Eric BuscemiUnited States
Normally, when I post my thoughts about a game, it breaks one of two ways. I'll review it if I've played the game enough where I feel I can give it a thorough, accurate, and well-thought-out opinion of it, or I'll write an initial impression if I've only had the chance to play once or twice -- e.g. if I've had a demo at a convention or a game store -- but still have thoughts about it I feel are worth sharing. However, I'm structuring this preview of LOTS: A Competitive Tower Building Game as an initial impression, not because I'm unfamiliar with LOTS, but because I'm too familiar with it to give it a full review with any objectivity.
Not only was I a playtester at every stage of the game’s design, but also helped edit the rulebook and proof the Kickstarter page. The designer, Zach Connelly, is a close friend of mine, and I've watched him develop this game over the last few years as a true labor of love.
I’m hoping my delineation of this as an impression, with my intrinsic biases, from a review, which strives for objective and critical appraisal, is clear. I am biased from working on this game, but I helped work on this game because I believe in it, and believe it deserves to be published. So, with that disclosure out of the way, here are my impressions of LOTS: A Competitive Tower Building Game in its current, ready-for-Kickstarter state.
I've seen multiple iterations of LOTS, from the original prototype of glued together art store cubes, to some really janky 3D printed stuff. Fortunately, the current version -- which is what I've photographed -- was produced by the manufacturer that will be printing the published version, and it’s of solid quality.
There’s a good amount of stuff inside the box, especially considering its $25 price point. There’s thirty wooden tetromino blocks that are color-coded in five unique shapes, a custom die, meeples, cubes, cards, a quad-fold board, and an excellently edited rulebook (see above about my objectivity issue). The bright, cartoonish art was done by Claire Donaldson, who has previously worked with Daily Magic Games and Green Couch Games.
In LOTS, players are using tetrominos to build a three-dimensional tower, aiming to score the most points through clever placement of the pieces they add to the tower. Players score two points for each matching block they touch when they place their block, and five points for each floor of the tower they complete. Each turn, players will have a choice between playing their reserve tetromino and the one they just acquired through a roll of the die, and they can choose to play crew cards and cubes -- if they have any available -- to help them score more points. In addition to playing two-to-four players competitively, LOTS also has a solo mode where the player is challenged to build the tower alone, but has to make sure every move touches their last placement.
LOTS balances the desire to score as many points as possible with the need to leave your opponents without any easy scoring opportunities. It also necessitates three-dimensional spatial thinking and a bit of dexterity -- which can be scaled by forcing players to place with only one hand. The crew cards give the game a little something extra, creating some opportunities big point turns and adding some player interaction.
A game of LOTS, with its ever-growing stack of three-dimensional tetrominos, has the kind of table presence that draws onlookers, especially when the tower is vertically stretched to the limits of its stability. It often creates tense, stand-up moments, with loud commentary and laughter, as the game nears its climax. But the game’s brevity means that losing a game never feels that bad, even if it’s caused by a catastrophic tower collapse, and it is more likely to result in asking for a rematch than any hard feelings.
LOTS is highly tactical. It rewards clever play and spatial thinking, and requires knowing when to hold on to crew cards and when to play them. There are, however, some catch up mechanisms built into the game that help to keep everyone engaged. They also create an interesting decision point of when exactly to hang back to try to get bonuses, and when to push forward and score points, foregoing additional crew cards and bonus cubes.
The game’s theme and gameplay are very family friendly, and the stacking rules can be adjusted to make the game more friendly for younger players -- such as having adults only use one hand, or harder still, their off hand. The rules are easy to teach, and the game is great for any kid old enough to read and understand the text on the crew cards.
I’m also a fan of the game’s solo mode, which requires you to score 40 points before three different types of blocks run out, with the additional restriction of having to touch your previous placement on each move. It’s a fun little puzzle that takes less than fifteen minutes to set up and play. I did a live stream of a solo game at my local game store, which can be viewed here, for anyone curious exactly how it plays.
Overall, I am thrilled to see LOTS close in on its funding goal after only two days on Kickstarter, and can’t wait to see it get published and into people’s hands. It may not be the most brain-burning Euro, or the most immersive thematic miniatures game, but it is highly accessible, and plays well at all player counts and with all ages. Most importantly, it is flat out fun, and to me, that counts for LOTS.
Thoughts on the ability of bits of cardboard (and dice, meeples, etc.) to transform a tabletop into a near infinite number of unique gaming experiences -- from high seas pirate battles, to high noon showdowns, to superhero struggles -- and how, at their best, the mechanics of those games enhance their themes, creating a blend of Euro mechanics and Ameritrash theme to herald a bold new generation of hybrid modern games.
- [+] Dice rolls
I had the chance to demo Plaid Hat’s latest title, Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein, at Origins last month. I didn’t get to play a full game, but played it for over an hour with three other players, and was definitely able to get a feel for how the game plays. The theme is very well done -- especially if you are a fan of the book -- although the concept of the game is quite macabre, and could be a turn off to some. This strong theming and the hint of story-telling found in the game is not a surprise if you are familiar with Plaid Hat Games publishing style.
The main board is rather grey and lifeless. It didn't have much table presence, despite its considerable size, and also didn’t match the aesthetics on box art. Each player has a player board, and each has three dials to track stats, along with a number of areas to store resource cubes, tokens, and body parts. The body part components that you piece together on your player board are a nice touch, and allows you to visibly see your progress throughout the game. We ran out of resource cubes when we played, but I am not sure if the demo copy just didn't have enough, or if that is a potential issue when playing with the max count of four players.
The game is a fairly standard heavier worker placement game. You have one scientist meeple and a few assistant meeples that you get to place each round, with the scientist having access to more locations and getting better payouts. While the game is a worker placement, there is a bump mechanism that allows more than one player to use a space by bumping the previous player at the cost of the bumping player paying the bumped player for the privilege.
You collect resources -- bones, tissue, and blood -- and upgrade them into body parts. You get more points if you use fresher ingredients, which are, not surprisingly, harder to come by. In between each round, the ingredients decompose and lose value, although you can acquire blocks of ice to prevent this. There are also event cards that change things up each round. The goal is to collect an entire body out of parts, and to use electrical jars -- another resource you collect -- to shock the body parts to life, which requires dice. A successful dice roll will animate a body part, but a failed dice roll will harm body parts and can force you to discard them.
You also have three dials on your player board, representing morality, knowledge and reputation, which you need to manage. Some actions will increase or decrease them. Some actions cannot be taken until you reach certain thresholds. There are also bonuses if you can get the dials to certain levels, and penalties if you let your morality drop to low -- for example, by murdering people for fresh body parts, which is one of the available worker placement spaces on the board.
While the gameplay was fine, nothing about it jumped out at me as particularly new or groundbreaking. The strongest aspect of the experience was how well it integrated the Frankenstein theme throughout the game -- in the game’s mechanisms, in its components, and with its storytelling elements. However, the actual gameplay felt a bit repetitive, and the worker placement did not have enough tension, as more than one worker could go visit a location using the bump mechanism.
It is the heaviest Plaid Hat title I’ve ever played -- I would say it is a solid medium-heavy game, similar in weight to another Victorian era worker placement game, Trickerion. I’m happy to see Plaid Hat push itself into heavier games, especially with their focus on interesting themes and story integration, but Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein just fell a bit short of the mark for me.
- [+] Dice rolls
When Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game was nominated for the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres in May, Portal’s Ignacy Trzewiczek celebrated by releasing “Suburbia,” a free stand-alone Detective case that could be played using simplified rules and a few print-and-play components, for a limited time. The publisher calls this case “a perfect scenario for a one-off game session,” as it is “a bit shorter and simpler than the other missions.” So it seemed like the perfect place to jump in -- and for free, the perfect price as well.
Okay, I’m going to ruin the suspense right here and say that I enjoyed the Suburbia case so much, I bought Detective after playing it. So I am able to give an overview of the game’s components, and not just the print-and-play bits I used for the stand-alone case.
First, a note on the Suburbia stand-alone case. While it is no longer available as a free download, it is available as a $10 purchase from the Portal website. I highly recommend it as an entry point for two reasons. First, its stand-alone nature makes it easily playable in one session of around two hours. Second, that session will act as a tutorial, teaching you the game before you get into the five-case campaign found in the base game box. This will prevent any potential learning game issues when you start the actual campaign game.
The components of the Suburbia case include a printable board, an introduction to the case that begins the story -- involving the murder of a young woman -- and a pdf file with a number of cards that are read when you visit different locations throughout the game. It streamlines the game by eliminating the investigator’s special abilities, which makes sense as an intro/demo scenario. I played the scenario referencing the cards directly from the pdf and managed fine, but I admit it would have been smoother if I printed, cut and sleeved them all. But I didn’t feel I could manage that without accidentally gleaning any spoilers.
As for what is included in the full game, there is a game board, wooden markers and cardboard tokens, 36 card decks for each of the five cases, five character tiles, plastic evidence bags, a casebook, and a rule book. They all fit nicely in a custom plastic insert in the box.
Both the standalone case and the full game use the Antares Database, a website with collected witness reports, interrogation transcripts, suspect files, and evidence -- including fingerprints, blood, hair, and more. Important: This means the game requires a digital device that is connected to the Internet to play. However, one neat aspect of the game is that at certain points when it mentions certain real-world landmarks -- such as the Quicken Loans Arena in the Suburbia case -- it encourages you to Google them for background information, grounding the fictional mystery in very real-world trappings.
The game concept itself is fairly simple. Figure out “whodunit” in an allotted amount of time. Time -- your most limited resource -- is spent going to different locations, questioning witnesses, and interrogating suspects. Get as much detail and background as you can without getting tripped up by extraneous information and red herrings. Use deductive reasoning, and some educated guesswork, to answer a set of questions when your time is up and your final report is due. You are then graded based on your answers, as well as the amount of evidence you were able to collect to prove your theory.
You won’t have time to follow every lead, and you’ll only have enough special tokens to call in so many special favors, so there is plenty of tension in deciding which leads will be the best use of your time. The game says it can take three to four hours to play, but I suspect this is contingent on both your playgroup and the amount of deliberating they want to do at each decision point, as well as the playgroup size -- since I played solo, I didn’t have to convince anyone of my reasoning, and just followed my instincts, playing quicker than I would have if I had to confer with teammates.
This game feels inspired by -- and a hyper-modern take on -- Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. However, even some people that didn’t like SH:CD may still enjoy this experience. Anyone that was tripped up by the Victorian setting will not have that issue here. Also, judging by Detective’s reception, there is less of an issue with typos and general errata. With some of the game going digital, some of this can be mitigated by updates to the Antares website, if necessary. However, anyone that didn’t like SH:CD because it was a cooperative deduction game is not going to find anything different at the core of the experience here, regardless of the modern theming or digital integration it employs.
The digital integration has pros and cons, of course -- many of which have been discussed with every game that mixes technology into tabletop gaming. The obvious pros include removing some game maintenance overhead from the players by storing it on the website, by using less physical components, and by very effectively helping to sell the theme of the game. The cons are that the game requires an Internet connection, and can be interrupted by a power outage or drained battery. A longer term concern is that it potentially gives the game a finite lifespan, as it will no longer work if and when Portal decides to stop paying the hosting fees for the website.
One minor gripe I had was that at a few points, I was pulled out of the story by slight linguistic/translation errors, like one character being referred to as the assistant coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers “junior team." The dissonance I had is because in the NBA, the “junior” league is called the G League, thanks to its sponsor, Gatorade. In the Cavaliers’ case, their G League affiliate, the Canton Charge, plays in Canton, Ohio, and not in Cleveland, where the story was set and the character lived and worked. So it read as a non-native translation, which was mildly off-putting, but not critical in any way to gameplay.
From my play of the Suburbia case, Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game seesm like a great addition to the hobby for anyone looking for a substantial, stimulating deduction game that makes its players feel like real detectives. I can’t wait to jump into the full game campaign after enjoying my initial taste of the game.
- [+] Dice rolls
After years and years of well-intentioned but mismanaged campaigns, along with multiple cases of intentional abuse by Internet hucksters, Kickstarter has finally come around to making an honesty policy, which it calls “Honest and Clear Presentation in Projects.” Let’s forgive the length of time it took for them to publicize this — better late than never, right? — and dig into exactly what it sets out to do.
At the outset, it states:Quote:Trust is the foundation for the health of Kickstarter’s platform and ecosystem, and transparency is one of the most important components of cultivating trust to build a healthy, vibrant community. Because of this, we expect creators to bring an exceptional level of honesty, openness, and candor to both how they present their ideas and how they run their campaigns.
Of course, without trust, nobody will back campaigns on Kickstarter, so it’s pretty clear that this entire focus is on keeping their revenue stream in tact. Self serving, naturally. But they are a business, not a charity, so it is an understandable view for them to take. Again — for the last time, I promise — I will point that the time to be transparent was from the outset, not ten years in. But they, of course, are talking about the transparency of their campaign creators, not themselves.
Kickstarter, with this announcement, is publishing a set of guidelines and rules to help ensure transparency and build — or in many cases, regain — trust. I’m going to break down my thoughts on this document with a series of bullet-points, first the ones I think are positive steps, and then the ones I see as potentially problematic.
But first, really briefly, some things to keep in mind. While games recently broke $1B in successful pledges on Kickstarter — with tabletop games accounting for almost 69% of that — these rules are site wide and not specific to tabletop games or even games in general. And a quick personal disclosure: I have backed 84 projects dating back to April of 2012, and have only been burned by one project to date — Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary — which was a film, not a game. I have playtested and previewed multiple games that have gone on to seek funding through Kickstarter, as well as doing rules editing for more than one, but I have never been financially invested in a Kickstarter campaign or run a campaign myself.
• No making assumptions about selling after the campaign, such as stating “50% off retail price” or “35% off MSRP”
• No using superlatives, such as “the world’s best / smallest / fastest / first / etc.” or “the ultimate / unrivaled / revolutionary / etc.”
• No setting an artificially low goal that will not allow the project to be brought to completion
• No giving false impressions of support by misrepresenting press or media logos
• No adding popularity badges like “Funded in 5 Hours” to campaigns
• Must disclose any outside funding
• Must disclose if you have past projects that are not yet completed
• Must disclose any partnerships, and if they need to be secured
• Must disclose if you need any third-party approvals before fulfillment
• No use of renderings
• No showing product packaging that has not been created
As for why I see those two as problems, if a creator pays an artist to create artwork for a game’s cards, and/or a box, there is no harm in presenting rendering that show a card being played to the table with a description of that card’s effect, or harm in showing a 3D rendering of what a box would look like based on artwork that has already been created. The only actual consequence here would be to punish smaller indie creators that cannot afford to have prototype copies printed with the finished artwork before they begin their campaigns, while not affecting the larger creators that use the platform as a pre-order system. This is antithetical to the spirit of Kickstarter, who has a mission statement that reads in part, “Kickstarter helps artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers, and other creators find the resources and support they need to make their ideas a reality.”
You may look at those two groups of bullet points and think that I am cheer-leading this new policy. But, while I do think it is a step in the right direction, I do see some fairly large problems with it. First, for a company that is talking about transparency and honesty, their use of both informal “guidance” and formal “rules” in the same policy is not a great look. Further, there are no clear and concrete repercussions laid out for abuses to this new policy, only the following two rather vague statements.Quote:However, failure to honestly and clearly present your campaign may result in a range of actions, from your project being ineligible for promotion to account restrictions or even project suspension. - Guidelines
The following points are rules, not solely recommendations. Violation of these rules can result in project suspension. - Rules
More troubling still is the fact the two sections of this policy I believe are problematic are both listed under the more stringent rules section. While I’ve heard whispers that Kickstarter does not plan on enforcing those particular rules in the tabletop space — ahem, not exactly a model of transparency — I haven’t seen any written proof of that, so any creator that decides to use renderings or mocked up product packaging is doing so at their own risk. And mind you, this is a risk those creators would be taking right after many recent examples of creators having problems launching campaigns and having campaigns get suspended with very little information released on the reasoning behind the suspensions.
The final, and largest, issue I see is enforcement. If these rules are enforced fairly across the board — with the exception of the two I previously griped about — I see this as a big step forward for the continued health and success of Kickstarter. But if the platform decides to play favorites — and keep in mind it is in their financial interest to ignore their own policy with a multi-million dollar campaign from a creator like CMON — then I think this will just create a new set of problems and issues for Kickstarter and the creators that decide to use their platform going forward. Only time will tell how this will play out, but I’ll be watching with interest to see how the platform, and the campaigns of those who use it, evolves from here.
- [+] Dice rolls
24 Jun 2019
The last two years, I attended Origins from Wednesday to Sunday morning, flying out early to spend Father’s Day with my family. But this year, after realizing that not too much went on late Saturday, I decided to fly out Saturday night so I’d be able to wake up in my own bed on Sunday and spend the entirety of Father’s Day with my wife and kids. But that isn’t to say I didn’t play any games on Saturday — I did manage to play two.
After hitting the Hilton restaurant for breakfast — this time avoiding the buffet and getting eggs made to order — I trudged through the sea of Origins flea market attendees and over to open gaming for our second annual Power Grid game. Patrick brought all of his the upgraded components, including playing card money, deluxe tokens, and even a wooden board to auction all the power plants off, which certainly help to make the game seem like a special event. Last year, Patrick, Jon and Emily Detmer, and Jonathan Bishop played on the America map. This year, Daniel Newman subbed in for Jonathan, and we played on the Brazil map. Just as much fun was had, and we breezed through the game in about two hours — a wonderful thing about playing complex games with experienced players. We already discussed playing the North and South Korea map next year, which Patrick picked up at the convention this year.
Patrick and I then played a two-player game of Bruno Cathala’s recent Hurrican release Nagaraja — a game he had suggested I bring to Origins so he could try. The game has you fighting over tiles that allow you to traverse your player board temples to collect victory point treasures, using multi-use cards to roll stick-shaped dice to determine who wins each tile. I think the game lands in a weird spot where it is a bit too complex to easily teach non-gamers, and a bit too random for most experienced gamers tastes. We had fun playing it, but quickly agreed it wasn’t our favorite of Cathala’s designs. Of his two-player games, I prefer Longhorn, personally.
Nagaraja wound up being the last game I played at Origins this year, but before I left the convention, I popped outside and caught the tail end of the Pride Parade. The Pride Parade has coincided with the Saturday of Origins all three years I have gone, and I have always enjoyed seeing bits of it here and there. I also love knowing that it means so much to my LGBTQIA+ friends that attend the convention, who attend both for the games and for the celebration of love the Pride Parade represents.
I sat in the Unpub room for a few minutes, watching Matt Riddle finish up a playtest with Marti and Sarah, and we shot the breeze for a bit. We talked about his prototype, the state of roll-and-write games (as he co-designed Fleet Dice), how he has known his co-designer Ben Pinchback since they were kids, and what growing up in Michigan was like. We could have played another game, but I think everyone was happy to breathe and enjoy the moment, without feeling the need to rush another game to the table.
Before I headed back to the airport, I walked around the open gaming room and expo hall a bit, saying goodbye to a lot of good friends, and many new friends as well, hopeful to see them all, and more still, next year. And with that, my Origins 2019 was over, except for a turbulent flight out of a rainy city — neither of which could take the smile off my face.
Getting to wake up and play Slide Quest with my son on Father’s Day morning — he loved it — kept that smile on my face, and to be honest, it still hasn’t faded a week later. That is the power of games, and of our gaming community.
Overall, it was another fun and fruitful Origins, where I demoed many new games I was interested in, brought home a few things to play with my family and my game group, played some old favorites like Power Grid and Doomtown, and caught up with a lot of good friends — even meeting some of them in person for the first time. The convention felt busier on Wednesday and Thursday than it had in years past, but possibly not as busy on Saturday, so I am curious to hear about this year’s official attendance numbers. I suspect, if the convention didn’t grow, that a lot of people just decided to come earlier in the week and experience it for longer. I honestly hope it doesn’t grow too much bigger than it is currently, as one of the biggest selling points of Origins is that it is a smaller, more intimate convention than Gen Con, while still being big and busy enough that I always felt I had multiple options for gaming at any given time.
- [+] Dice rolls
In the same way that the Origins scheduling gods decided Thursday would be demo day, Friday I had three meetups scheduled, including the Punchboard Media meetup, which I had planned. Fortunately, the times didn’t conflict except for one of the meetups I wanted to attend — the Game All Nite Whiskey meetup, as it was the same time as the Punchboard Media meetup.
But I am getting ahead of myself again. First up, at 9:00am, was the Plaid Hat Games meetup. There is no easier way to get me to go somewhere than offer me coffee and donuts, so starting my day hanging out with the Plaid Hat crew and other early-ish risers was a no-brainer. While I was there I got to meet Zev Shlasinger, the founder of Z-Man Games and current Head of Board Game Operations at WizKids, and we chatted about both of us being from New York City. I also got to admire this giant statue of Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is there because — as I learned while staring uncomprehendingly at it — the Arnold Classic bodybuilding and fitness competition and expo takes place in Columbus, Ohio every year.
From there, I went up to open gaming to meet up with Craig, who was running us through his homebrew Apocalypse World setting Prepare to Launch, which has a giant fighting mech theme. Think Voltron, or Pacific Rim, with the player characters as the pilots. I sat down with Patrick, Carl, and Aly Sedelmeyer, and we spent three hours as high school students that were part-time protectors against the alien kaiju invasion. It was as ridiculous as it was fun. I always like to get one-shot RPGs in at conventions, as I don’t get to play them often in my day-to-day life. Having one of my best gaming buddies, Craig, run his own brainchild for us, was just an added bonus.
At this point, it was lunch time, and I knew exactly what I wanted. I will never go to Columbus, Ohio and not find time to get Hot Chicken Takeover at the North Market, as it is just out-of-this-world good. Patrick hiked over with me, and we ordered some Nashville hot chicken and sides, along with some free sweet tea. Jake — who had never had it before — met us for a delicious, if loud and crowded, lunch.
I hadn’t yet spent any time at this year’s Origins Unpub room, but I remedied that right after lunch, as I met Chris Kirkman to demo thematic, cooperative game Those Meddling Kids, a future Dice Hate Me Studio production that will be published through Greater Than Games. In Those Meddling Kids, you play said kids, and have to balance solving a serious mystery — using implements such as your bicycle, flashlights, and shovels — with being a student, having to do chores, and having a curfew. I only got to try about half a game of the base mode, and my main takeaway was that it was a) thematic, and b) hard, but — especially as a Scooby Doo super-fan — I look forward to seeing more of this when it gets closer to publication.
From there I was back off to the North Market with Tim Fowler, so he could get lunch, I could get coffee, and we could both play some Doomtown: Reloaded. This is a game with quite a history, born out of the Deadlands RPG, first as a collectible card game, then later as a living card game, which would be cancelled by AEG and then revived by Pinnacle. I’m glad it is still alive and kicking, because despite its high barrier to entry, it’s a great game. My only regret is that Tim and I only got to play one game in the food court before he had to run to a Shadowfist tournament and I had to run to dinner.
Aaron Wilson planned dinner at The Pearl for a group of us jokingly named “Impostor Syndrome.” The group is mostly designers — Aaron, Tony Miller, John Prather, Daniel Newman, Ian Zang, among others — but I snuck in somehow as the impostor media person. While we waited for our food, Ian showed us a real-time tile manipulation that involved shifting a set of double-sided Spongebob Squarepants tiles to match different image cards. Like Spot It, only exponentially more frantic. My dinner of fancy grilled cheese with pear jam and arugula pesto was good, my bourbon apple punch was even better. Not having to wait to be seated with a table of twelve was also impressive — I guess that two blocks away from the convention center is just far enough to keep their dining room manageable, or their prices are just a bit high for the average convention-goes, or a bit of both? Who am I too say.
I was exhausted by this point, and I am sure having a cocktail with my dinner didn’t help. But the one meetup I had helped to set up and plan before the convention was quickly approaching, so I ran back to my room, got some give-away prizes, raffle tickets, buttons and stickers, and ran back to the Unpub room. Since this was the third year we had the meetup, and the second year it was in the same room, it went off smoothly, and I was able to demo Letter Jam with the gaming rules expert himself, Paul Grogan. We played at five players, and four of us guessed our words correctly at the end. The only one holding our team back — yours truly. The editor with the English degree. I blame the whiskey punch. I then got to try Medium with the two designers from Storm Chaser Games, and had a good time mind-melding with Will and Marti. I think that one is going to be a big light/party game hit when it releases at Gen Con, like Codenames, The Mind, and Just One have all been in recent memory.
Any sane, reasonable person would have called it a night, with the Punchboard Media meetup winding down, and it being after midnight. But I decided to learn In the Hall of the Mountain King — out of the prototype rule book — with Ken, who either borrowed or stole it from Helaina Cappel, and his friend Dave. The game, which was a late stage prototype with art and mechanics that seemed finished, was a medium-heavy Euro that had a very, very clever cascading worker card resource mechanism, and an interesting polyomino tunnel-building spatial puzzle, which had some restrictions and bonuses that created a lot to think about. I am very glad I tried it, and enjoyed it a lot, but would not recommend starting anything like it well after midnight at a convention after a long day of hustling around. When we wrapped up our game, it was 3:00am, and I still needed to straighten up the Unpub room before heading back and crashing for a few hours.
- [+] Dice rolls
About a month before Origins, I sat down and figured out what would be available to demo at Origins, and, of that, what I really wanted to prioritize while I was at the convention. I tried very hard not to over-schedule, and was largely successful. However, I was less successful with spreading out that schedule, as that was contingent on the availability of the people that would be showing me their games. Hence Thursday wound up being demo day, with five demos planned ahead of time, and one more spontaneously added during the expo hall for media hour.
The spontaneous one happened as I walked past the Smirk & Dagger booth, and stopped to say hi to Curt Covert. He told me what was new in his world, and pointed at SHŌBU, a new game they were demoing that I hadn’t heard of before. I looked over and saw four wooden boards with smooth river rocks laid out on them, and an actual rope laid out between the boards. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in ancient times, and I wasn’t sure if it was a new design, or something unearthed by an archaeologist. Being a fan of abstract games, and loving this particular presentation, I sat down to play a game against Curt. The game took about 10 minutes, and while I was able to launch a few good attacks his way, he bested me in the end — a good sign for an abstract game, as it means there is something to the design that takes time to master. Curt gave me a review copy, and I look forward to exploring it. Most likely it will be with my father, who also appreciates abstract games.
My first scheduled demo of the day was at the Queen booth, which was located in Hall A, the next hall over from the exhibitor area, which was in Hall B. Don’t ask me why it was set up this way, or why certain companies were in Hall A — and also in Hall C, where Inside Up Games’ booth was located — as I honestly have no idea.
I sat down to the Copenhagen demo with three others, including one middle-school aged child. It’s a gateway style game that features polyominos — which are definitely in the conversation along with roll-and-writes as the current hottest mechanism in board gaming — and card play. It can probably best be described as Ticket to Ride meets Tetris, as you draw pairs of cards from the offer until you can get enough of the same color to buy a polyomino to add to your board. The player boards are the facades of buildings in Copenhagen, and you earn points by finishing rows and columns on that board, with the first one to twelve points winning. I think this is a great family weight game, as noted by the fact the boy who joined us in the demo had no trouble playing.
At this point, I grabbed a quick lunch with Chris Kirkman of Dice Hate Me Games and Jake Bock of the Draft Mechanic podcast over at the North Market. I had passable Indian food, but was fine with my choice as I didn’t have to wait on a crazy line, like the one in front of the BBQ joint. While eating, Kirkman told me he’d picked up Slide Quest from the Blue Orange booth, which I had been excited about for a while, but didn’t realize would be on sale at Origins. He said they were going like hotcakes, so I took off after lunch and snagged one of the last copies. At $20, it was a bargain.
My next demo was Refuge: Terror from the Deep from B&B Games Studio, which pits turn-of-the-century deep sea divers against a giant many-tentacled Kraken. It has beautiful miniatures, and features competitive, cooperative, and solo modes. As it was developed by John Brieger, an accomplished solo mode designer, I look forward to checking out more of the solo play in the future. Alas, being the middle of the day in the crowded exhibitor hall, I was only able to run through a few turns of the game. But it was definitely enough to “wet” my appetite for another chance to “dive” in.
I had a short break before my next scheduled demo, and found my podcast co-host Patrick Hillier and Carl Gannon wandering the exhibitor hall, and we sat down to try Slide Quest. The game is a modernized Labyrinth — the old wooden maze puzzle game with the marble you need to roll through — by way of Looney Quest. Many laughs were had, some of which I’m sure were due to my decision to immediately skip to level 19 of 20 of this light dexterity game.
At 3:00pm I headed to the Plaid Hat Games booth to meet Niki Shults, who led us to a table where Isaac Vega was setting up Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein. I sat down with Patrick, Ryan Gutowski of One Board Family, and Scott King, and we started a four-player game. The thing that most surprised me was how heavy Abomination was in relation to other Plaid Hat titles. There was a lot going on, with events happening every turn, multiple ways to collect different types of body parts, having to worry about the collected material decomposing, needing to manage three different tracks for morality, reputation, and knowledge, and having two different types of meeples — scientists and assistants. One thing that didn’t surprise me, coming from Plaid Hat, was that the theme was very present in all of the actions as well as in the components — you literally construct a body by taking a head, torso, two arms and two legs — although I do wish the board were less grey. We didn’t get to play a full game, but playing for about an hour, got a good idea of how the game flowed. I think, at four players, a full game would have taken two hours.
Next I headed to the Thunderworks booth, where I finally met Twitter-friend Tim Virning in person, who was manning the booth. While he handled that, Keith Matejka led Ken Grazier and me to their demo table and taught us Lockup: A Roll Player Tale. Despite the name, this is not an expansion or sequel in the traditional sense, but an entirely new game that shares some thematic elements from Roll Player. The game’s main mechanism — everyone placing out their identically numbered characters, up to two of which can be face-down — is a hybrid between worker placement and semi-blind bidding, with each spot giving out rewards to the highest rank, and occasionally to lower ranked players present. There was also the potential for penalties, depending on where the guards were put out. Placing always felt meaningful, and each turn’s reveal was tense — and occasionally infuriating, when I was outbid for something by a single point, or due to losing the first-player tie-breaker. But this just makes me want to play the game again, and better, to out-think my opponents better. And really, I can’t be too upset losing to Keith, when he helped develop and publish the thing.
My one meetup that did not fall on Friday was the Greatway Games meetup, which was in A216. I wandered around Hall A looking for it for it before realizing A216 was a meeting room, upstairs, outside of Hall A. When I finally found it, I was sadly less than shocked to see that Origins had given a game meetup a room with no tables. The absurdity of that aside, it was great to see Nicole Hoye represent Greatway Games, along with proxy Ryan LaFlamme, as well as Ruth Boyack of The Five By podcast and others. Undaunted, we had a fun time playing Just One without a table, and later dragged in two tables to play some games of Slide Quest and Silver & Gold.
My final demo of the day was thankfully with Bruce Voge, one of the highest energy people I have ever met. This was good, because I drafted off his energy to learn North Star Games upcoming game in the Evolution line, Oceans. While I had never played any of the Evolution games, I had no problem picking up how to play Oceans, and really liked how aggressive it was for an engine-building style game, and how well it fit the theme. Better yet, after the game, Bruce told Brian, Will, Sarah, Marti and me a hysterical story about being a minor-league baseball announcer, and rage quitting when they wouldn’t make him his own baseball card. I laughed more at his animated storytelling than I had at anything in a long while.
At this point, just like the previous night, I realized that I again did not eat dinner. This time the line was too long at Late Night Slice, so we wound up at Barley’s. I normally avoid Barley’s as it is a convention hotspot during the day, especially as they give out free pint glasses to Origins attendees every year. But at this point in the night, we were sat immediately and I enjoyed a nice, if late, dinner of wings and a reuben. After that it was right to bed for another night of not enough sleep.
- [+] Dice rolls
My Origins started off with a bit of a scare this year. On Tuesday night, just after 11pm, I was sitting on my couch watching The Hot Zone, relaxing before my early morning flight to Columbus the next day. My wife, who was sitting next to me scrolling Facebook, looked over and asked if I was on the same flight as my buddy Zach. When I nodded, she showed me his Facebook post, and followed that up by asking me what exactly “dafaq” meant.
This led me to frantically check my own phone and confirm my that flight, indeed, was cancelled, which led to an equally frantic call with Zach about potential alternatives, like driving 10+ hours to Ohio. About a half hour later — which Zach claims aged him a year — we got a follow-up text that we were put on the next plane that left just over an hour later than our original flight. So, in the end, I got a bit more sleep on Wednesday morning, and didn’t miss anything I had scheduled at Origins. So, all’s well that ends well, I suppose.
Once in Columbus, we taxied over to the Hilton. This was my first year staying there, and I discovered what a nightmare that is for people with acrophobia — between the connecting sky bridge with its frosted glass walkway, and the open atrium setup where I could see the lobby just over a thin railing from my eighth floor hotel room — but other than that it was a perfectly fine hotel. I will note that we did not see a ton of convention-goers in the Hilton, as you do in the connected Hyatt, but instead saw a lot of guests that were in wedding parties.
Next up was acquiring the convention badges in the new location by the “Ultimate Selfie Machine” art installation. This was nice in that it freed the main concourse, but also confusing, as nobody was sure if they were supposed to to pre-registration or registration — and while I got my badge without incident, I know a lot of people that got stuck in a second line at customer service. It seems sometimes that the harder GAMA tries to make Origins run smoother, the more obstacles they run into.
While I wanted to start playing some games at this point, I wanted to eat even more, so I headed across the street to Fuzzy’s Taco Shop — which thankfully is not an apt description of their tacos. I ran into Andrew Smith of Board Game Quest while there, and he invited me to play a game of Pipeline with him after lunch. While Pipeline designer Ryan Courtney is local to me, I keep missing him at game nights, and had never played, so I gladly took Andrew up on the offer. I met Andrew, Matt and Jac at the Battelle Grand Ballroom, which was allegedly one of the new open gaming spaces. It was completely empty except for our game of Pipeline, so it certainly wasn’t well advertised. But it was a nice, quiet place to play a heavier game that required some explanation.
Pipeline is not a game I would ever buy, as I don’t have a heavy gaming crowd at home to play it with — but that is exactly why I like to try to play games like it at conventions. I think Pipeline, in particular, is going to make a lot of heavier gamers happy, as it manages to fit a lot of economic and resource management, along with a very cool spatial puzzle, into a game that takes about thirty-minutes per player. Our four-player game, taught by Matt and Jac, with Andrew and I both being new players, only took two hours. Finding a game that is that heavy and satisfying play in that time-frame is a real sweet spot. Kudos to Ryan on the design, and to artist Ian O’Toole and publisher Capstone Games on that very nice looking production.
From there, I ran over to an appointment I had with Conor McGoey of Inside Up Games to demo 7 Souls. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, it may be because the game was originally titled Rise of the Elder Gods, but Conor was asked by Greater Than Games to change it as they make Fate of the Elder Gods, and are planning more ____ of the Elder Gods titles in that line. But I digress.
7 Souls is a simultaneous-action selection game where every player is playing as an Elder God fighting over control of seven followers. Players will choose which of their identical follower cards to send to three different locations to collect souls, steal sanity, gain power, and potentially even fight and corrupt investigators. If more than one player chooses the same soul at the same location, they need to battle to wrestle for control of that soul. The game ends when two of the resources at a location are emptied, which takes around 30-40 minutes. It’s a very well done light game, with a killer theme and art to match. With this following the success of Gorus Maximus last year, it looks like Conor and Inside Up are on a roll.
After that wrapped, I ran up to D283 — the open gaming area from last year — and met up with Craig Marks and Chris Copac. I almost got into a game of Die Tavernen im Tiefen Thal with them, but the start of the game got delayed and I had promised to demo a game not that long afterward. Someday I hope to get a game in with Copac.
Mike Gnade from Rock Manor Games arrived shortly afterward with his preview copy of The Few and Cursed, a weird west open world adventure game, and I sat down with Brian and Will of Cloak and Meeple to play it. Now I know I’ve said this before, but I love weird west stuff dating back to playing Deadlands right out of college. So I was already hooked on the theme. Fortunately, the gameplay also delivered, allowing multiple paths to victory and featuring more than one end-game trigger. It also had unique characters that started with different resources and had tailored decks for them. As if that wasn’t enough, the game is based on a comic book of the same name, and the comic artist created all new artwork for the game, so it looks absolutely stunning. Factor in the miniatures and it’s pretty over the top. I’m sure winning the game didn’t hurt my opinion of it, but I know, win or lose, I really enjoyed that hour of weird west gunslinging action.
I wrapped the night in the open gaming room with Marti and Sarah from Open Seat Gaming teaching me Wingspan. For a fairly light engine-building game about birds, this game has seemed pretty divisive among those I know. I suspect it is a case of the acclaim and awards the game is receiving coloring people’s opinions — not to mention the fiasco with the shortage of copies that were available at launch. Stripping all that away, I think Wingspan is successful in what it sets out to do — be a light, accessible, pretty, engine-builder with a unique theme (complete with bird facts on each unique bird card). While I have no plans to go buy this one, and wouldn’t request it, I’d happily play it again if other people requested it.
At this point, most everyone I was with was tired and ready to call it a night. Realizing just then, nearing midnight, that I never ate dinner, I wandered across the street to Late Night Slice. True to their name, they were still serving slices of pizza. The pizza was hardly remarkable, but it was edible and kept me from going to bed with a rumbling stomach, so I counted that as a win.
- [+] Dice rolls
04 Jun 2019
I was sent a review copy of Call to Adventure by Brotherwise Games. I will admit, when they asked if I was interested in checking it out, my affirmative answer was almost entirely because of the upcoming versions of this game set in the literary universes of Patrick Rothfuss -- Call to Adventure: Name of the Wind -- and Brandon Sanderson -- Call to Adventure: Stormlight. Many board games that feature well known intellectual properties have underlying gameplay that is mediocre at best. So, the burning question I had was, would this Call to Adventure system be another in a long line of disappointments, or would it be a satisfying experience for both gamers and fans of the source material?
Say one thing for this game right off the bat -- its production value is very high. The game has killer box art that perfectly ties into the game’s theme, along with over 180 tarot-size cards with beautiful, unique artwork. Also in the box are a set of 24 double-sided painted runes, player boards, plastic experience tokens, a score pad, and a smartly designed custom insert that houses everything perfectly. The rulebook even has a very useful quick start guide on its back cover, something I wish more games included. I will note, however, that while the runes look and feel really cool, they are easy to mix up -- especially the first two runes of each symbol, and the special third rune of the set.
At its core, Call to Adventure is a light engine-builder where players are trying to acquire cards with certain story icons that will give them victory points, as well as ability icons that will give them more runes to use on future turns. The thematic tie-in is that each of the three rounds represents an act of each character’s life, from their origin onward. Cards can be personality traits or challenges to be overcome -- the latter requiring a throw of the runes.
Players each get a set of basic runes, plus additional runes based on the cards they’ve already added to their tableau. They will throw the runes -- in this regard, they are functionally custom two-sided dice -- and if they succeed the difficulty check, they will acquire that card. If they fail, they will get valuable experience, but they will not get the card they were attempting to acquire.
The three acts that make up the game sped by -- if anything the game was over too quickly -- but I suspect it is better to be left wanting more than to be pushing on to the finish after everyone is tired of the experience.
Note that in addition to the standard mode, which plays 2-4 players, the game also has a variant that plays solo or cooperatively, against “The Adversary.” However, I haven’t yet played this mode, so I can’t comment on how it plays.
I honestly enjoyed Call to Adventure a lot more than I thought I would. I admittedly did not have the highest expectations for the game, considering its generic fantasy veneer and its light storytelling gameplay. But beneath the surface where you are storytelling via building a character, you are playing an interesting little engine-builder. The bonus is that the storytelling aspect of the design creates a fulfilling sensation of having created a character worth the trouble of constructing at the end of the game. And the playtime is quick, not overstaying its welcome at the table at all.
While Call to Adventure is not my new favorite game, I did enjoy the experience of playing it, and would gladly play it again. The system is also simple and intuitive, making it a good choice for expanding it beyond the hobby audience with the intellectual property expansions. I am very much looking forward to seeing how the sprawling fantasy worlds of both Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson are integrated with this solid game system.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of Call to Adventure from Brotherwise Games.
- [+] Dice rolls
07 May 2019
Silver & Gold is a new small-box game designed by Phil Walker-Harding, the designer of Sushi Go, Imhotep, Bärenpark, and many other popular games over the last few years. My friend Brandon Kempf suggested I look into picking it up, as he knows I like lighter games, polyomino puzzles, and designer Phil Walker-Harding. He recommended it to me even though he knows I am not the biggest fan of the roll-and-write craze — although Silver & Gold has no dice, and is technically a flip-a-card-and-write game, along the lines of Welcome To… and Avenue, and not a roll-and-write.
Components and Availability:
Normally, I use this section solely to discuss what’s in the box, but it is worth mentioning that this particular box I had imported from Amazon.de, as the game is currently only published by German publisher NSV, also known as Nürnberger-Spielkarten-Verlag. That said, the cost, including shipping, was just under $14, and it arrived in about two weeks. So it is still inexpensive and easily available, for anyone interested. One final important note is that the rule book in the box was solely in German, but an excellent translation — which I printed out and threw right in the box — is available on BoardGameGeek. The game itself is language independent, so there are no other issues as far as having a German copy of the game.
As for the components, the game comes with 60 dry-erasable cards and four dry erase markers — which are actually of good quality, unlike most markers found in board games. The game is very abstracted, so there is very little artwork to speak of, and hence very little to sell the pirate treasure hunting theme. The graphic design, however, is clean and intuitive. There is very little wasted space in the box, and as such, the game is quite portable.
The goal of the game — which is competitive, and plays two-to-four players — is to score the most points by completing treasure map cards and marking off the different treasures on those islands. The treasure map cards will get marked off by using a deck of eight expedition cards that have different polyomino patterns on them. If you can’t fit the current polyomino pattern on one of your treasure maps, you can instead mark a single square, but beware, that is a very inefficient way to fill the treasure map cards. The game plays over four rounds, with seven of the eight expedition cards being played each round.
Completing each treasure map card is worth between 8 and 14 points, depending on the size of the island, and each island also has special spaces that can earn players additional points. Coins will each earn one victory point, plus there are bonuses for players to collect sets of four coins. Palm Trees earn victory points depending on how many are available in the display. Crosses allow players to mark off an additional square on a treasure map, which can help players finish islands, race to get coin bonuses, or get palm trees while there is a favorable display. Some treasure map cards also have seals, which will give bonuses to completed islands of certain colors at the end of the game.
This is a really fun one. It is rewarding to mark off your treasure map cards with an eye toward optimization, while trying to account for the patterns on the future expedition cards, while also racing for the coin bonuses, marking the palm trees at the right time, using the crosses to create little combos, and trying to complete your cards to grab new treasure map cards from the offer that will best help you -- either by matching seals of cards you’ve already gotten, or by having coins or palm trees that will help you on your next turn.
The beauty of Silver & Gold is that — like all great filler games — it is simple and quick to play, and still has interesting and meaningful decisions — both tactical and strategic, in this case. It can be learned and taught in less than five minutes, and will likely never require you to reference the rule book again. A game takes about 15-20 minutes to play, and doesn’t even take up a ton of table space in the process.
I’ve only played Silver & Gold three times so far, but I have no problem saying I highly recommend checking it out, especially if you like quick-playing spatial polyomino puzzle games, and other flip-and-write games. I suspect we will see it get imported to the U.S. in the near future, but considering it’s low cost to import and the game’s language independence, I don’t think it’s necessary to wait.
- [+] Dice rolls