board games

Essen Spiel '15: Day Four

The last day! About half of these games were played in the halls and the other half were played in the hotel lobby as we sifted through our purchases.

Queen’s Architect

Queen's Architect has fantastic mechanics: your workers are on hexagons which dock into your little player sheet, and as you use them they rotate, changing which point is docked with your sheet. Some workers get better as they work, some get tired. When they complete a full rotation, they retire, but you can rotate them the other way by sending them to the inn. That whole thing is great, but it’s just solitaire - you barely interact with the other players at all. As a result, I felt that this game was missing an important piece of the puzzle. It feels like the next game to leverage this mechanic will nail it, though, and we’ll have something to shout about.

Microfilms

Microfilms is a spy-themed microgame based around trying to figure out who’s who by stealing looks at other player’s hands and trading information. It’s fast and cute, but it’s got a few little nuances which make it quite hard to teach. I like it a lot, but I’ve played it wrong a few times because the rules are a bit fiddly and not fully explained on the cards. I bought it though, and I love it.

The Foreign King

The Foreign King is a remarkably good little strategy game in a very small box. The theme was a bit dull and pasted on, but the four of us that played remained interested until the end and it was never clear who was going to win. Definitely a good game, not sure that it’s a fun game.

Go

The age-old classic. Who doesn’t like Go? Why do I play anything else?

Cash n’ Guns

Quite the opposite of Go. Cash n' Guns is not a new game (in fact, I own it), but there were 8 of us and there was a table free. Sina got utterly shot up. I did not, but Chris won by a mile.

Funemployed

I grabbed the last box of Funemployed available at the Breaking Games booth and couldn’t wait to play it. It delivered on every level: I was forced to attempt an Australian accent in public and Lizzy revealed herself as a dangerously enthusiastic personal trainer. Comedy gold.

Codenames

Some games are popular because they just work, no matter who you are and what you do. Codenames is that kind of game: it’s easy to play, it’s a party game, it has barely any rules, and it’s loads of fun. Word games are universal, because we all know words. Instant winner.

Dark Stories

Dave gave this one star out of five, but I enjoyed it to some extent. In Dark Stories, one person reads out a rather brief description of a scenario which is, in the cases we played, not particularly dark, and the other players ask questions to piece together the story. The stories we played were a bit dumb, but they did keep us guessing and they were something to talk about. It’s not incredible, but I certainly didn’t hate it.

And that was it, that was Essen Spiel ‘15! It was awesome. It cost me a small fortune, but I’m so glad that I went. Hopefully I’ll be able to make it next year! Thank you to everyone who came along: you’re all awesome.

Essen Spiel '15: Day Three

Yes, I'm still writing about Essen. Onwards!

Artificium

We arrived at the hall as a group of 6, which is a ridiculous number when trying to demo games, but Artificium seated 6 and had a free table, so we played it. I found it ok, but many members of the group were less charitable. It had a bunch of dumb action cards which let you steal from other players, which screwed up the strategy element of the rest of the game somewhat.

I think that the box art is hilarious.

Oh, you are a naughty wizard

7 Wonders Duel

Probably, possibly, the game of the show? Everything I disliked about 7 Wonders (which isn’t much) is gone from this 2 player version. 7 Wonders Duel is fast and harsh and the action starts right away. Every move you can make is incredibly aggressive. We queued for ages to grab a table for this and I don’t regret it at all, it was great. I’ll be buying a copy, I think - it was sadly sold out when we got there though.

Exoplanets

Exoplanets has a great theme, but the game fails to deliver. Instantly forgettable. I really like the orbital mechanic that it has, where otherwise unrelated planets can affect each other, but it felt like none of those effects really mattered. Perhaps it’s a game that rewards patience, and all of its little mechanics create a delicate, intricate game among advanced players, but sadly I’ll never find out.

Dungeon Fighter

I’ve been wanting to play this for ages because the premise sounded hilarious. Dungeon Fighter is a dungeon crawler in which you attack by throwing dice onto a target, the monsters and weapons affecting how you throw. For example, one monster made us jump and throw the dice in midair. It was indeed pretty funny, but now that I’ve played it, I don’t really feel the need to play it again.

Welcome To The Dungeon

It’s hard to describe what’s good about Welcome To The Dungeon. There's this guy, right, who’s going to go into a dungeon, and on your turn, you either add a monster to the dungeon or take some armour or weaponry off the guy, right? Or, if you think it’s all got a bit much, you can pass and leave the round. The last person still in the round then takes the poor, shivering naked warrior and drives him through the dungeon full of monsters you made. If he makes it through, the player wins a point. Does that make sense? The beauty of it comes in the player interactions, when your friend lets a little smirk slip as they drop another monster onto the deck, or someone passes just a little bit too quickly and you wonder what they know. It’s nice. If I didn’t own so many player-interaction-heavy bluffing type games I’d be all over it.

Kabuki

I’m no good at memory games, I sucked hard at Kabuki. Not my cup of tea at all. It’s all about spotting very similar looking masks in piles of cards, and I could barely tell the difference between them when they were right in front of me, let alone when I was trying to remember if the latest card matched one we put down 10 rounds ago.

Me Want Cookies

I made us play Me Want Cookies because it was a giant version with plushy pieces. It was a kids game where you had to solve mazes. It was not good.

Push-a-Monster

Push-a-Monster, on the other hand, is a kid’s game that adults can enjoy too. It’s a simple dexterity game where you try to push as many monsters as you can onto a small platform, and the person that knocks the fewest off wins. The scoring mechanic is extremely cool: each time you knock a monster off, your opponent gets a rectangular monster token. At the end of the game you put your tokens together in a line and the person with the longest line wins. It’s a nice way to avoid counting.

Liguria

Played with boats again. Love them boats.

Day 3 was a bit all over the place - lots of fun games though. I also did most of my shopping on this day so I spent it lugging bags around, which really sucked. The Spiel metagame is all about buying games before they run out, playing the games you want to without queueing for too long, and not carrying around too many heavy bags.

Essen Spiel '15: Day Two

Viticulture

After reflecting on day one’s lack of purchase success, we stumbled upon a free table for Viticulture and solved all my woes. This game is beautiful in every direction and feels deep and intense and well thought out. I want it. The edition on sale was 65 euro, however, so I decided to hold off. I’m not sure I’d ever get to play it, anyway, I don’t have much time for long games like this these days. Still, I was delighted to find a game that felt really, really good.

Kumo Hogosha

Another hit. Kumo plays like chess and looks gorgeous. The game is about pushing dice around a rotating board and attempting to push a “stone of balance” off the opponent’s side of the board, the catch being that when you rotate the board, it might not be their side any more at all. It’s a nice idea and it works really well. Again, I didn’t buy it because I’d never get it on the table, but I really enjoyed it.

Between Two Cities

Our third game from the same stand, Between Two Cities combines drafting, tile laying, and co-operation to create a rather different kind of city builder. On your left, you’re building a city with the player on your left, and on the right, you’re building a city with the player on your right. Your final score is the worse of the two, so you can’t deliberately neglect one, but the constant two-way communication means that something will go wrong sooner or later. It’s a great concept, easy to teach and learn, hard to get right.

Big Book Of Madness

Big Book of Madness had a lot of hype surrounding it. You’re a group of schoolkids who’ve opened a big, bad book full of monsters, and have to defeat the monsters together in order to close it. It’s pretty simple to learn considering the number of moving parts, and I think it’s probably a “good” game, but I didn’t think it was a very “fun” game. I think Dave put it very well when he said it was a deckbuilder in which your deck just doesn’t get very exciting.

The Game

Pretty much everyone I knew only heard about The Game when it got nominated for Spiel des Jahres this year, and didn’t really understand what it was all about. About 3 turns in we were hooked and all bought a copy immediately. It feels like Uno - a great game for killing time.

Liguria

Oh, Euro games, how I love you. In Liguria you run a boat that floats about collecting coloured paint to decorate your cathedral and you can also conquer islands and send diplomats to other harbours and oh gosh little boats did I mention the boats? Liguria is beautifully put together and feels really fun right from the start as your boats start circling the board itself. The most ingenious thing about Liguria is that it doesn’t even touch on scoring until the very end of the game and does it all in one go, which removes all of my most disliked euro tropes. Gorgeous. Instant purchase.

Steampunk Rally

I’ve never seen a game that turns theme into mechanics as accurately and elegantly as Steampunk Rally. You feel like an inventor as you bolt extra bits onto your vehicle mid-race, replacing bits that explode as often as you can to keep the damn thing running. At the end of the game we played, Emma’s car lost its wheels but immediately sprouted robotic spider legs to carry her across the finish line.

Cthulhu Realms

Cthulhu Realms is a reskin of Star Realms with tongue in cheek artwork and a nice vibe. A fun little deck builder, easily worth the meagre sum they charge for it.

Day two was perfect. Intense games, a few good purchases, loads of fun. I managed to find a good variety of deep thinky games and light fun games, and managed to find games that I wanted to own.

Essen Spiel '15: Day One

Last weekend Spiel ‘15, an absolutely huge board game fair, took place in its long standing home of Essen in Germany. After years of wanting to go to Spiel but never quite being organised enough, I finally made it. It was a good year for it, as something like 14 of my friends managed to go this year: it was a great crowd and I had an awesome time. Here are the games I played on day one.

Abraca...what?

After a long journey to Essen I rolled up into the halls to find a group of my friends just finishing up a game of Skyliners and we headed to the first empty table we found. It turned out to be Abraca… What?, a game of trying to cast spells when you don’t know what spells are available. You deduce what must be in your hand by looking at what your opponents are holding and what’s already been played. It’s cute, and it’s a great filler game.

Octodice

Aquasphere looked cool, and Octodice is set in the same world, so I was keen to try it out. It’s sort of push-your-luck dice rolling and sort of optimisation and it plays quite quickly. I enjoyed it. I might buy it, actually, but I’m just not sure when I’d get it to the table.

Potion Explosion

Potion Explosion looks gorgeous and feels nice and is great fun to play: it uses marbles to make a sort of physical bejewelled experience. It requires a lot of thought but it plays out quite quickly. I was torn about this when we played it, because I wasn’t sure if it was all gimmick and no trousers, but the more I think about it the more I wish I’d bought a copy.

Bomarzo

Worker placement is a tricky business. It’s hard to know, on the first play, if a deep worker placement game is nicely complicated or overly complicated, but unfortunately I suspect Bomarzo falls into the latter category. I had a good time with it, but I couldn’t help but feel that there are better examples of the genre out there. After playing this I was itching for a good euro.

T.I.M.E. Stories

Winner of the “I can really see what you tried to do” award, T.I.M.E. Stories had an amazing looking booth with a great premise (you signed up as teams and were sent “back in time” into a private area away from the noise of the fair) and the game itself looks great. You’re a team sent back in time to fix a “time anomaly” of some sort in each scenario, which you do by playing through time until you run out of time units and then going back to the start of the scenario to have another go with all your new-found knowledge. It’s a great introduction to roleplay for someone who’s never played pencil and paper before, but if you’ve played a few campaigns of anything like DnD, I feel like you’ll find this a bit too lightweight. It also comes with one, non-replayable scenario in the £40 box, which I think is a bit steep.

Love Letter

There’s always time for Love Letter when you’re waiting for dinner. It’s a cute game and I’m always happy to play it.

Day one left me feeling a little odd: I’d played a lot of games and enjoyed them, but I hadn’t found anything I actually wanted to own. I wanted to find something to bring home, something I wanted to play 30 games of in a row, and I hadn’t found that at all. I decided to head out looking for just that on day two.

Watch The Skies: Actual things that happened

This is the third in a set of three articles about a megagame I ran this weekend. I’ve split it into these parts:

Finally, a few notes about actually playing the game and the things that happened from the controller’s end. This is rather fragmented and quite possibly out of order, and assumes some knowledge of the game: if you don’t know what Watch The Skies is, you may find some of this rather difficult to follow. Sorry!

The first big event, for me, was that one of our scientists ran up to the stage before the game started to announce that the kitchen end of the hall reeked of gas. In a flurry of panic I ran to the kitchen to find that there was no gas in the building: everything was electric. That did nothing to calm me down: I thought I’d just have to turn the oven off, but now I don’t even have controls to work with. Would I have to evacuate the hall? Just then, from across the room, someone yelled “don’t panic! It’s just China!” and they were right: the Chinese team had brought an array of unusual imported sweets, some of which smelt strongly enough to gas out an entire building.

After that was all resolved, the game started and we got underway. The mess of rules confusion was hard to muddle through: everyone was feeling out the edges of the game all at once, and every controller had to work very hard for the first few turns. Earth presented a united front against the aliens and knocked them out of orbit fairly consistently: in fact, the humans as a whole were working together as a single team, more or less. Even the UN was in agreement on most things. As control, we worried about this: Earth working together turns the game into a team of 32 versus a team of 9. The rules are kind of set up that way, though: when the game starts, no team has any technology and no pressing commitments, so the only thing to do is send out units to beat up UFOs. Hitting them gives you tech cards, so why wouldn’t you? Only a year in did it start to sink in that they were, in fact, destroying living things, and, in fact, maybe they shouldn’t let the other Earth nations get their hands on all that juicy tech.

Towards the end of the first year, Brazil were due to hold the Olympics. This was something we messed about with as a roleplay idea and we weren’t quite sure how it’d play out: we granted Brazil the power to give out Olympic success (no questions asked about how that was actually achieved) and gave successful countries bonuses. Russia started discussions with control about paying to plant a bomb on the Olympic grounds and frame another country for it, and we had our first hint of some real in-fighting. At this point, I was feeling pretty nervous about Russia: this was a really bloodthirsty action and if it came off, the game would surely take a darker turn. Eventually they deemed it too costly and risky and canned the idea. This might actually be the first mention of it outside the control meetings.

The scientific community came together rather nicely and for the most part worked together to further Earth’s interests. Initially we didn’t let them share research without our consent, worrying that technology might enhance too quickly, but after a few turns very little had happened in the science world so we opened up the floodgates and even gave some bonuses to dice rolls. We also had to be quite generous on the black market because there just weren’t enough tech cards out in the field to go around. In general, I think we overestimated the pace science game, and I underestimated how much the scientists would have to do. I really enjoyed watching the scientists work and found them to be genuinely interesting players who advised their heads of state and opened up communications with the other teams on a completely different level to the UN. This is a total contrast to a lot of reports I’ve read from players of other Watch The Skies games - I have no idea if that’s down to our players or if I’m just perceiving things differently.

Control had a meeting every turn and, I think, operated extremely well. We communicated quickly and mostly efficiently, although we often tried to end the meeting before Mike got to speak - Sorry Mike! Overall, it seems that control is the one bit of perfect communication in this game of poor channels, which makes it a very odd role. Most of the time, I had a hard time keeping up with everything that was going on and found that my role was largely just gathering the other controllers together and getting them to say their parts to each other: I expected to be steering the story a lot more, but that seemed largely to be carried out by the players rather than us.

Lunchtime hit and we took a much needed break: the original rulebooks do not factor lunch into the timetable, but I’m glad that we added it. The controllers took the time to talk through some ideas and we decided on a few things: firstly to boost science a little, and secondly to work through a few plans with the aliens that they had thought up themselves. They had captured a spy and ended up genetically enhancing him and sending him back to Earth, which we thought was a brilliant idea. Brazil would soon receive this spy and open up a full communication channel with the aliens. Here the cracks really started to show on Earth’s side: the game naturally shifted from alien hunting to suspecting other nations and everything started to get a little bogged down in bureaucracy. I think this is a fairly natural path for the game to take.

The aliens sent messages to the humans constantly: some offering peace and trades, others attempting to confuse and disrupt Earth. Sometimes we delivered them to the right people, sometimes we altered them, sometimes we sent them elsewhere. Some were late, some were changed. On one inspired occasion, Charlie delivered a message from the aliens to the PR system of a science conference, offering no explanation. The alien game is very much a roleplaying experience, more about ideas than mechanics.

In the afternoon, things started to flow more smoothly as we got the hang of the rules, but also Earth broke down a little. The USA went public on the existence of aliens, which felt like a big deal but didn’t actually change much for our game at the time. Looking back, everyone injected money into PR at that point to cover for the hit, reducing the money available for operations, and perhaps that gave the aliens the foothold they needed to get back in the game. This moment was an exciting one for control: we knew about it 5 or 10 minutes in advance and there was a lot of whispering back and forth that turn.

At one point, I walked out from the control area to see the Brazilian president up on the alien balcony, with a media representative, meeting with the aliens. This was an incredible moment for me: I really wanted to see something like this take place and here it was. I was hoping, then, that an alien representative would get a seat on the UN, but I hear that was vetoed in the UN meetings. Meanwhile on Earth, the president of France and the foreign minister for Japan gathered the heads of state to attempt to open discussions with the aliens, but they had all they needed from Brazil and no interest in talking to people who wouldn’t stop shooting them down.

Sometime during the afternoon, tech started getting interesting as Russia got their hands on a bio-weapon. I informed them quietly that the aliens wouldn’t know anything about this kind of technology and that they should keep it secret as it would be a powerful weapon against them. They held onto it, in secret, for several turns, before planning a masterpiece final turn: they infected an alien corpse with it and returned it to the aliens, as a “gesture of goodwill”. The aliens took the bait. We discussed the options here and Charlie decided to run the results as a roleplaying exercise, in which 3 of the aliens selflessly sacrificed themselves to save the rest of the colony.

“Could the heads of state for China and the USA head to the war room, please?” Mike’s voice boomed over the PA. Rikki and Mark walked to the stage, pushing through the generals who cried out that heads of state should not be allowed into the war room. “Do you authorise the use of nuclear weapons against Brazil?” Mike asked each of them in turn. They both agreed. The missiles flew. China and the USA had decided to end this alliance with the aliens once and for all. We took word to the UN, and the foreign minister for Japan resigned on the spot. The game was over. The world lay in tatters, and the aliens had lost one whole conclave.

I’ve written over 1500 words about the events of the day here, and I’m sure that I haven’t covered a quarter of what I saw. Each player has their own version of events, their own narrative. The plot arcs that moved across the entire day feel unimportant compared to the individual factors weighing on each person in the game. Overall, the experience was incredible: I love organising events and this one is the best I’ve ever put together. I’m proud of myself and proud of everyone who came for getting into the spirit of things and making it an incredible day. I’ve learned tons from it, and I can’t wait to get on to the next one - after a few months off for recovery.

Watch The Skies: On the day

This is the second in a set of three articles about a megagame I ran this weekend. I’ve split it into these parts:

On the day of Watch The Skies, set up began at 8:15 for a 9:15 start, and I was surprised to find players already at the venue waiting to get in! We had meticulously planned our get in and it ran like clockwork - everything was ready to run by the time we started briefing. It was a huge boost to see players so keen and it was great to have everything organised so quickly.

From there, our planning deteriorated. The documents laid out on the control table were laid out terribly - my fault - and it was hard to find rules when players asked us a question. The documents needed to be in some kind of filing system, and the rules needed to be on more cheat sheets, more clearly laid out. I blame this partly on the rules being spread rather wide (e.g. In some dice rolls high is good, in some low is good) and partly on our organisation of them, which went a long way to making them easy to find, but not quite far enough. Sometimes I’d go looking for a rule in the control handbook but it was only found in the human handbook, or vice versa.

In fact, here’s a good point to go off on a tangent about hidden information. A big part of Watch The Skies is incomplete information and misinformation. That’s a very cool theme and it made for some of the best moments of the day, but it also spread into the rules. Players had a hard time learning what they could and couldn’t do. I understand that this is supposed to be roleplay driven, so players should be able to do more or less whatever they want, but there were so many occasions where players more or less had to be told “You have to try it and see”, but trying it would take one of 12 precious turns. For example, attacking an infiltrated area was deliberately a vague action - you don’t know what you’re going to find when you try to assault an alien-sympathetic country - but that meant that one of maybe 4 or 5 units had to be dedicated to that action. Too many times I had to tell players that they couldn’t do what they wanted to do: it was something that was in a rulebook somewhere, but they hadn’t found it or misunderstood it. It took too long for some teams to realise that it took 6 turns - half the game - to build a unit. If I’m being strict, I could say that they should have read the rules and figured that out, but ultimately, they felt like they’d missed out when they realised that and that’s not a fun situation. How do you make hidden information fun without creating situations like that? I’m not quite sure.

Megagame models get treated badly. When I made our models, I foresaw them getting used carefully, being lovingly nudged around like expensive Games Workshop models - that’s not how this game worked at all. My poor gluing skills embarrassed me time and time again as my players rushed from table to table with boxes full of rapidly deteriorating planes and armies. In a related problem, laminated sheets are great, but the counters we’d used to mark positions on them slid around on the laminate all the time. Luckily, one smart player had the bright idea to distribute blu-tac, but ultimately, these two incidents showed that I hadn’t thought about how the players would actually use the components that I’d created. I failed at usability.

On catering: I believe that events need good tea and coffee, and this time around the coffee supplies got completely demolished, so I’m convinced that this remains a good practice. One V60 dripper, however, is not adequate for 50 people, and I need to sort out a better coffee delivery system. That’s a bit of a tough call, because we’re not big enough to warrant an espresso machine, but cafetières require a different grind to filter coffee. I may just have to invest in a brew station. Providing cakes continues to be popular (how could it not be?) and telling people to bring a packed lunch worked well. I’d have liked there to be more options for food nearby, but this is so hard to pull off on a budget: venues with food are usually more expensive. I will continue to hunt for somewhere that suits us. I suppose there might be some legs in trying to organise catering to be brought in, but it’s hard to cater for everyone’s diet.

I worried over what to do after the event for quite a while, and eventually decided that changing venue was a bad idea; we would lose too many people in the middle. Therefore, we booked the hall out for as long as possible and invited people to stay for a beer afterwards. This probably turned out to be a fantastic idea, and almost everyone stayed back to chat about the game. Barely anyone was in the mood for playing more games after such a long day, but a chat and a drink was a fantastic way to spend the evening. I thoroughly recommend trying to keep players back after the day for an after-party in future.

Lessons learned, in bullet points:

  • Have a solid set up plan. All you need is a checklist and a venue layout.
  • Organise all your materials and think about how you’re going to use them on the day.
  • Make your models tough.
  • Think about how players are actually going to use the components you give them - are they actually fit for purpose?
  • Think about catering. Have good tea and coffee.
  • From last event, but still important: don’t let everyone go to the same village pub for lunch if you’re not sure that the pub can handle that many orders at once.
  • Have a plan for afterwards, run some kind of after-party, even if it’s just heading to the pub. Make sure that pub can handle that many people.