Thursday, July 16, 2009

Review - Utah Board Game Convention 2009

As mentioned in my previous post, last weekend was the 4th annual Utah Board Game Convention, A Gathering of Strangers...and it was great fun. A local paper did a right up of it which was pretty cool. Here's my blow by blow of what I did. Mostly, I played a bunch of games I'd never played before. The post is fairly lenghty, so if you just want to see my take on a particular game, scroll on down to the game picture and start there. Otherwise, enjoy my 'travelogue'.

Here's my lowdown:

Day 1

Friday morning, I made my way up to Fort Douglas just East of the University of Utah and followed the signs to the Officer's Club. I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
We'd normally been over in the Union building at the U which was quite roomy and in a large building along with other facilities including a food court (which wasn't always open during the summer).

The Officer's Club had a much cozier feel which I actually liked better. It felt friendlier to me and even when the convention was in full swing, there was still plenty of room to play. Over in the Union, it was nice to be able to see everything at a quick glance, while in the Officer's Club the convention was separated into a couple of rooms and the main room was cut up visibly by walls. While this lowered the visibility, it also made it seem more intimate and we were playing in a large house and there were games going on all the time. I actually really enjoyed the new venue, although it doesn't provide much room for growth in terms of attendance or booths/demos.

After arriving, I spent a few minutes getting my bearings and figuring out the lay of the land. There were a few hot new titles that I was really hoping to play during the convention, so I scoped tables for those titles. The first one I found was Dominion. Dominion was being unloaded by a husband and wife couple and they agreed to teach me the new game. It's a new game from last year that's been getting some great buzz and just won the 2009 Spiel des Jahres award (the German Game of the Year award).

Dominion is a "deck building game" that uses elements of collectible card games in a new format. The cards are layed out in an appearance very familiar to CCG players and the artwork is great and reminiscent of some classic CCGs. In the game, each player starts with an identical deck of 10 cards. Over the course of the game, players draw 5 cards from their deck (which have to be frequently reshuffled) and play cards in 3 phases: Action, Buy, and Clean up. During the action phase, the player may set off a chain reaction that enables more actions, drawing more cards, more than one buy phase, or specific actions to help themselves or hinder their opponents. During the buy phase, the player uses any 'money' cards in their deck to purchase new cards. And the clean up phase is essentially discarding all cards played/purchased/etc and drawing 5 new cards from their deck.

The meat of the game is in the interactions between the various cards and the immense variety of cards. There are (I believe) 25 different 'decks' of Kingdom cards which become the action cards players will have the option to purchase and play. Only 10 of these decks are used each game and the way each card interacts with others is quite varied, so the random decks each game makes for a very intriguing set of interactions.

We played two games and I came in dead last each game. I felt like I was doing pretty well managing my actions and money through the early segment of the game and then pouncing more heavily on victory points as the game started winding down. Unfortunately, it seems that it would be more effective to try and balance all three throughout the game and have a distinct strategy. Instead, I mainly tried to make sure I had as many actions as I could each turn to ensure I had plenty of money in my hand and at least two buy opportunities. Unfortunately, by the time I was really getting into a flow with my cards, the game abruptly reached the end.

I really enjoyed the game, but I'm not sure it's something my game group (mainly my wife and our siblings and our kids) would pull out as often. Still, it might eventually make it into my collection.

After playing Dominion, I went downtown to meet Lynette and the kids for lunch at Olive Garden. It was fun to see them in the middle of the day on a weekday. After lunch, they went to run some errands, and I went to play more games.

Birds on a Wire
On arriving back at the convention, a few more people had showed up and there were more tables filled with games. I hovered briefly over the Gryphon Games table (which also naturally included Fred Distribution and Eagle Games). There I met Carey Grayson, the designer of the game Birds on a Wire. There were a few of us there looking to get in on a game, so he offered to teach us his game.

From a high level, Birds on a Wire is a set collection game where players are trying to gather up sets of the same type of birds. It gets a bit more strategic in that you have a specific board in which to place your birds (outlined as a set of power lines) and there are a few actions which send the birds into "flight" and can disrupt a player's set and turn the course of the game.

The game was quite simple to learn, and yet I was impressed by its depth. It includes some family rules for use with younger children but I think it would work as-is for kids 8+ without any problem. We played 2 games with me coming in first on one of them. It was interesting to see our knowledge of the strategy and depth increase as we played on. It was also cool to have the designer right there with us to help with questions about game mechanics and strategy. The art is bright and cheery and I really think this is a good family game that I might try to squeeze into our collection.

Looting London
After finishing up Birds on a Wire, Carey offered to teach us one of the other games in the Gryphon bookshelf series and we voted on Looting London. This game is by the good Dr. Reiner Knizia and included many of his classic game play elements.

The theme was fun (five major robberies have taken place in London and it's up to the players to solve them) and the artwork was nice. In classic Knizia style, the game involved drawing of cards to collect and use various sets in an effort to improve your individual standing for a particular robbery. The card management happened quickly and the way the tiles/cards were layed out allowed for quick changes as players advanced their own strategies and necessarily forced other players to change their own strategies.

The theme suggested a sort of deduction, but it was pure set collection and hand management to collect the right cards in order to obtain "evidence" of the highest values to allow you to collect the solved crimes. Like Birds on a Wire, it was simple to learn, but had a good deal of depth to it. It was a fun game, but not something I'd necessarily buy unless I suddenly got the urge to get the entire bookshelf collection (which does look pretty nice)

Ghost Stories
Following Looting London, it was time to wander a little bit again. A nearby table was playing Ghost Stories, which I'd really wanted to learn, so I hovered around and tried to get a feel for how much longer they figured they had. They were nearly done, so I told them to hold a spot for me in the next game and I wandered for a few minutes. I caught a little action with Tumblin Dice which was a fun dexterity/dice game, though I'm not sure I'm willing to invest in it yet.

Upon sitting down to Ghost Stories, I quickly felt overwhelmed by the instructions. It sounded like a lot to take in, especially after such light (yet strategy heavy) games like those at the Gryphon table. As the instructions progressed, I got a good handle over the basics. Once we'd done a couple of turns, I felt like I had a good feel for how the game was played generally, but I also quickly saw why it had the 'difficulty' reputation that it has.

The game moves very quickly and there is a TON to try and accomplish each turn. This is a cooperative game where all of the players are banding together to try and stop an onslaught of ghosts followed by an "incarnation" of an evil spirit/demon. Each player's turn, at least one (and sometimes more) ghost cards turn up on the board to be dealt with. While some cards are curses (?) rather than ghosts, the all had some adverse effect. The ghosts turned up quickly and needed to be dealt with nearly as quickly. It wasn't long before most of our 9 empty slots were filled with cards, of which half of them were ghosts quickly advancing on our little oriental city.

We felt pretty good about killing off a couple of the ghosts and other cards early on and keeping the board relatively clean. But once it started filling up, it just wouldn't stop. We had strategic discussions about what to do and sometimes it looked as though we might pull ahead. But then a bad die roll or a bad card would quickly plunge us back down.

Eventually, we got to a point where two of us had died and the entire board was in chaos. Shortly after that, the game was over and we had lost. Thumbing through the deck, we found we'd made it to within ~12 cards of the "incarnation" endgame. Looking at it that way, it felt pretty close. But thinking on the way the game actually played, it would have taken a lot to have made it there.

Still, I really enjoyed the concept, the cooperative play, and the general mechanics. I look forward to trying to beat the ghosts again.

After Ghost Stories, I was in a bit of a daze and I wandered around a little. I ran into Mark and Denee Tyler, who I've seen since the first Utah Convention (and had an unofficial rivalry with during those first tournaments there). We chatted about games played and decided to play a game. Mark had been looking forward to playing Oregon so we grabbed it from the library and scoped out a table.

Oregon is a strategy game themed around the pioneer/farmer migration to the west (think 'Oregon Trail'). The game features a bunch of building tiles and two decks of cards, one with buildings and one matching icons on the board (wagons, pioneers, fire, buffalo, etc.). Probably the most fun pieces were the wooden cowboy meeples. They were great.

The scoring mechanic was pretty standard in terms of placing your workers/farmers near buildings (or placing buildings near your farmers) and scoring differently based on the building type. The strategy came into play through the set collection in the hand management. Placement was based on card draws. Unfortunately, the size of your hand is rather small, which usually meant you (at least me) were left at the luck of the cards rather than being able to build a solid strategy. It was difficult to plan ahead. I'm sure it can be done, but it takes some distinct planning.

All in all it was a fun game and it was good to sit down with the Tylers. It's not a game I'd necessarily seek out, but it was worth playing and I'd be willing to play it again.

Settlers of Catan
Playing Oregon took us to about 6:10, which was 10 minutes after the Settlers of Catan tournament was supposed to start. I had signed up for the tournament and the players were kind enough to wait for me. They were actually just finishing setup when I arrived at the table.

The tournament was fairly small this year, which I attribute to the fact that there was a Bridge Troll tournament going on at the same time and getting more attention. Bridge Troll had a lot of hype at the con since it was recently published but more because it was designed by local attendee Alf Seegert. I chatted with Alf a little bit but never got a chance to play his game. Hopefully I'll run into him at Game Night Games and play it one of these days.

Anyway, the Settlers tournament was very small in that there were only 5 of us playing. We just played single elmination and finished in a little over an hour. It was a very tight game with all of us advancing in score at pretty similar rates. I had 8 points when the victory finally came (actually, I was sucked down to 6, since the victory came at the cost of my "longest road"). It was a lot of fun. Some folks have a bad vibe for Settlers, but I will almost always be willing to play it. It's a great game.

Fearsome Floors
By this point, I'd had a really full day and had no real agenda, so I went out to see what people were pulling out. I came across Kent (?) who was unpacking Fearsome Floors which he'd picked up in the convention's no-ship math trade. I'm a fan of 'horror' themed games and had wanted to play Fearsome Floors for a while, so I sat down with him and we learned the game.

The artwork is great in this game. Very whimsically scary and lots of fun. The game's mechanics were simple to pick up and made for a lot of fun. Essentially, each player is controlling 4 (because we had 5 players) character tokens and trying to help them escape a putrid dungeon before being captured and killed/eaten by a ravenous monster (a fun 3-d frankenstein model).

There was some strategy and slight planning ahead as you could generally predict the monster's movements and thus try to position your tokens behind walls or (better yet) behind the monster so he doesn't see you. However, since his movement is based on other characters within range and since you have no idea how a player is going to move or if that player is going to push aside the wall you're hiding behind, you certainly can't marry yourself to a particular strategy.

I managed to save one of my characters and had another one near the exit when the game ended (by another player getting his 4th token out). I'd been eaten once and had another guy in a risky position mid board.

This game was a lot of fun and I'd love to pick it up and play it with the family as a light hearted 'scary' game around Halloween (or anytime, since we're a 'horror' lovin' group).

There were now about 2 hours left in the day. At the table behind me, Agricola was making its way to the table. This is a game I'd intended to play at last year's convention but had failed to connect with.

This is an ecomonic, farming, worker placement game that reminded me vaguely of Puerto Rico but with a lot more complexity and many, many more choices to be made each turn.

The game was a lot of fun and very interesting, but it was definitely very complex and had a TON of elements to try and learn and balance. It was almost dizzying trying to keep track of all of the options available to me each turn and to try and come up with a strategy amid all the options. I can see so many strategic paths to victory. Sadly, I didn't take any of them. ;)

I actually scored pretty well for my first time and felt pretty good about my play. But I certainly need to think things through more clearly now that I have a better feel for how the different goods/cards/upgrades/occupations/etc interact with one another, with my farm, and with the overall scoring of the game.

This is a great game and well worth learning and playing. It's a bit too heavy for a lot of our casual game nights. It also left me a little with the same complaint I have about Puerto Rico...that it felt like I was just getting my farm (village in P.R.) rolling when it was time to finish up and score out.

Day 2

I got home around 10:30 and chatted with Lynette for a bit, finally crashing in bed around midnight. I got up around 6 and met up with my dad and brothers for a round of golf. After golfing, I went to the local cannery and helped do some food storage packing. After all that, I nabbed a quick lunch and got back to the games around noon.

As I walked back into the convention, I noticed 3 things:
  1. There were considerably more people there Saturday than there had been Friday
  2. An old friend/co-worker Dave Haslam was wondering around and I made a note that I had to play with him
  3. A nearby table was setting up Tikal
I've been a fan of Tikal since I first played it a couple of years ago. I alternate between playing very cutthroat and playing moderately passive. I win occassionally, but I generally do not win. And still, it's one of my favorite games.

Scott was organizing his pieces and I wasn't sure if he was cleaning up or setting up. He said he was doing either. He recognized my name from the forums where I mentioned my desire to play Tikal. So we moved to setup mode and got ready. Dave wandered over about the same time and decided he'd hop on in as well. By the time we prepped to play, we had a 4th player and we were ready to go.

Tikal is a game of exploration and area control where you try to send your explorers to specific parts of the jungle in order to score points. Depending on the space they occupy, your score method may vary between capturing a discovered temple or digging up lost treasure.

The game is a lot of fun and has a lot of interesting mechanics and differing strategies. I was tied for first place in the first two scoring rounds which surprised me a bit since I so often lose this game. By the third scoring round, most of my temples (including my highest scoring ones) had been stolen from me and I fell to third place. With the final scoring round, I managed to fight for dead last, but still had a blast trying.

Small World
After Tikal, we got into a discussion as to what to play next. I mentioned that I really wanted to play Small World even though I was considering buying it unplayed simply on reading the rules and hearing the hype. Both Dave and Scott were excited about the game, so we pulled down a copy and played.

While we were playing, they announced the winners of the "Board Game Design Contest." Basically, they had a dozen or so locally designed games that were taken into a back room and played by judges consisting of designers, publishers, retailers and others. Dave Haslam (who I was playing with) and Sandeep Kharkar (who was also an old friend/co-worker) had designed two games in the contest. And those two games managed to take 2nd and 1st place in the contest, which was very cool.

Unfortunately for Small World, that meant that Dave was immediately involved in a handful of phone calls and discussions with some of the other designers and publishers at the convention as well as getting a hold of Sandeep to get him back in to the convention (he was celebrating his daughter's birthday). I was super excited for him, so I didn't mind the delay in the game.

Small world is a very interesting game and I really enjoyed it as I expected I would. It's a "war game" of sorts in that you obtain an army and work to take over the world. Your army is made up of a specific race mixed with a distinct characteristic. The pairing of races and characteristics is random and varies each game. The race provides special abilities as does the characteristics, so there was a lot of variety and different advantages to each combination.

The combat was different from games like Risk or Axis & Allies where the battle outcome is determined by the roll of dice. Rather, this was based on majority power such that if one territory contained a certain number of armies, you needed one more army to take over. That made "battles" fairly simple most of the time (sometimes the special abilities came into play, but generally, battle resolution was fairly straight forward).

You gained victory points at the end of each turn based on the number of territories your race controlled, so it's possible that by the end of the game you may have very few territories controlled and yet still win because of a strong middle game.

The game was also interesting in that you could (and should) swap your race out for another race at any time. You still gained points for any territories still controlled by your "declining" race but could then use a new race with new abilities to take over new land.

The board was small (as suggested by the title) and actually comes with 4 different boards to be used dependent on the number of players (2, 3, 4, or 5). Because of the size of the board, territories changed hands quickly and it was key to try and set up defenses on the territories that might be most beneficial to your race based on its special abilities.

I really enjoyed this game a lot and think my wife and siblings would enjoy it as well. I think Jason would probably have fun with it and Andrew may be ready soon. The recommended ages are 8 and up and I can see where it would be playable by kids. There is some strategy they may not employ at that age, but I think they'd pick it up and this would be a great game to help them learn.

So, I'd only played 2 games at this point, but I'd already had a pretty full day. Talking with Lynette on the phone, she was bummed that I had considered playing through dinner rather than coming home. I thought to surprise her and show up at home anyway, but then she called and told me she felt bad I wasn't coming home, so that sort of circumvented my surprise as I went home.

I was glad I did come home. It was a nice relaxing break to just hang out with her and the kids for an hour or so before heading back in to play.

Fury of Dracula
Around 7, I headed back in to Salt Lake and the convention room. The convention was in full swing with everybody trying to plan their last few games.

I found myself back over in the same area where I'd played Fearsome Floors the night before and there was Kent again with another horror game he'd nabbed in the math trade, this time Fury of Dracula. This was another game I'd been dying to try but had never been able to, largely because of the length involved and the general complexity of the game.

None of us at the table had played before so we were hoping to find someone to teach us. One of Kent's friends was playing in the Dominion tournament (which he ended up winning), so we had time to review the rules and to slowly learn the basics of the game from a guy who came over to teach us (I forgot his name now).

There were a ton of intricacies to learn and I felt truly overwhelmed as we prepared to start.

From a high level, I understood the basics as being somewhat like Scotland Yard, where most players were the 'detectives' and one player was the 'criminal' making secret moves and trying to get away.

While that comparison is valid, it gets more complex than that since Dracula gets to place "encounter" tokens on each city he moves into and those encounters come in to action as detectives move to the city and can result in a number of actions ranging from lost turns to battles or lost health. Which brings up the other difference, instead of simply landing on the 'criminal' location, the detective players must actually fight with and defeat dracula in order to win.

Over the 2.5 hours we played, we only had one real significant battle sequence, but it was very interesting. Over the course of the game, players are earning "items" and "event" cards that they can use in battle (some can also be used at other times to affect movement, turn order, etc.). The battle cards are used to determine the battle action to be taken and a die roll is used to determine which card wins. A table on each card then determines the effect upon the player (detective or dracula) and play continues. It was actually rather interesting.

To me, both because of the them and because of the added level of engagement, I actually enjoyed this better than Scotland Yard...mostly. The one main downside is the time commitment. Generally speaking, I would guess that Fury is usually twice the length of Scotland, which would get it vetoed more often.

Still, it was a ton of fun and I'd love to play it again. I think I'll eventually try to bring it in to my collection and get it played at least a few times.

The End?

And with that, the clock struck ~10:30 and marked the end of the 4th annual Gathering of Strangers. It was great fun. Lynette still doesn't quite understand how I can want to stay the entire day both days and play almost exclusively games that I have to learn. She enjoys learning new games, but would rather play the old staples with new friends. She didn't make it out last year or this year (partially because 2 years ago, she didn't feel as much connection with the gamers or a sense of 'willingness to play with her' from them).

Overall, it was a lot of fun and I really look forward to the convention.

Lynette and I relaxed for the next couple of days (since she was off to Trek on Wednesday morning), but we managed to squeeze in a game of Scrabble on Sunday night, so that was good.

Anyway, that's the end of my mega-board-game-travelogue. For those that read the whole thing...congratulations....and come to the convention next year. :)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As the lead organizer of AGoS 2009, I would very much like to hear any additional insights you might have on the convention. I too would like to get my wife to play more of these games. I'd be curious to hear some of your wife's thoughts on what would make her want to attend a convention. I've worn my wife's ear off ;)
You can contact me through the websites: