News & Views From The Gathering
Iíve already written (in Counter #2) about the general aspects of the Gathering so I donít want to go into as much detail here. If youíre curious about it I encourage you to read the aforementioned article. Suffice it to say that the Gathering of Friends is Alan Moonís invitation only event held in Springfield, Massachusetts around the middle of April each year. This year it was held at the Best Western Sovereign from April 12 Ė April 18, 1999. For those who couldnít get too much of a good thing, Opening Days was held from April 9 Ė April 12. Approximately 50 people attended Opening Days and about 180 attended the main event. Unlike most conventions the Gathering focuses almost exclusively on "Open Gaming". There are no lectures, conferences, companies or vendors (although Funagain Games is there selling out of a hotel room). There are tournaments but more than anything else people are there to play games with anyone and (ideally) everyone. The walls are literally lined with games and youíre free to play with any of them as long as youíre respectful of others property.
Many (most?) of the games played at the Gathering are being played for the first time. Often this is because the game itself is brand new but also because itís a unique opportunity to play something youíve never had a chance to before. There are so many games there that youíve only heard about itís a fantastic opportunity to try something out. One problem with this is that the rules are often explained by someone whoís either a) just skimmed the rules, b) only played the game once or c) working from an "on the fly" translation. This means that itís fairly common to get rules incorrect, sometimes with significant effects. This should be noted when reading the following descriptions please regard them as previews rather than reviews. With this in mind here are the not too brief impressions of the games I played which were new to me. (Organized, for no particular reason, by the day that I played them.)
I arrived VERY tired at the hotel early Tuesday morning. Iíd taken the red eye flight Monday night and so had not slept at all. A nice little bonus was the airline informing me upon arrival that my bags hadnít been loaded and were still in Victoria. Nine hours on three different planes had me feeling a little stinky so I was not pleased to be left without a change of clothes. Still I was glad to be there and looking forward to getting in some gaming after grabbing a few hours nap. Alas the nap was not to be. Walking to my room I ran into Mik Svellov from Denmark who Iíd talked to via e-mail. (For those unaware, Mik runs Brett & Board which, in the absence of the Game Cabinet, has become THE top gaming site on the Internet.) We had a quick chat before he headed off to the gaming room. As I continued on I kept running into more and more people, saying "Hi" and asking if I was ready to game. Well the seed had been planted, there was no way I was getting a nap in. I quickly grabbed a shower and made my way to the game room. Thankfully Tami Marston was selling the official T-shirts so I was able to ditch the smelly rag I was wearing. On to the games!
Claymation Ė Pictionary with Playdough is about all the description you need for this game. Two teams compete to try and guess just what it is that their team member is trying to sculpt. Quite a bit more difficult than I first expected and yet more often than not the guesses were ultimately successful. For each correct guess your team receives a colored token. The first team to collect all 5 tokens wins. I think there may be a problem with the board play part of the game. As tokens can be both gained and lost the game length can be more variable than in similar games such as Triv or Pictionary. Not a huge problem but it could make the game drag on.
Ra Ė Reiner Kniziaís set collecting and auction game thatís also the first game released by Ravensburgerís "adult" line Ė Alea. The game has an Egyptian theme and concerns collecting various tiles. Tiles come in a variety of types and are progressively turned over until either a player calls an auction or a Ra tile appears (which forces an auction). All previously revealed tiles are auctioned in one lot in once around fashion. The clever Knizia twist is that each player has only 3 "coins" with which to bid and these are numbered 1 Ė 15 (if I remember correctly). The winning bidder not only takes the tiles but the PREVIOUS winning coin and replaces it with his own. This means that not only are you concerned about the tiles up for auction but the value of the coin you will get in exchange. Clever. There are at most three auctions per player per round and the game lasts 3 (or is it 4) rounds. At the end of each round scores are totaled and certain types of tiles are removed while others remain. In general the game seemed to receive a lot of good comments, it certainly seemed to be getting a lot of play throughout the week. I have to admit to being pretty unimpressed though. The values attributed to the sets of tiles seemed entirely arbitrary with no "real-world" explanation. Iím not sure exactly who or what the players are supposed to be. In Modern Art youíre a collector trying to acquire the most popular paintings. In Medici youíre a merchant trying to corner a market with the most valuable items. I have no idea what youíre trying to do in Ra. Additionally, having (at most) 3 values you could use in a bid eliminates any tension in the auctions. Its usually very obvious what youíre going to bid (if anything) and worse, its usually a foregone conclusion whoís going to win it (the coin values are public).
Kape Horn Ė As you might easily guess this is a game of trying to round Cape Horn. Each player controls a single ship attempting the arduous journey. The basic play of the game is laying a tile on the board and then moving your ship. The tile youíre currently on dictates how your ship may move. For example a tile may have arrows that allow you to move 2 squares left or right or 2 squares forward. Others might allow you to move 3 squares forward or 3 squares diagonally. Each tile has a specific orientation that changes depending on which of the three zones it is played in. These three zones are important because each contains three "waypoints". In order to win you must either visit one waypoint in each zone (of a different color in each one) or visit two different waypoints (in different zones and of different colors) and cross the finish line off the coast of Chile. There are also rules for taking an extra movement, placing tiles on top of others or ignoring the movement tiles altogether. Play is pretty straightforward and clear, in general you either place a tile to help yourself or to hinder an opponent. As the board fills up efficient (or disastrous) pathways emerge and often times there will be several players plying the same route. I do like the movement system, I doubt it bears much resemblance to real-life but if that was a problem I wouldnít be playing German games in the first place. The one problem I did have was the old "gang up on the leader" syndrome. Its very easy to play a tile that royally screws someone as its plain to everyone what your first move is going to be. In the five player game I played in someone was always able and/or willing to play a tile that prevented the leader from winning. What ultimately ends up happening is that enough players are able to try for the win that they canít all be stopped and someone finally does it. I suppose this could be viewed as a balancing factor but it left a bad taste in my mouth as I spent the last 4 or 5 turns of the game setting myself up for the win only to have it inevitably taken away before I got a chance to move. I think this would be a lot less prevalent in a three player game and I look forward to playing it as such.
Looping Louie Ė Had to be the hit of the Gathering and played by more attendees than any other single game. For those who havenít heard of this itís a Milton Bradley (or is that Parker Brothers?) game that features an electronically controlled barnstormer, the aforementioned "Looping Louie". The players each have a little paddle they can flick to bump Louie up in the air as he spins around. The object is to bump him so that he avoids knocking the three chickens off your barn while at the same time sending him after your opponentís chickens. Absolutely goofy mindless fun! "So how was the Gathering dear?" "Great! I played Looping Louie all week!"
Verräter Ė Iíd heard a lot about this card game prior to the Gathering, most often that it was really a boardgame that just happened to be played with cards. Iíd have to agree, thereís a fair amount of "meat" in this little gem. The premise is that two factions (the Eagles & the Roses) are fighting a civil war. The players are nominally backing one side or the other but will usually switch allegiance as it suits them (fickle lot). The "board" is a circle of 12(?) land cards each with a value of 0 to 15. Depending on which side is up a particular land is allied with one of the two factions. Each turn a conflict will occur between two adjacent cards that are on opposite sides of the struggle. The players then secretly determine what role they will play in the current struggle. This could be the Strategist, a diplomat, a builder or the all important traitor (Verräter). Then players add supply cards to their land cards value with the highest total winning the conflict. As the traitor is not revealed until AFTER cards have been played no-one can be sure of victory and the subsequent awarding of VPís. The game works quite well, there are plenty of decisions to be made and it moves along nicely. It does have a repetitive feel to it though and I suspect that the game will receive a lot of play at first and then quickly die out. Those initial plays will be enjoyable though.
Mamma Mia Ė A quick and easy card game about making pizzas from Uwe Rosenberg, the designer of Bohnanza. This is a real simple and most importantly, fun game. Each player has a hand of ingredients and pizza orders. On your turn you play one or more ingredients (of the same type, 3 mushrooms for example) on the common pile. You also have the option of placing an order as well. The orders come in 8 different varieties and show what ingredients are required to make it. After playing your cards you replenish your hand to seven cards (from EITHER the ingredient deck or your personal order deck but not both) and the next player takes his or her turn. Once the ingredient deck is exhausted its time to actually make the pizzas! The common pile is turned over and the played cards are placed one at a time into stacks of similar ingredients. Once an order is turned up it is (potentially) filled. If there are enough ingredients on the table great, the pizzas made and the required ingredients are removed. If not, the ordering player may add the missing items from his or her hand if possible. If the player canít add enough, the order is returned to his order deck. Once an order is filled its out of the game and used to keep score. Play 3 rounds and the player who completed the most orders wins. As you can probably tell this is a pretty light and humorous game. Thereís not a whole lot of strategy but there is enough to make the game interesting. Itís almost impossible to play this game without breaking into terrible Italian accents and why not?
Ricochet Robot Ė This is more of a competitive puzzle than a game. The board is a 16x16 grid and the object is to move one of the four robots to a random spot on the board in the shortest number of moves. The trick is that the robots only move in a straight line and can only stop when they hit a wall or another robot. Every turn a new destination is revealed, they players then try to figure out the shortest path. Once someone does so he or she announces the number of moves itíll take. A timer is then turned over and everyone has 2 minutes or so to try and beat that number. Once time runs out the lowest bidding player shows the path (if he can remember it). This game can be VERY hard on the brain as often times it just doesnít seem possible to get that damn robot to its destination! It is fairly satisfying when you actually do solve it but even more frustrating as player after player announces "But of course! 6!" and you just canít see it! One really cool feature of the game is that it really is for 2 or more players and players can easily come and go in the middle of it. Iím normally pretty good at this sort of puzzle and felt that Iíd do quite well. I dropped in about 3 or 4 games and every time Iíd get the first one or two Iíd look at but then Iíd be unable to get any more the rest of the game. Serves me right for not walking away while Iím ahead. As an added bonus Jay Tummelson was handing out free Silver robots for the game, it didnít seem to make the game much easier though.
Lost Cities Ė Fairly simple two player Rummy like card game about conducting expeditions to lost cities. The deck consists of five "suits" each comprising a separate expedition. Each expedition has number cards from 1 to 10 and 3 "agreement cards". On your turn you may play or discard a card and then draw from one of the five discard piles or the draw deck. The trick is that when playing an expedition card you must play them in numerical order. So once Iíve played the 3 Atlantis card I can no longer play the 1 or 2 cards. In order for an expedition to be a success you need to score a total of 20 points. Anything less counts as negative points, anything more as positive. Complicating matters are the agreement cards. These must be played before ANY number cards are played (for that expedition) and double (or triple or even quadruple) the total SCORED points for that expedition (which could still be negative). Normally you play three hands and total your scores. Thatís really all there is to it. Thereís some very basic strategies involved and everyone seems to pick up on them rather quickly. The scores do tend to be rather divergent but as the game is so fast and light this really didnít bother me. I view Lost Cities almost as much of a pastime as a game. As I stated the decisions involved are pretty obvious and so I never really feel too bad when things go awry. I do get a sense of satisfaction upon completing a high scoring expedition though. (Howís that for a positive attitude?) All in all itís a good little game that you shouldnít expect too much from. An added bonus is that the cards are really quite attractive and show a scene from each expedition. The cool thing is that each card shows a progressively more advanced scene, a very nice touch.
A great (albeit tiring) start to the week. Brent Carter and I managed to drag ourselves away and go get some Chinese food across the street. After a fine meal and some good conversation our fortune cookies arrived. Mine read (and I kid you not) "A Gathering of Friends will bring you good luck this evening." Cue Twilight Zone themeÖ
Never did a hotel bed feel as good as it did that night. I awoke somewhat refreshed and anxious to start the day. The hotel offered free breakfasts and it was the usual ritual to meet up in the restaurant before hitting the ballroom.
David & Goliath Ė This is another in a long list of trick taking games which Iím usually reluctant to play. The variation here is that the lowest card played takes the high card and the high card takes the rest. Interesting mechanic and one that ensures that you will never collect any cards in your hand. After a round of play scores are totaled as follows: If youíve collected 1 or 2 cards in a suit then you score their face value otherwise you score 1 point per card. The games light and enjoyable I suppose but I honestly canít say that Iíd ever want to play again.
Svea Rike Ė Iíd heard a lot about this game and was glad I was able to get a game in. We managed to play with Greg Schloesserís set which was a blessing: Greg had English translations stuck to the cards themselves. As the entire game is card driven this is a must and I canít imagine playing without them. The game itself was a bit of a mixed blessing. Fortunes vary wildly in the game and most of the interaction is in the card play which is of the "Ha! Take THAT!" variety. Iím willing to accept a certain amount of this but at two hours it started to get a little tedious. The good news is that the mechanics of the game are pretty sound. We didnít really clue into the victory conditions all that well and so left Sweden undefended for pretty much the whole game. (This was another problem I had with the game; it seemed that in order to successfully wage a war required all the playersí cooperation and the penalties for not doing so werenít severe enough.) I think the game could be improved if there were fewer turns involved.
Kontor Ė This is a tile laying game concerning the growth (and control) of a Venice like (that is, flooded) city. Itís really a two-player game with rules for a four-player partnership version and this is how I played it. Each turn all 4 players secretly select one of the cards in their hands and reveal them simultaneously. Each card is either a land tile or a water tile and has a priority number in one corner. These numbers determine the order that they are added to the ever-growing board. The water tiles are just that, water and not much else. The land tiles are a little more interesting. Most of them show one or more of three different types of item as well as the color of the owning team (red or black). (I think the items represent food, cargo and money. Iím probably wrong but it doesnít make any difference to the gameplay in any case.) As cards are placed several "islands" will slowly develop. Control of these islands is determined by who has placed the most items on each. Actually, itís whoever has the greatest majority in any one of the three categories. Its got a sort of El Grande feel mixed in with the scoring from Tigris. There is also a "Ship of Death" that travels around (via an icon on some of the cards) that can destroy certain tiles if it stops on an adjacent tile. As these tiles are removed the layout of the islands can change causing the ownership to change drastically. There are also special cards which increase the values of an island, cause a flood or build a bridge. Play continues until the entire 8x8 board is filled in. (In a two player game its 6x6.) My initial reaction to the game was not positive. It seemed like just another tile laying game with nothing special to make it stand out. I also found it a little hard to tell at a glance who owned which island and it was even harder to tell what would result from either a break up of an island or the joining of two separate ones. Additionally, I didnít really see the reason for the partnership rules, why not just leave it as a straight two-player game? After thinking about it a bit I seem to have modified my opinion somewhat. The partnership aspect can interesting although I think it should be played where you canít communicate with your partner at all. (The rules state that you canít talk when choosing your tiles but you can when placing them.) I still think that there are a lot of tile placing games that are more interesting but I would be willing to play this again.
Tycoon Ė This games been out for a while but this was my first chance to play it and I had the good fortune to get in a game with Ben & Marcia Baldanza and Rick Soued. In Tycoon youíre travelling around the world building hotels and factories in nine different cities. In order to move you must have a ticket which can either be a cheap, direct flight (say from New York to Tokyo) or an open ended ticket which allows travel anywhere but is more expensive. Upon arrival in a city you may build a hotel, the cost of which varies from city to city. These are placed along a track circling the city which also indicates the value of being the first or second majority owner (just as in Acquire). These values tend to rise as more hotels are built but then decrease as each city becomes overcrowded. In general itís best to have the majority in a contested city. Factories simply pay out according to the second majority bonus. Play is over several rounds and ends when one player has placed all their allocated (for that round) hotels. The hard part of Tycoon is that money is very tight, especially in the early rounds. I thought I was being clever in taking out a smaller loan than the others as it was at a better interest rate. The folly of this move was soon made clear as I quickly ran out of money prior to the end of the round. This is a problem as not only do you waste time travelling off board getting another loan but itís expensive as well! Worse is the fact that as you must pay back a loan at the end of the round any loans taken late often cost you money without giving you a chance to actually use it. I came very close to getting in a hopeless situation but was fortunate enough to pull myself out. In fact things went so well that I managed to pull off the win! As Ben runs an airline in real life it was especially nice getting the better of him.
Button Men Ė This is a very simple dice rolling game from James Earnestís Cheapass Games. The name comes from the fact that the components are actual pin-type buttons that you wear. (Well, no one actually wears them but I suppose you couldÖ) Each shows a colorful picture of a fighter and lists the number and type of dice that that fighter uses. Games are very quick and I was surprised at how much I was thinking about what to do on my turn.
Mü Ė An older Doris & Frank game (also released by Amigo) thatís considered by many to be the finest trick taking game made. Despite my aversion to such games I wanted to try it and see what all the fuss was about. Joe Huber was (I think) the only one of us that had played before and he explained the rules to the five of us (supposedly the ideal number). I must confess to being totally overwhelmed by the game. I never really had that good an idea of what I should be doing especially during the bidding procedure. I think I was able to catch a glimpse of why the game is so highly regarded but it did nothing to make me want to take the long journey required to become good at the game.
Keydom Ė With all the buzz on the net and the quick sell off at Essen I was expecting to see a lot of this being played. Strangely it wasnít although many were talking about an upcoming re-issue from a big German company. In any event I was quite happy to get a game in so I could see if it deserved all the hype it had received. Each player controls 8 "workers" and each turn these get sent out to various posts around the board in the hopes of securing employment. There are three general areas: The countryside, the town and the castle. In the countryside you earn resource cubes in one or more of 5 different colors. In the town you can hire people (using already acquired cubes) such as the midwife (who helps you give "birth" to an additional worker) or the sorcerer (who sells you spells). At the castle you can attempt to purchase one of four artifacts which are all necessary to win the game. Complicating matters is the fact that each of your workers has a value from 1 to 9. These are placed hidden on the board and then revealed simultaneously. In many cases itís only the highest valued worker that gets the "right" to that space. There are exceptions to this, most notably the countryside where the top 8 workers in each category get "paid". With the rules explained we were underway, happily sending out our workers. There were five of us playing, most new to the game. I donít think many of us had a real good idea of what we should be doing but thatís what learning a games all about right? Unfortunately this caused us a bit of a problem. We were all gleefully working away in the countryside thereby earning lots and lots of little cubes. Someone then had the bright idea of visiting the priest. The priestís ability allows you to tax the other families in a couple of different ways. One of these is to demand ALL cubes each player has in excess of 12. Since we had all been productive little workers this meant that a LOT of cubes were gained this way. I had about 25 and I think most of the others did as well which meant that the recipient was receiving about 50 cubes! Now of course that player wasnít able to spend that many and so everyone lusted after that great big hoard of cubes. The best way to get this was to once again use the priest and take them from him. At this point the game degenerated into a fight for the priest which I think clouded the rest of the game. It was rather anti-climatic when Bob Scherer-Hoock finally won it. I had the feeling that everyone wasnít too upset to have the game end. I admit that I spent the last part of the game thinking more about the mechanics than actually "playing to win". I think the system works pretty well and the gameplay fits its theme; it makes sense as to why all the systems work as they do. Everyone did seem to like the game even though it didnít work this time. As far as I can see the problem was in how we played. Instead of getting a whack of cubes and then going on a shopping spree we should have been more selective in what we earned. Get the few cubes necessary to accomplish that turnís goals and be done with it. As all (most?) of the positions require far fewer than 12 cubes the problem with the priest would not come up. The game is a little fiddly and I think a lot of the systems could be cleaned up and streamlined a bit. The assigning of jobs in the countryside seems especially cumbersome and time-consuming for what it is. As the game is now I think its good, I do want to play it a few more times but I couldnít imagine it ever being a favorite. I do hope that a refined version is released though, thereís very definitely gold buried somewhere in this design.
Giganten Ė Oil prospecting and drilling is the theme of this game that supposedly takes its name from the James Dean movie. The pieces are very nice, the oilrigs and trucks are made from a stiff rubber that has a great feel as well as looking fabulous. The board is an open field dotted with many prospecting sites. Along one side are the rail-lines used to ship the oil back to the refineries at the bottom of the board. The players move their trucks inspecting the sites and deciding on which ones to drill. You also need to make sure your train keeps up with your truck otherwise you wonít be able to transport any oil you drill. Movement is accomplished via cards that depict two (or more) values. One is for the total number of spaces you may move your truck and/or train. The second is the number of bid cards you receive, more on these later. The last (if I remember correctly) is used to modify the price at one of the three refineries. The game plays as follows: Each player moves his truck and/or train across the board. New oilrigs are then placed (next to your truck on an available site). One oil marker from each existing well is then shipped back to any of three different refineries. Players than bid for the right to be the lone seller of oil at each refinery. This is important as you may only store two quantities of oil at each refinery, any excess is sold at the giveaway price of $1000 per. Bidding is accomplished with the bid cards that come in denomination of either 1 or 2. The trick is that you can bid more than you actually have, however the penalties are severe if you get called on it. This procedure is repeated until the "company train", which moves randomly forward, reaches the end of the line. I have to admit that I had a just awful game the one time I tried this. Of the 50 or so bid cards I drew all but 4 were 1ís. Brent Carter on the other hand drew nearly all 2ís which meant that he was almost always able to sell his oil whenever he wished. I also misunderstood the bluffing penalties and so I ended up making my predicament even worse with a few ill-advised bluffs. This certainly clouded my perception of the game and I admit that I was probably a little too vocal in my anguish over my fate. After a little calming down I think the game may be alright. Iíd be hard pressed to say that it was good though, I never really got into the spirit of the game and it didnít seem that any of the decisions were difficult. Perhaps if you were restricted to moving your truck OR your train instead of a combination of the two?
Colorado County Ė Every turn players bid to place their tokens on the 10x15 board. Placing tokens is done via cards and markers randomly placed on the board. The cards have a 3x3 grid on them with stars in one or two of the squares. A player that successfully bids (using "cowboy" tokens) for a card takes it and matches it with a marker on the board. Aligning the card with the marker the player then orients the card as he wishes and places the one or two tokens on the matching spaces on the board. (This is a LOT easier to see than it is to describe.) Twelve such placements are done per round and there are four rounds in the game. Scores are added each round and you gain points for having the most tokens on the edge of the board, controlling lakes, having "doubles" (two tokens side by side) and having the largest group of tokens. The trick is that the points for each of these change from round to round so your goals change as the game progresses. Further complicating matters is that you donít have near enough cowboys to last the game so you need to know when not to bid (even losing bids are paid to the bank). Like all bidding games it suffers from the problem that you donít really know what a reasonable bid is the first time you play. It also suffers from the fact that itís hard, at the gameís outset, to know what to do. Thereís this big open board just staring at you and no move seems any better than the others do. After a couple of plays though the board fills up and youíre seeing not only the cards you want but also the cards you want to prevent others from using. The chief complaint I heard about this is that itís very abstract and not very evocative of the theme. I canít really argue with that although I donít see a lot of difference between this and El Grande in that regard. I enjoy the game but it does fall in the good not great category. When Joe Huber said he was selling his copy I bought it. (Although I did wait till the end of the week to see how much luggage space I had left.)
Schnäppchen Jagd Ė For someone who professes not to like trick taking games I sure played a lot of them. SJ is another card game from Uwe "Bohnanza" Rosenberg this time ostensibly about bargain hunting. (The cards depict items such as hair dryers or televisions.) Play is as in most games the difference being the scoring. Any cards you collect as part of a trick go into either your "treasure" pile (if they match your current item) or into your junk pile (if they donít). At several points you can redeem sets of junk for treasure (which then becomes your desired "bargain"). At the end of the game each card in your treasure pile counts as one point, and each card in your junk pile counts as Ė1. As with most Rosenberg games this takes a few playings to even get the hang of what you should be doing. Joe Huber and Mette Riis were old hands at this and they handily beat Sheila Davis and I (who both regarded it as a moral victory that we even scored in the plusses). The word on this is that it plays very well with three players. Iíll take their word for it as I couldnít figure it out enough to know one way or the other.
Tikal. The advance word on this was very good and it was easily the title I was most anxious to play. I was not disappointed as it was the hit of the week for me. Two to four players are exploring a South American valley, uncovering an ancient Mayan city. The board and components are very attractive with lots of wooden pieces and sundry bits. The starting board shows a heavily forested jungle and as its explored large Siedler type hexes are placed as each area is "uncovered". Very pleasing graphically. On your turn you perform a variety of actions from deploying explorers and establishing camps to digging for buried treasures. Points are scored for obtaining artifacts and controlling temples (established by having a majority of explorers at the site in question). The official rules come in two varieties: in the first, you simply draw a tile on your turn and place it on the board. In the auction version you draw one tile per player and then auction them off using victory points as currency. Most people were playing the game using the auction rules. Personally I think that they extend the game (although not as much as you might expect) but more importantly tend to overwhelm the events on the board. I have a strong suspicions that the winner will be the player whoís most successful bidding for tiles than actually playing his turn. On the other hand thereís a lot more luck involved using the standard rules. In the first game I played Peter McCarthy drew only a single temple tile the whole game and as such scored rather poorly. I think the best solution would incorporate drafting (without auction) from a set of face-up tiles. Overall I felt that the game was similar in feel and weight to El Grande and Euphrates & Tigris without the agony those two games induce. I want to play several more games before I pass final judgement but this could very easily be one of my top ten games.
Treasure Hunt Ė The treasure hunt is one of the few scheduled "events" of the Gathering. This year it was created and run by Peter Sarrett (of The Game Report fame). Generally youíre competing in teams to solve a series of word type puzzles before the other teams. Each of the main puzzles had a single word answer but the real trick was that very few of the puzzles had any instructions at all! The first part of solving them was actually figuring out what to do. More often than not it took a burst of inspiration in order to discover what was required and having a diverse group helped a lot. Something might occur to one member that totally eluded all the others. Often times the name of the puzzle was an important clue, an example: "Go Work (it) Out" showed a page of backward characters randomly spread across the page. If you went into the exercise room in the hotel ("Go work out") you found a mirror with stars all over it. By holding the sheet in front of it and aligning yourself correctly certain letters were circled by the stars thus spelling out the answer. Most of the other puzzles required much more work than that and often the answer you received were instructions on a further puzzle you needed to solve. There were clues that directed you to phone an 800 number that repeated a series of song snippets. These in turn were clues to another puzzle. One of the solutions required you to retrieve a clue from the bottom of the hotel pool and another required you and a partner to conduct semaphore communication. If your team every got hopelessly stuck you could always ask Peter for a clue which cost your team a certain number of minutes depending on the hint given. My personal favorite puzzle was "22 Friends". This showed a grid of mostly famous people but also included some Scrabble letters and clipart. I spent a fair bit of time trying to figure out what to do before giving up. The hint we received was "22 Friends as in The Gathering of Friends". A-HA! The pictures were used to construct the names of those attending just like a pictogram word search! Richard Dreyfuss next to a Star Trek Borg yielded Richard Borg. John Glenn (the astronaut) and King Tut yielded Jon Ferro (John Pharaoh). Very clever! Once you found 22 names the only pictures left were Winnie the Pooh and Yo-Yo Ma which meant that the final answer was Puma (Pooh-Ma).
In addition to the 16 main answers there were 4 "meta-clues" which were used to find the final "Grand Answer". Unfortunately no group was able to solve the final answer although 3 groups (out of 15) did manage to get all 16 puzzles solved correctly. Peter estimated that another half hour or so were all that was needed for at least one group to solve it. Even still, it was a very enjoyable part of the week for me despite the fact that Iím not a real puzzle fan. My hats off to Peter, I canít imagine the hours upon hours of preparation that it must have required.
What Were You Thinking? Ė Very simple party type game. Each turn a question is posed to the group and points are awarded for having the most common answers. For example, if 4 people answer "Blue" to a question, each gets four points. If youíre the only one that answers "red" you only get a single point. Some of the questions are true/false but the most fun ones ask you to list 5 things you think of about a certain subject, say World War 2, New York City or Julie Child. The person that scores lowest in each round gets a penalty card with a clever little excuse on the back, "My underwearís too tight!" or "They donít teach this stuff at Harvard." Lots of fun if played with the right group and with the right attitude.
Bamboleo Ė This is one game that you definitely donít want to play drunk! A large (pizza sized) disk is covered with various wooden objects each one a different shape and size. This disk is then carefully balanced atop a cork ball. The object is for each player to gently remove an object from the disk without upsetting it and sending all the pieces tumbling. There are rules for playing to a set number of points (determined by the weight or the number of objects) but really the game aspect is secondary to the fun of just playing. Its an enjoyable enough pastime but not one that I have a strong desire to play again or rush out and purchase. Apparently there are several different "versions" of the game, one of which is quite large that Iíd love to see.
Kapitän Wackelpudding Ė Cute little dexterity game about an overloaded freighter hauling goods all over the place. Each turn a player loads a wooden good (which come in several sizes and shapes such as squares or cylinders) aboard a small wooden ship. You must then move the ship along the board (and without touching land) to a new port as dictated by a die roll. Any goods that fall off en route are added to your pile. The player with the least "misplaced" goods at the end of the game wins. Definitely aimed at the younger set but enjoyable once or twice if not played too seriously. I had the unfortunate luck of playing in a game where one player DID take it seriously and took an agonizingly long time to move the old Kapitän on several occasions. Sheer torture!
Krieg und Frieden Ė Seemed to be the game that was the most misplayed all week. There have been a couple of discussions of the game on the Internet and at first I thought they might be talking about a different game! This was the last game I played (immediately before heading to the airport actually) and I must admit that Iím pretty foggy about the details so bear with me. Certainly overproduced, its really a card game and could easily have done away with the large wooden pieces and round board that come with it. Still Iím not opposed to opulence if thereís a good game hiding underneath. (I especially like the box, it resembles a large leather-bound book. So much so that at first glance I was sure that it WAS a book.) The ultimate goal is the building of a common Cathedral, which awards varying victory points to the constructors. Play is through the use of cards which have a dual use: In the first phase of a round the cards are used to bid for things such as a parchment (which awards further cards each turn) or the right to build part of the Cathedral. In the second phase the cards are used to perform actions such as building a village or sending a Knight to attack the other players. (Something thatís great fun and I managed to do it quite often.) I think the game probably works pretty well but Iíd want to make sure I was using the right rules before I said anymore. As it was it seemed that the final Cathedral piece (worth 3 VPís) was too valuable as it decided the fate of the game. Whoever was able to bid for it successfully won the game.
One really interesting thing about the Gathering is that there are a number of designers attending and even more prototypes being played. Its very intriguing to see an obviously handmade game being played especially when the players seem to be having such a good time doing so. Itís also kind of an ego boost to think that your opinion could affect how a game is ultimately played or if itís even released at all. As these are prototypes Alan is careful to mention to everyone not to talk about them beyond generalities. I have made efforts to contact the respective authors before mentioning the games.
Without a doubt the best received game was Bruno Faiduttiís Citadel. The usual comment was that it was similar but MUCH superior to Verräter. As I quite liked Verräter the fact that I didnít get a chance to play it was probably my biggest disappointment of the event. I did get to play two prototypes that Bernd Brunnhofer (of Hans im Gluck) brought along. I donít remember the authors of the games but one was a trick taking game with a unique scoring system, the other a set collecting game. Iím not very interested (or very good) at trick taking games but I did enjoy this one, itís very light with very simple mechanics. The set collecting game seemed a little clunky and in need of a good theme. There wasnít anything obviously wrong with it but there also wasnít anything that exciting about it either. In some ways Iím actually more interested in seeing this one in print. I think it would be very interesting to see what could come out of a game thatís so obviously "rough" at the moment. Sort of like getting a look at the marble prior to it being used to carve Michaelangeloís David.
Also interesting was FX Schmidtís Torres. Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande had received color copies of the board, box and cards. (Iím assuming for his approval in doing an English version.) It was very neat to see what these proofs looked like prior to their actual manufacture. The board and components for this one looked absolutely gorgeous and Jay stated that it this was one of his favorites of the latest crop of German games. He even cut out the proofs and assembled a make shift copy of the game that seemed to be receiving quite a bit of play throughout the week. Play seems to revolve around knights building castles and moving about them. Most everyone I heard from seemed to indicate that it was a winner.
Al Newman was there in person and brought a couple of prototypes with him. Oneís called Toy Soldiers and received some very impressive comments from those that played it. Interestingly Al says that this design is about 25 years old! I know a couple of gamers that seemed quite anxious to get copies and were encouraging Al to get it published.
Well, youíd think that with 5+ days there would be lots of time to do everything. Sadly thatís just not the case. I was averaging five hours of sleep a night and foregoing one meal a day and I still missed out on a lot. Chief among this was the number of people I didnít get a chance to talk with. There were quite a few people that Iíve had brief and casual conversations with via e-mail that Iíd hoped to be able to sit down and play a game with or just chat for a while. Alas, there far too many that I didnít get to say more than "hello" to. This alone has me thinking about attending Opening Days next year. (Of the people I did get a chance to talk to several were kind enough to offer appreciation for the articles Iíve written in the last year. Thanks again for the kind words!)
There were also quite a few games that I was looking forward to but never got a chance to play. First among these are Chinatown, Big City and Union Pacific. Iím not too upset about missing out on UP, Iíve heard such good things about it (especially its attractiveness) that Iíve already ordered a copy. There are some that suggest its not as good as Airlines (the game upon which its based) while others proclaim its better. As I donít own Airlines I figure itís a no-brainer. I do wish that Iíd played Chinatown and Big City though. They seemed to be receiving pretty good word of mouth but for some reason I never really got all that excited about playing them. I think this is probably due to the opportunity cost of playing any game at the Gathering: there are just so many games available that for every one you play there are two that you wonít be able to. If a game doesnít immediately grab you youíre reluctant to play for fear of missing out on something REALLY good. Oh well, thereís always next year.
All in all, I had a really good time. It was very nice seeing lots of old friends and getting to meet a few new ones. Iíll see everyone next year!
This article originally appeared in Counter #5.