My First Gathering of Friends
I've never been much into conventions. The few that I have attended seemed fairly boring and poorly organized. I'd go to the hall or room or wherever and there'd be a bunch of tables set up and a couple of games being played. There never seemed to be anyone in charge or any sort of "Welcome" table. Wandering amongst the tables brought little more than the occasional glance from someone. Nobody ever seemed interested in sparking up a conversation or asking if you were interested in something. I always got the feeling that everyone at these cons already knew each other, weren't interested in trying anything new, teaching someone about a game or meeting a new person. Hardly an encouraging experience. It was around this same time that my interest in gaming stopped for several years.
Getting on the net was what rekindled my interest in games. Ken Tidwell's Game Cabinet, Peter Sarrett's Game Report and rec.games.board led me to discover all these great German games, I was definitely "born again". I started learning about all sorts of new games, what people thought of them, what was coming out at the next Essen, what was being delayed until Nuremberg and so on. I also heard reports about a convention Alan Moon held every year called the Gathering of Friends. The way people talked about it, it sounded as though this was quite different from the conventions I had already attended. After a little more research I was definitely intrigued and interested in attending. The final straw was reading Peter Sarrett's account in The Game Report #11. It sounded great and I decided that the Gathering was the one convention I wanted to try. Unfortunately, I also learned that it had become an invitation only event! Aargh! After finally deciding that I wanted to attend, I find out that I wouldn't be able. Well, a couple of months passed and I ended up e-mailing Alan a few times concerning parts for some of his White Wind games. I guess he added my e-mail address to his list because when the invitations went out for the Gathering IX, I received one! I was very pleased until I realized how much it was going to cost for airfare to Connecticut as well as the hotel and everything else (I'm on the other side of the continent in Victoria, BC). The Gathering was to be held April 21-26, 1998 and as it was only October at this point, I had plenty of time to think about it. It's one thing to waste $20 on a local con but quite another to blow $1000 for the same experience. Still, everyone said that it was the best they've ever attended. I guess the deciding factor was remembering the disappointment I felt when I thought I couldn't go so I decided to pony up the dough and try it out. I sent my cheque in, booked a flight and made a reservation at the lovely Harley Hotel in Enfield, Connecticut. All I needed was to buy a game and wait the five months until April.
The game was for the prize table. The idea is that everyone brings a game (usually several) and at the end of the convention they're awarded as prizes to everyone there. Alan lists guidelines on what are (and are not) acceptable games. I looked through my game closet and there were a couple that I thought would be appropriate but as it turned out I ended up selling them on the net prior to the con. I didn't want to commit a faux pas and show up with an inappropriate prize so I decided to buy a new copy of Master Labyrinth and bring that with me. It's a bilingual (French & English) Canadian version and so I thought that it might be of slightly more interest to someone there.
Well, the day finally arrived, I left Vancouver at 7 in the morning and after 7+ hours of traveling, I arrived at the hotel. I checked in and got my room key. After a quick shower I grabbed my prize and headed to the ballroom. The convention was held in the Springfield room which was quite large with very high ceilings. There were lots of tables set up throughout the room and the tables lining the walls were COVERED IN GAMES! It's difficult to appreciate how impressive it looks unless you see it. Imagine about 300 feet of tables each stacked with a foot or two of games! What's even more impressive is that all these games are here for you to play! If you wanted to try something out or just have a look at the rules you were free to do so. The accepted practice at the Gathering is that this is what the games were there for. It was assumed that you'd be careful with them and put them back in the same condition you found them. Everyone I met was most respectful of this policy, the only problem was that sometimes you forgot which pile you took the game from. If you saw the number of stacks you'd realize that this was easy to do. Fortunately many of the games had business cards in them listing the owner, a great idea. I wandered the room for a couple of minutes taking it all in. I grabbed my name tag and dropped off my prize on the prize table. This was already quite full as many (~40) people had already been gaming for 3 days as part of the "opening days", sort of a pre-Gathering Gathering from what I understand. Alan wandered over at this point and introduced himself (I guess he could tell I was new and trying to figure things out.) We had a short chat and then he got back to the game he was playing.
I wandered around the room for a bit and started up a couple of conversations. There were a couple of people I had only communicated with via e-mail so it was interesting to actually meet them face-to-face. Everyone was quite friendly, Ben & Marcia Baldanza introduced themselves and we decided to start up a game of Durch die Wste. While we were setting the game up a couple other people wandered by and we asked if they'd like to play. (Forgive me, but I can't remember everyone's name I played with_ it was a long week!). Right away I knew that this convention was different, within 20 minutes of arriving I was playing a new game with five people that had all just met one another (Ben & Marcia excepted). Very different and very refreshing! I quite enjoyed the game itself, it was the one of the few games I was specifically hoping to play. I think I even might have won it although I'm not quite sure. I like the fact that there was a little more meat to it than most Knizia games. There are several distinct ways of scoring points and subsequently several very different strategies to attempt. The pastel color of the playing pieces didn't seem to bother me very much and nobody seemed to complain about them in actual play.
The rest of the day proceeded much the same way, wander around the hall, check out the games displayed, meet new people and game, game, game! I ended up playing until 3 in the morning and was very tired once I decided to call it a day.
After this first day I realized that all the great things I had heard about the Gathering were true and how much more fun it was than any other convention I had attended. What made the difference as far as I'm concerned were the people. Almost without exception everyone was friendly and pleasant and most of all, very open. If you were sitting alone at a table or just ambling around the room for sure someone would ask you if you were interested in playing a game. I was very pleased and impressed by this. I also think that this attitude becomes infectious, you're more likely to invite someone for a game even if you've never met them before. It was also very interesting putting faces to all the people I've met via e-mail over the previous year or so. I ended up spending a lot of time with Brent Carter and Greg Schloesser (check out Greg's website: the Westbank Gamers at http://home.earthlink.net/~gschloesser/). Two very friendly southerners that made the trip much more enjoyable. (Despite Greg's constant reminder that he was fearful that head butts were used to break ties. I wear a size 8.) I swear that I even started talking with Brent's drawl as the week progressed.
Unlike most conventions, the Gathering concentrates more on "open gaming" than on tournaments. In fact, this is pretty much ALL the Gathering is about. There are no vendors. (Although Funagain Games is present in the form of Rick Soued. Rick helps organize the event and had a list of games available for sale discreetly displayed at the front of the room.) There are no discussion groups or seminars. There ARE tournaments, of course, usually two (or was it four?) a day and these are the games that received the most votes from a ballot Alan sent out with the registration package. I wasn't that interested in tournaments however as I wanted to try as many new games as possible. There are no RPG's and very little in the way of CCG's (there was the occasional game of Magic being played but that was all that I saw). In short, this is a convention for "Games sold in the main hall of the Games Fair at Essen." (You know, an appropriate name would be REALLY convenient.) Personally, I couldn't think of a better setup, this is exactly what I want from a con.
The reason for the invitation only status is so that Alan can keep control of the growth of the convention. This year there were about 130 attendees. The room itself could have held quite a few more and still been comfortable. I don't want to be one of those people that advocates closing the gate just after scurrying in myself but I worry a little about the future of the event. If it grows too much it could lose its unique feel. As it was I found that I didn't get a chance to meet everyone or even meet all the people I had corresponded with on the net. Maybe this isn't such a big deal but there was a real feeling of camaraderie and it would be a shame to lose that. Time will tell, I guess. A potential safeguard against this is the "Opening Days" I mentioned above. This is essentially the same thing as the regular event just a little more relaxed and no scheduled tournaments. This was the first year that Alan let everyone on the list decide for themselves whether they wanted to attend this or not. He mentioned that the biggest problem was the burnout caused by organizing an eight day event. We'll see if he continues with the same policy next year.
I ended up playing an awful lot of games during the week. I'm not sure what the total count was but I did keep track of which games I played, 42 different games, 30 of which were new to me. Comments on just a few of them:
Stadte und Ritter: I was chatting with Ken Tidwell of The Game Cabinet fame when we were asked if we wanted to play a game of SuR. I was a little hungry but I was eager to play the game and as there was only a single copy available, thought it best to get a game in while I had the chance. This turned out to be a mistake. Let me explain: everyone has their own method for learning a game. I prefer a rough gloss over of the rules and then jumping right in. I figure that you'll learn much better by actually playing the game. Well, Ray Pfeiffer, Jon Ferro and Ken preferred to fully read and understand every rule before starting, fair enough I suppose. I should mention that we were being taught the game by Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games. Jay's a very colorful character and is great at explaining games, not only explaining the rules but giving playful little reasons as to why a rule is the way it is. Fairly humorous for the most part although it tends to draw the instruction out a little. My patience started wearing a little thin though as each new rule was described and discussed. The result was that 45 minutes passed before the first dice were rolled! I was very happy once we got underway but not for long as it turned out. We all underestimated the power of the raiders in the game and a few successful invasions taught us the error of leaving Catan under-defended. Unfortunately, the damage had been done, our first few cities were razed and it ultimately resulted in a MUCH longer game. Did I mention I was hungry before we started? Well, I was VERY hungry by the time we finished 4 HOURS later! That's right 4 hours! And no, I'm not including the 45 minutes of instruction before we got going. Exacerbating the problem was the fact that this was the first time I'd ever been on the short end of the stick in a Settlers game. I was definitely the poor cousin with not much chance for victory from fairly early on. While this is frustrating in a regular game at least you only have to put up with it for 30 minutes or so. As it was, I was very happy when Ken finally achieved his 13th victory point and won the game. Any thoughts I'd had about purchasing the game were gone at that point. I quickly departed and drowned my sorrows in a milkshake (and burger) at the Friendly's nearby. I've since calmed down from my initial bad reaction to the game. It certainly has some interesting ideas and really "meats up" the game if you know what I mean. I talked to others about it and it seems that the average playing time is about 2 hours or so. Possibly worth another try...
Wettstreit der Baumeister: Fairly simple game of building the best (according to a set of criteria) medieval city. The components are just excellent, I love the artwork. There was some concern about the saboteur, some thought it underpowered, some thought it overpowered. For what its worth there seems to be a number of slight variants that folks are using in order to tailor the game to their liking. It seemed that this (along with Durche die Wste) was the hit of the Gathering. It was definitely a small "h" hit though, while almost everyone seemed to like it, there was no rush to buy copies.
Die Oster Insel: The Easter Island racing game: Fabulous pieces! You get large (4" or so), hollow statues to race with. Very simple game, each turn you play a card showing from 1 to 7 stones. You then move any number of statues this number of spaces in total. Then you place the same number of stones (REAL stones) into the heads of any statues you DIDN'T move. The race ends when one statue crosses the finish line. The winner is the player who finishes in either first or second place AND has the most stones in his statue. There are also obelisks along the race course that award extra rocks to the first statue to land on them. The rules as written don't seem to work too well on this point (it's too big of an advantage landing on them) but are easily modified. There doesn't seem to be too much to the game but it was lots of fun requiring a fair amount of mutual backscratching amongst the players.
Cheops: I really didn't like this game. The components were top notch and quite attractive (although I think the worker markers could have been made more distinct, as it is they are hard to distinguish from each other). The object of the game is to collect stones while not being quite sure of their ultimate worth. The problem for me is in how the stones' values are determined, there is no logic to their fluctuation. It may be worth 25, then 0, then 30. There's no real world situation being modeled. Contrast this with Acquire where even though it is highly abstracted there's a certain amount of sense as to why a particular chain is worth more than another.
Der Fliegende Hollander: Another game with stock market overtures that struck me as odd considering the rest of the game is about the Flying Dutchman! Some interesting mechanics although I found it hard to take too seriously. I should apologize to Joe Huber, it was his game and he seemed quite fond of it. Brent Carter and I took great delight in challenging him for actions at almost every opportunity even though we knew that Joe would ultimately prevail. Joe took it all in stride though which led to feelings of guilt once we had finished.
Quandary: I've never seen Flinke Pinke (the previous incarnation of Quandary) but the ivory-like pieces have such a great feel to them I'd easily be willing to pay the extra expense. A very simple stock market / speculation game. I suppose this suffers from the same problem I described for Cheops (wildly fluctuating values for "stocks"). I'm not sure why it doesn't bother me here but that's the case. Very quick rounds probably help. The only problem I had was that it seemed to me that the player that ends the round should not get to pick up a stock. Being able to determine (to a small degree) the final standings of each player should have some sort of trade off.
Exxtra: Yet Another Knizia Game. Fairly simple dice rolling affair. The components are excellent and I found the gameplay to be fun. Not a whole lot of strategy involved but enough to make it interesting. We always played with six and I suspect that it's much better than with fewer players. I've subsequently read that many people find it rather luck dependent (it is a dice game after all) and that one (or more) players can get left hopelessly behind. This was certainly the case in the games I played, at least one player never made it past the 3 spot (there are 21 spaces in total). However, I did notice, in at least one game, that the player in question made rather odd moves in my opinion. The problem, as I saw it, was that he would place his dice in such a way that he didn't leave subsequent players an opening above him. This meant that they didn't have much choice but to keep rolling until either they busted or rolled higher than his dice thus removing them. It seemed to me that by placing a little lower (say on the 3 instead of the 4) this would leave an opening (the 4 spot) for higher rollers to place. At the very least it put them in the position of going for the 4 or placing on the 2 in order to bump him off. I did quite well in all the games I played so maybe it isn't as random as some may think?
All this wall to wall gaming can be fun but it does run the risk of causing burnout. I found that I was starting to run down about Thursday afternoon. I had been going for walks every now and again but I'll have to make sure to take even more breaks next year. Still, there's a drive to play as much as possible, after all, it was fairly expensive getting there and I didn't want to "waste" any part of it. I found that playing a variety of games helped a lot. I was introduced to Celebrities, a version of Charades, and that was a lot of fun. It exercised a different part of your brain and was quite relaxing (as well as being great fun). I also took part in the late night "Poker" game that several folks got going. I say "Poker" as what's really played are standard deck card games with betting. Almost every hand was a different game that needed a couple of minutes explaining before getting under way. Needless to say, I did quite poorly, I hope Peter and company enjoyed spending my cash! Fortunately another table set up that played more conventional games and undeterred, I joined up. We played mostly stud and draw poker and it was interesting the differences in terminology that people used. I guess everyone has specific slang for the same thing. In any case, I did a little better, breaking even as the game broke up.
Saturday night was the do-not-miss event and the unofficial wrap up of the Gathering: the prize giveaway! I've already mentioned that everyone brings one game (or several) to be given away. All these games are displayed all week long and are the subject of much scrutiny and analysis. Tournament winners got first picks followed by everyone else in a random order determined before the event and posted on the bulletin board. There seemed to be a lot of calculating all week long as folks tried to determine the likelihood that a certain game would still be around when they got to choose. I was very lucky in the random draw and was the fifth to choose after the tournament winners. Prior to the main event, Alan had everyone grab a seat (specifying eight to a table for some reason...). He went through the usual thanks and appreciation's to everyone as well as listing some of the highlights of the weeks' activities. He also gave everyone an update of the preparations for next years' event. I'm usually pretty cynical about these types of functions but I found it to be very enjoyable. It gave a real sense of camaraderie to the whole week, so much so that I mentioned later to Alan that I thought a similar "opening ceremony" might be a good idea. Once he finished, the reason for the 8 to a table seating became obvious: a large 100+ person game of Take It Easy! A brand new game was distributed to each table and the rules explained to anyone that hadn't played before. Alan took the role of caller and the game was on. I can't think of any other game that can be played as easily with 1 as with 130. Lots of fun. I ended up with a score of 158 that was tops at my table but short of the 172 that Ricardo Sedan and Chris LaRue scored. (In case you were wondering their boards were NOT identical.) While it meant I wasn't getting an earlier pick at the prize table, I did get to keep my tables copy of the game, thanks Alan! Now it was time for the big event. Alan explained the ground rules: he would call out the names in order and once that person had gotten to the table the next name would be called. This meant that there were usually several people actually at the table at the same time semi-frantically looking for the "best" game. It now became very clear the reasons for getting a good "feel" for where everything was as well as preparing an ordered list of your choices. This was all great fun and I ended up with Entdecker, Freight Train, DungeonQuest and the Aliens vs. Predator CCG.
While Sunday was the official end of the Gathering, it seemed that most people were leaving quite early. The ballroom was noticeably less crowded and many of the games had been packed away. The only planned events were the Wildlife Adventure & Can't Stop tournaments. I signed up for the Can't Stop tournament and managed to get beat quite badly the first game. Probably not a bad thing though as I had a plane to catch and wouldn't have been able to stay till the final anyway. (Or so I thought, the airline I was traveling on was in the middle of contract negotiations. Everything was late and I ended having to spend the night in Detroit!) My week of gaming had drawn to a close, it was odd how natural it seemed to spend the better part of six days playing games. All the good things I had heard about the Gathering turned out to be true and I was very pleased that I decided to attend. I really can't say enough about it, it was a great time and I'm definitely going next year.
This article originally appeared in Counter #2.