Friday, May 03, 2013

Good Games & Great Friends: The Gathering 2013

The original version of this report appeared last week on the Opinionated Gamers blog... what you're about to see here is "the director's cut" with some extra pictures and a few more choice words of commentary. (That's your special prize for reading my blog!)

Set the Wayback Machine For 2002

Puerto Rico - the Gathering 2002
My first Gathering of Friends was back in 2002 and even though I’d been in the hobby for a long time, it was an overwhelming experience. Puerto Rico had just been released… and multiple copies were in play almost constantly throughout the week. (I myself played 4 times in the first 48 hours.) It was a real pleasure to be discovering a gem of a game and exploring the intricacies of it together with friends old & new. (Picture note: James Miller - my good friend & Gathering roommate - and I both had a lot more hair back then.)

In fact, what Alan Moon has created over the 20+ years of its existence is a 10 day long gaming party… where experiences can vary from being present at the coming-out party of a gaming classic to the comfortable joys of sitting down to an old favorite with old friends – and where long meals and sightseeing trips fit comfortably with long games and epic Loopin’ Louie battles. (Hats off to you, Mr. Moon… and thanks for inviting me all those years ago.)

Classic Games & Classic Experiences

I'm driving the Stanley Steamer in 3rd place...
The Gathering 2013 didn’t have a Puerto Rico. This year was memorable not so much for any breakout game – though I did find some very good games (more about that in a paragraph or two). The real highlights were a combination of classic games & classy friends:

  • I enjoyed three different plays of one of my top ten games, Fast Food Franchise… Not only did I get to teach Stephen Glenn to play, but I also participated in an epic 4 player game that saw the map almost completely fill up with franchises.
  • I managed a better showing in the yearly tradition of playing DTM Motorsportspiel after the prize table on a brutal track (Bruno) that saw experienced players crash & burn. I started in 3rd position (out of 10) and managed to finish 3rd place – which I count as a victory!
  • I had to take a phone call while playing Wurfel Bingo with some wonderful friends… Who wrote down the numbers rolled in order so I could catch up when I got back. (I still lost… but a man with friends like that never really loses.)
  • Years ago, Frank Branham strongly suggested I try Hour of Glory, a mash-up of miniatures combat & board game from England that does a fine job of getting the feel of a WW2 spy movie condensed into a playable gaming experience. However, the price kept me from ever having the opportunity – until last week when James & Sheila Davis taught me how to play using the Frank Branham-friendly “Die Zombies” expansion. Sheila & I managed to grab the plans from the secret bunker and kill off the Nazi guards controlled by James (with a great deal of help from the zombies) – but I had to sacrifice my Russian spy in order for Sheila’s American spy to escape the zombie horde with documents vital to the war effort.
  • At the invitation of Ted Alspach, I ran a rather twisted version of Werewolf one night entitled “Werewolf Upon Werewolf”… which included what might be best described as “Chairs: the LARP”. (My pictures aren't particularly good - but evidently there's some great video of this out there somewhere.)
  • I finally got to play some classics that I’d never played before: Auf Fotosafari in Ombagassa (thumbs up for this hard-to-find but very cool “kids” game), Hotel Life (which was fun but certainly not worth the insane prices it goes for), The Game of Politics – 1935 edition (another thumbs up – the enjoyment was increased by Kevin Whitmore’s excellent Southern campaign speeches), and Wildlife Adventure (I actually made the finals in the tournament!).
  • I didn’t do all that well in the Loopin’ Louie tournament… but my one win was over the eventual winner, so I’ll claim that as a minor victory!

"Werewolf Upon Werewolf"

Day By Day By Day

I didn’t feel like there was one big “hit” this week. I did see a certain eclectic group of games get a lot of table time:

  • Coup benefitted from being (a) short, (b) able to handle 6 players well, and (c) actually a pretty good little bluffing game. I played it four times and was surprised how much I enjoyed it.
  • on the heavier side, there was plenty of Bora Bora, Terra Mystica, and various versions of 18xx in play each day. Those of you who know me well realize that I didn’t play any of these. (I will note that I want to try Terra Mystica… but the timing was never quite right.)
  • Augustus started slow… but once a couple of early mis-taught rules were cleared up, I noticed lots of people playing it. My pithy & possibly quotable review: it’s “Roman gamer bingo” or “Cosmic Bingo” – essentially, Bingo with special powers and various scoring goals. I’d happily play it again after two plays last week.
  • My biggest surprise was how many different times I saw Sentinels of the Multiverse played. While I’m enjoying it a lot with my boys at home, I was stunned to see it out on a daily basis at the Gathering.

Roach Coach in action!
Mark Jackson: Demo Monkey

Another Gathering first for me was placing a prototype with a publisher. I had the privilege of showing Jeff Myer’s Roach Coach – and having it taken for testing.

Some Random Thoughts on Stuff I Played for the First Time

The title of this section pretty much says it all.

  • Like Dice (published by Adlung) is a very clever speed math game… and while I’m not all that great at math, I am pretty good at adding up dice pips. I could happily add a copy to my collection after playing it three times.
  • I’ll be writing a full review of Arctic Scavengers in the next couple of weeks – suffice it to say that I played it four times at the Gathering and liked the way it managed to use deck-building to create a narrative story arc.
  • Trains has had a lot of hype – a deck-builder with board play – and I think that having an English language edition with better graphics will be a real plus. I found that I enjoyed it more on the second play where I better understood the interaction between card & board play.
  • I have big questions about the long-term viability of Rondo. Both games I played were won by the last player (this is a game with equal rounds) – and I’m wondering if the way the game works doesn’t encourage that kind of ending. It's pretty light but not particularly compelling.
  • Clubs is just about the right weight for me – the guy who doesn’t particularly like Tichu. Tichu lovers need not apply.
  • La Boca would have seen more play if there had been more copies there… it’s a speed puzzle game done in pairs with a partnership mechanic similar to the one in Monster-Falle. I agree with our Fearless Leader – I think this goes on the short list to win the Spiel des Jahres.
  • Targi is a very good two-player game with interesting placement choices, a defined time limit, and tough resource management issues… but you need an English translation to make it easily playable. Luckily, one is on the way.
  • Two games I had high hopes fell flat for me – both by the usually solid publisher, Alea: Las Vegas and Saint Malo. Both are perfectly decent dice games, but neither captured my fancy.
  • Stephen Glenn's reboot of a personal favorite (Balloon Cup) arrived while we there - and Pinata is a simpler/more family-friendly version of the game, complete w/cute wooden candies. That said, it has some tougher choices (there are limits on playing cards off on the opposing side) and it's a great game. (Stephen told me that this version is closer to his original prototype.)

Looking Ahead

One of the privileges of attending the Gathering is getting to play prototypes. Granted, one of the drawbacks of attending the Gathering is getting roped into playing prototypes. Pick your poison.

I just want to quickly mention a few that I particularly enjoyed and am looking forward to:

  • Rampage already has an entry up on BGG… it’s probably my favorite “Japanese monster movie game” ever – even over the long OOP The Creature That Ate Sheboygan
  • I had the opportunity to play the Alien Orb version of the upcoming Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts expansion… and now can say with confidence that I enjoy both ways to play the game.
  • Brian Yu (brother of the Grand Poobah & Chief Bottlewasher of the Opinionated Gamers, Dale Yu) has a great family-friendly cooperative game coming out this fall called Treasure Hunters.
  • The Suburbia expansion is very cool – and it’s not just a few new tiles. (Some details may change as we get closer to Essen 2013, but I really liked it. It adds some interesting decisions & play space without bogging down a game I already love.)
  • I played two Firefly-themed prototypes: one that is still under consideration and one that is a “go” for this summer… a cooperative card game entitled Firefly: Out of the Black. A strong sense of theme permeates this quick-moving co-op.
  • The big surprise for me was how much I liked Gluck Auf (from Kramer & Kiesling… to be published by Eggertspiele). Not sure what I’m allowed to say, so I’ll simply let you know that I’m looking forward to having my own copy and that it isn’t a sci-fi or fantasy game!

Big Finish

My last four games of the Gathering were the Can’t Stop tournament. I won my first two rounds, then squeaked forward in the semifinal with a second place finish over my arch-nemesis (and good friend) Larry Levy. (There were two semifinal games with 3 players each – the first two players to complete 3 columns advanced to the final.)

Daryl Andrews & I fight for the win!
So, I found myself in the final against Daryl, Rebecca, and the designer of two of my favorite games: Tom Lehmann. I quickly shot up the board & claimed the 6 and the 8… but it took what seemed like forever (thanks to a couple of near-misses) for me to finally nail down a 3rd column and the win!

That win means I get first pick off the amazing prize table next year… yowsa! (If I’d have had first pick this year, I would have picked up a copy of Mice & Mystics with painted minis and beautiful clay pieces to replace the tokens.)


Ferrel said...

Pretty much my biggest joy from attending conventions is playing games with the friends I don't get to see that often. They serve as a collection point and that always makes me happy. I've never been to The Gathering but it certainly seems like my sort of place.

Thanks for sharing a bit about it!

Tery N said...

I'm counting the fact that I didn't crash and burn in DTM as a victory - even if I finished last, at least I finished. Glad we got to play a game together!

Mark (aka pastor guy) said...

Ferrel... I've been really pleased to see the growth of lots of regional events like the Gathering, where friendships & connection are the focus, rather than just playing every new game in sight.

I didn't do a very good job in my write-up of talking about things like meals out with friends & sitting around shooting the breeze & laughing so hard during the Prize Table ceremony that I almost blew Coke Zero onto the row in front of us. All part of the experience...

Mark (aka pastor guy) said...

I'm with ya, Tery... and I certainly didn't want to have to roll in the floor like Tom did. :-)

Anye said...

I'm looking forward to getting back there someday when the kiddo is grown.

hotc said...

I really enjoyed playing games with you, Mark - an experience I've not had nearly as often as desired.

I particularly like teaching you Targi (and winning by 1 point - thought sure you had me beat!)

Let's do it again next year.