars and restaurants in the area.  Nearby hotels sell out within minutes of the housing block opening, and tickets for popular events can be very difficult to obtain.  These problems will only worsen as Gen Con’s popularity increases.

Still, Gen Con has handled its growth better than any other large convention I’ve experienced.  For anyone who has stood in DragonCon’s epic badge pick-up line for three hours, or wasted half a day waiting for a ComicCon panel and then failing to get in, Gen Con will be a refreshing change.  Event tickets are all booked online in advance, so there’s no waiting in line for shows or panels, and you know before you arrive whether you’ll get to attend.  And the Will Call line flows with an unlikely efficiency — despite the queue stretching halfway across the convention center, it only took about 25 minutes to pick up my tickets.  This is a well-planned and well-implemented convention, but accommodating more attendees may take some seriously difficult decisions on the part of the organizers.

I had an amazing time at Gen Con 2014, and hopefully my articles have given you a taste of the games, the sights, and the experiences of this massive event.

If you want to see the rest of my photos, check out my gallery on Google+!

 

Asmodee Games Giveaway!

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What do the games above have in common? They’re all brand new Gen Con releases from Asmodee Games, and as soon as the MeepleTown Facebook page gets 300 likes, one lucky fan is going to get all four. Help us out and spread the word!

Hillary’s Gen Con 2014 Top 5 Awesome Things

GenCon this year was slam packed with all kinds of awesome fun. I costumed, I met game designers, I played games, I met cool people — it was all so awesome.  However, there are a few moments that stood out in my mind when it was all over.  And here they are…

New Dice5. Finally growing up… sort of.

At my age, most people have had their favorite set of dice and “perfect” dice bag for a while, and they have long since gotten “too cool” to care about such a thing. Since we were scheduled for a Dungeon World game and my husband left all of his “too cool” non-matching dice at home, I had to buy some at Gen Con.  I picked out a speckled pink and purple set from Koplow along with a shiny purple dice bag.  Then after the game, I realized that I actually now play RPG’s enough to justify having my own special set like a grown-up.  So, I bought some cool Q-Workshop dice because I wanted some for monster attacks, a totally unnecessary addition — but it’s my set and I’m proud of it.

Geeky Zumba

4. Punching coins like Mario at 8:00 in the morning and calling it exercise.

While Christian was off in the vendor hall early Thursday morning doing press things, I decided to have some fun of my own. After perusing the event list, I decided to do Zumba with GeekyGamerGirl. For those of you not familiar with it, Zumba is an instructor led exercise class that falls somewhere between Jazzercise and a dance party. And, yes, I intentionally chose to dance at eight in the morning, and, despite the exhaustive nature of Gen Con, I did not regret it. Not only did it have the fun energy and great cardio-vascular exercise of a traditional Zumba class, our instructor GeekyGamerGirl (aka Karen), actually is a Geeky Gamer Girl. As a result,  she added in some great nerdy elements including a James Bond routine, a routine to the Mario brothers theme where we pretended to punch coins, and all kinds of other fun, geeky, dance-y goodness. The class was great; Karen had an awesome energy which she tried to pass on to everyone in the room, and she was super friendly and nice. This was a great way to spend my morning, a great group of people to spend it with, and a great instructor to lead us through it all.

Zombie Cupcake3. OM NOM NOM NOM!

It wouldn’t be my article without a discussion of my gluttonous con habits and a discussion on which establishments best quelled the belly beast. Last year I mentioned the Mac Genie and Heavenly Sweets food trucks, which we certainly returned to this year. This year’s new favorites were the yummy Thai tacos from Tacos without Borders, the unique “upscale” food truck offerings (such as crab cake sandwiches and elk sliders) from Serendipity, and the rich, dense cupcakes from Flying Cupcake. The food was absolutely delicious, and, like many food trucks last year, most of the trucks this year had themed menus… My husband even got a chocolate cookies and cream zombie cupcake complete with red “blood” frosting and an eyeball decoration. Nerdy and tasty!

The Fearsome Crabopotamus2. Chasing a little old lady through dark caverns and then facing the most fearsome sea creature in the land.

Dungeon World is a story-driven RPG.  Your character is a legend, failure is the only way to get experience, much of the world is made up by the players, and “partial successes” result in hilariously epic mistakes by your character. During the particular adventure we played, we were chasing an old lady, who our characters had recently saved, through terrifying caverns with goblins, undead, and the most fearsome sea creature of all… The Crabopotamus! Yes, you read that right.

Like I said, much of dungeon world is player-created, so the GM frequently asks players questions about their characters and the world they populate. In the middle of the adventure, the GM turned to a player and said, “You see bubbles coming out of the water. What is that making those bubbles?” The player grinned and said, “Guys, that is a CRABOPOTAMUS!” and then rolled a partial failure on his lore check… So of course the Crabopotamus was huge and had crazy abilities.

But a giant Crabopotamus was no match for Tina (“Tinker Toes”) the artificer — my character — and her arsenal of bombs and flaming gadgets, along with her companions and their humorously wild magic, talismans, and abilities. We easily (okay, with much difficulty and hilarity) slayed the Crabopotamus and went on to save the old lady. The whole adventure was awesome, our GM was great, and I had a great time fighting the bad guys with the other players.  The best thing that came out of this session, however, was the drawing of the Crabopotamus (and its “cousin” of the seas, the Sharknocerous, which we thankfully did not end up facing).

Dancing with Shyguy1. Being one of Professor Shyguy’s Go-Go dancers.

I know, I know, I have written about Shyguy’s performance almost every time I’ve seen him at a con, but that’s because every time the experience is just that unique and noteworthy. Of course he played awesome geeky music, and of course his performance was amazing and silly and artistic all at the same time.  And, of course, he had a crowd of people dancing near the stage. This is all a given at his shows. However, this time, he invited people on-stage during one of my favorite songs. I’m all about getting attention even if I look like a moron while doing it, so I grabbed another huge Professor Shyguy fan I’d met earlier, and we went up on stage and danced like no one was watching… Except everyone totally was. I had a blast and I truly look forward to seeing what awesome trick he’s going to pull out of the hat next time.

Of course that’s only the tiniest part of all the awesome things I experienced at Gen Con… Look for the second part of my Gen Con experience with more pictures very very soon!

Christian’s Gen Con 2014 Recap – The Games

The enormous vendor hall at Gen Con 2014 -- before the doors open to the public.

The enormous vendor hall at Gen Con 2014 just after the doors opened to the public.

This was my third time attending Gen Con, and it proved to be the busiest one yet for your faithful MeepleTown editor.

For those who haven’t attended Gen Con before, I should point out that it’s not strictly a gaming convention.  Oh, sure, almost everything is in some way related to games, but there’s not much time for sitting down and actually playing board games.  No, I had friends to meet up with, shows to watch, dungeons to conquer, and sleep to… well… okay, there wasn’t much sleep involved.

For that reason, I’m going to split this into two articles, with this first one covering the games I saw, and the next one covering the other miscellaneous happenings at Gen Con.

Fortunately, I did find some time to demo some new releases amongst the weekend’s other revelry.  Please note that these are my initial impressions based off a single play — or less.  In some cases, our demo schedule didn’t allow time for a full game.

Chimera - We chatted with designer Ralph Anderson while learning this game, which is essentially a three-player variant of Tichu.  It is very faithful to most of the core mechanics of Tichu, which is one of my personal favorites. It’s still a trick-taking game with elements of bidding and partnerships.  A key difference is that partnerships change based on who wins the initial bid; it’s two-against-one, with the non-bidding players temporarily allied.  There are a few other minor rule changes as well, but Tichu players will feel right at home with this one.  If I were in a card game mood with only three players available I might reach for Chimera, but overall I think I prefer its predecessor.

The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade – We were fortunate enough to sit down with designers (and brothers) Anders and Olle Tyrland for a demo of this 80’s-styled space “shoot-em-up”.  If you’ve ever played video game space shooters Gradius or R-Type, Kemble’s Cascade is essentially those in a board game format.  Players fly their spaceships around a constantly scrolling game field, shooting at enemies, asteroids, and each other.  As the game proceeds, players can upgrade their ships with shields, energy generators, and (most importantly!) bigger guns, eventually facing a huge, multi-tile boss.  The theme is well-executed, with 8-bit style graphics on virtually every component.  We didn’t have time to play a full game — according to the designers the normal session time is 60-90 minutes — but I enjoyed what I experienced.

Bruno Cathala teaches us Five Tribes!

Bruno Cathala teaches us Five Tribes!

Five Tribes – I was taught this game by Bruno Cathala himself, who playfully referred to it as a “worker-removal game”.  The game begins with a large tile grid, each containing a number of random colored meeples.  Gameplay is deceptively simple: Pick up all the meeples from any tile, and place them one-by-one, mancala-style, on adjacent tiles, forming a path.  The final meeple placed triggers actions based on the color and tile it was placed on.  The mechanics are simple to learn, yet deep enough to be engaging to a serious gamer, which is a rare combination.  This was the first game I demoed at Gen Con 2014, and it was by far my favorite.  I’ve been lukewarm on some of Days of Wonder’s recent releases, but Five Tribes looks like they’ve hit a home run.

Camel Up – This year’s Spiel des Jahres winner is finally coming to North America, and… well… it’s a camel racing game.  I understand its appeal to the SdJ voters, as it’s an extremely simple family game with a low barrier to entry and attractive components.  Players take turns betting on the camels, making them move, or putting down minor boosts or obstacles to help the race along.  Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like there was enough here to engage me.  There weren’t enough interesting choices, and the random factor is very high with not enough direct player control over the outcome.  Still, this would be a great choice for families with kids, and it would be a great gift for households that have been infested with mass-market kids’ games like Candy Land.

Shadowrun: Crossfire – I knew very little about this one going into Gen Con weekend.  The buzz was that it’s similar to the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, but more streamlined and exciting.  While the Pathfinder card game didn’t knock my socks all the way off, it made my ankles slightly chilly, so this sounded promising.  Shadowrun: Crossfire is a cooperative deck-building game with a twist: characters persist from session to session and become more powerful by means of a “karma” system with which players can buy upgrades.  The game comes with a set of stickers that can be affixed directly to the character cards, similar to how the board changes in Risk Legacy.  Interestingly, the new version of the Pathfinder game has added more focus on persistent play, so it will be interesting to compare these two once we’ve spent more time with both of them.

The MeepleTown staff (and a friend) check out Lords of Xidit.

The MeepleTown staff (and a friend) check out Lords of Xidit. Can you guess from the picture who didn’t win?

Lords of Xidit – Asmodee has a massive release schedule for 2014, and unfortunately I only had time to experience this one game.  Designed by Régis Bonnessée (of Seasons fame), this is a “re-imagining” of Himalaya (see our interview with Mr. Bonnessée here for more details).  The setting and artwork are completely different — and, frankly, more appealing.  In their quest to become the most prominent lords of a mystical land, players must recruit adventurers and slay monsters.  Actions are programmed six at a time via dial-based player boards, so there’s a high level of advance planning and group-think required.  The time I spent with Lords of Xidit was enjoyable, but I wonder a bit about its replayability — on any given turn I felt like my best course of action was fairly obvious, and that could lead to future sessions being very similar.

Samurai Spirit – This is a cooperative game by Antoine Bauza that can handle up to seven players in under an hour.  If the collection of words in that last sentence didn’t have you rushing out to buy it, you may have to turn in your gamer card.  Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to play this on-site, but I did get a quick gameplay overview from one of the friendly Passport Games Studios staff members.  It looks very promising, and we’ll have a full review once we’ve spent some time with it.

Stacks and stacks of games at the Passport booth.

Stacks and stacks of games at the Passport booth.

I spent several hours walking the floor of the massive vendor hall, but there just isn’t enough time to get hands on everything.  My inner fanboy drooled over Fantasy Flight’s upcoming XCom game, which was present in pre-release form.  I marveled at the booth for indie-published Incredible Expeditions, with its elaborate steampunk-styled setpieces and stunning costumes.  I watched some games in progress of Plaid Hat Games’ Dead of Winter and kicked myself for not scheduling a demo with them.  I orbited the seemingly endless line to get into Paizo’s booth (which never seemed to shorten for the entire weekend) and kept walking.  Oh well, can’t win ‘em all.

Am I disappointed that I didn’t see more of the new releases at Gen Con 2014?  Surprisingly, no!  The sheer number of new games — and better yet, the ever-growing number of people who love them — make this the most exciting time in the history of our hobby.  If my biggest problem is that there’s too much to see, we’ve got a great year ahead of us.

I’ll be back soon with coverage of the multitude of other events I experienced at this year’s Gen Con.