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WBC: The Return

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Microbadge: I have more previously owned games than owned gamesMicrobadge: Out for blood - I play without mercyMicrobadge: My Favorite Contribution to BGG
So I am back from the WBC. It was a pretty satisfying convention though, just like after my visit three years ago I find myself questioning whether I am ever going to come back. It was not because my overall experience at the convention was bad, I had a great deal of fun gaming while I was there, it was simply that I seemed to have fun at the convention despite the convention itself rather than because of it.

The first problem was the location, which was the largest factor in my decision to wait for three years before coming back. Last time I took a small plane from Baltimore to the Lancaster airport, and while the travel time was a bit less then taking the train ended up being, it was a bit nauseating and I decided that I did not really want to do that again. This time around it took just as long to get from Philadelphia to Lancaster as it did for me to fly from Orlando to Philadelphia. Now this would not be a real problem if the `convention itself were fantastic and a great reason to go to Lancaster, but for me, fundamentally, it is not. I am not interested in the tournaments because of my own particular biases about how the games should be played and disinterest in the various alterations they make to the games. Additionally the Lancaster Host seems to be unable to deal with the quantity of people present at the show. By the time the weekend rode around, the place was starting to gain a bit of a funk, and while it was obvious that they did some cleaning every evening, it was also clear that whatever they were doing was not enough, as the environment kept deteriorating throughout the week, with increasingly questionable tables, and disgusting bathrooms. On top of that there was clearly not enough space to accommodate all the desired open gaming and no indication as to where people should go if the official open gaming area was filled. I ended up playing a lot less games on Saturday then I wanted, mostly because I had to spend way too much time wandering around looking for a place to game. We eventually found a room where the A/C had not failed and there appeared to be space for us to play, but even then we were eventually driven to stop because of the noise from a particular late-night party game.

None of this is really the fault of the convention staff, though I think having an open gaming plan for the weekends would help ease some of the strain, but it does point to the fact that perhaps the WBC has outgrown its current location. According to convention staff they have two years left in their contract with the Lancaster Host, and I am hoping that by the time the contract comes up for renewal they will have found a location for the convention that is at least in a city that has a real airport and has the capability to actually deal with a convention of the size that the WBC has achieved. If I get any indication that these things are going to happen I will visit the WBC again. However, until then I will probably investigate other options. I am currently planning on visiting Essen next year, and will probably return to Gen Con the year after that, partly because I have heard that the open gaming there has improved and partly to visit with friends who attend Gen Con but not the WBC. If the WBC continues to be held in remote locations and I find Gen Con to be unsatisfactory again then I will probably continue to attend just BGG.Con every year. It has proven itself to me so far, and them moving to a larger facility this year that is in the airport itself is an added bonus, as it will make it extra easy for those who are traveling by plane to visit.

My complete playlist for the convention was pretty broad: (games in italics are new to me)
Mage Knight: Board Game 8
Glory to Rome 3
Ground Floor 2
Ora et Labora 2
Agricola 1
Airlines Europe 1
Andean Abyss 1
Assyria 1
Cave Evil 1
D-Day Dice 1
Divided Republic 1
Duck Dealer 1
Hegemonic 1
Kaivai 1
Race for the Galaxy 1
Seasons 1
Tammany Hall 1
Trajan 1
Unpublished Prototype 1

I came to the convention without any real game goals, but decided pretty early on that I wanted to try to hit my 50th play of Mage Knight while I was at the convention. I did that thanks to consistently getting in a play every single day. Otherwise my gaming was a mixture of playing old favorites, demoing newer games for the interested and playing new to me games that my friends were encouraging me to try out. Since I imagine most people are more interested in my reactions to the games that I tried that were new to me rather than those where my opinion is well-established, I will focus on those.

Airlines Europe
I did not have high hopes for Airlines Europe going in. I am not a big fan of Alan Moon games (though Clipper is okay), but Joel is a big fan and it made a lot of best of 2011 lists, so I decided that it was at least worth playing. While I can’t quite say that impressed me I liked it enough that I could see playing it again, though it is not one that I would ever own. Essentially it is a very light stock management game, where you are able to take a single option on your turn, either expanding a company, gaining shares in a company, getting money, or trading in shares for those in a general company that has pre-defined value rather than one defined by placement of airplanes on the board. I mostly enjoyed the tension regarding whether to push the value of a company when you are uncertain about whether you have an actual majority in that company. I am pretty sure however, that that particular item is not sufficient to push my interest in it long term though, which is why am I never going to buy it. I am willing to play it again though.

Rating: 6

Andean Abyss
The star of the show for me, Andean Abyss is a GMT game which was offered to those who P500ed it for convention pick-up at the show. I had not P500ed it, in fact I had almost completely forgotten it existed until I saw some boards set up at the show. The board is quite eye-catching and between that and the description of the game play I received I jumped at the opportunity to play the game.

Essentially, Andean Abyss is a multi-player (I would not play it without four) asymmetric conflict game with a rather interesting action selection mechanism. Essentially the game is driven by a series of event cards, of which the players have a one round look ahead. Each card has a sorted list of the faction symbols on the top of the card as well as two events, which essentially point to two different ways the particular event could happen. The player of each faction, in the order listed on the faction card, is permitted to choose to take an action from the menu or pass. If they take one of three options then the next player has an option to take an associated, more limited option, or pass as do all the other players down the line. Any player who takes one of the options is out of the selection process for the following card. This leads to some very interesting maneuvering as players attempt to get out of phase with each other and try to take advantage of opportunities that arise.

On top of the interesting aspects of the action selection mechanism, the game successfully implements asymmetrical player positions. Each player has a variety of goals and capabilities that intertwine in interesting ways and ensure that the experience of playing each faction is rather different. I played the AUC and it seemed that my personal goals were resulting in me playing a very different game from each of the other players, at the table, though by its nature my victory conditions required me to interact with each of the other factions in very specific ways.

The game does have some elements of ganging up on the leader in order to stop them from winning, but actions are constrained enough, and the game is fluid enough, that even though I found myself almost completely wiped off the board at one point, I still felt that I at least had the potential to win at the end. I was able to drag myself back into contention. Both of these things are important to me as I am not generally a fan of games where you have to try to look like you are in second place before you move in for the win.

I am definitely going to pick up, and will almost certainly review, Andean Abyss. I am sure there were some rules intricacies we missed in our first play, and I look forward to finding out if this game is as deep and exciting as it appeared at first glance. Also, despite its publisher, this game is definitely not a war game. Most euro gamers who can appreciate more strategically complex games should feel quite comfortable picking it up, as when it is boiled down to its base parts it is an area control and resource management game with a fun action selection mechanism.

Rating: 8

Assyria was a pleasant surprise. It has the generic middleweight euro vibe that would normally put me off, however, the strong opinion that Ben has for it was enough to convince me that it would be worth trying as I was looking through the library for something to play. My compatriots were willing to give it a shot so while Kurt tried to remember the rules Bronwen and I, whom I had not spoken to since I was last at WBC in 2009, talked about what had happened since we last saw each other and I showed her videos of my adorable cat (I have a problem, I know. Do not enable me unless you want to be subjected to a plethora of cat pictures, videos, and stories. )

The game is essentially about managing the rise and fall of your civilization in the face of varied grain harvests. Each spot on the board has an associated grain symbol and after the relatively constrained round to round placement, you are forced to remove huts that do not contain those symbols. The ability to manage the risk that comes with these placements and trying to facilitate a reasonable amount of round-to-round board presence in the face of variable grain harvests seems to be the most interesting part of the game. There is a second layer of resource management decisions beyond this, mostly in the form of decisions between VPs and cash, but these seem to be much less interesting then the spatial parts of the game, and the ability to maintain a tenuous hold on your civilization in the face of crop shortages.

I am pretty sure I will not buy Assyria, as I am not sure it has quite the interplay variability I desire, but I found the core mechanism entertaining and intriguing enough that I would gladly play it again.

Rating: 7

D-Day Dice
I am not a fan of cooperative games, except Sentinels of the Multiverse, and I am not a fan of Yahtzee variants, except for King of Tokyo, so D-Day Dice had little shot of working for me in the first place. Geof wanted to try it out though, so I played it with him and ultimately found it was not that bad and I actually enjoyed it more than I typically do games of either type. D-Day Dice makes no great innovations in cooperative game play, but I found the way that the dice were used, the special power purchases, and the rather varied challenges that the different boards presented to be varied enough that it was worth playing, even if it was not worth me buying. Essentially I put this game in the same bucket as Airlines Europe: one I would be willing to play again but have no need to ever own, and one I am unlikely to ever request.

Rating: 6

Divided Republic
Divided Republic is a card-driven election game where players are each representing one of the parties competing in the presidential election of 1860. Players have special powers based on their political party, but most of the differentiation comes from the cards that you draw. Events are strong and can give you a pretty decisive advantage in a particular location (or set of locations) or knock another player down. While on one that is good, as it keeps a game that has no sudden death victory conditions dynamic, it also makes the game a bit chaotic and prone to frustrating take that game play as everything you work for is constantly knocked down while some other player successfully moves towards their goal.

Game play itself is remarkably similar to 1960: Making of a President, though I found Divided Republic to generally be a lot more tense then 1960. This is partially due to the power of the cards but also was in part because you simply had to deal with potential attacks from three different players rather than just one, making the entire game state more interesting. Unfortunately the same things that caused this tension also push the chaos level a bit outside of my comfort zone. I suspect that in general I am much more willing to deal with powerful card effects and the implications of them in a two player game, particularly if you have the sort of tiered decks that exist in Twilight Struggle or 1989, and thus can know when to expect them or at least start to plan for them. Other card games with particularly strong effects that I enjoy require some level of building towards them, so you have times to make tactical decisions regarding them rather than simply being randomly blown out of the water. With Divided Republic you can be subject to strong, targeted effects that wreck your ability to be successful, with limited ability to plan around or prepare for them, and for me that is frankly too much. The underlying structure of Divided Republic is not bad, but these effects are sufficient that I am unwilling to play it again. I think there is clearly a market for this game based on this structure, I am just not part of it.

Rating: 4

Duck Dealer
Duck Dealer is a logistics game with lots of superficial similarities to Merchant of Venus. However, where Merchant of Venus is largely based on taking advantage of luck-driven opportunities and steadily increasing scarcity in order to race to a financial finish line, Duck Dealer is a logistical game where you slowly accumulate action tokens before releasing them in a bit of frenzied activity, collecting goods and establishing markets and factories across the board. I found the experience of playing Duck Dealer to be both enjoyable and frustrating at the same time. I found figuring out the particular chains of actions required to accomplish your goals before other players were able to swoop in and lock down a particular location to be enjoyable but I absolutely hated how much analysis paralysis it induced in me. I generally pride myself on making quick, effective moves even in longer games but that was simply not happening in Duck Dealer and it drove me a little crazy as a result. So I found myself a bit torn, I enjoyed my play of the game, but I hate what it did to me. Maybe future plays will be better as I have my mind wrapped around the system a bit better now, but I fear that they will not and that alone is enough to keep my disinterested in acquiring the game. Maybe if I can get my playtime down to a reasonable level I will get it at some time in the future, but right now I do not think it is a wise idea.

Rating: 7

They had an Asmodee representative demoing Seasons at the WBC, and as it had been specifically recommended to me, I brought a group (of four) over to try it. Unfortunately, this game almost completely failed for me and probably stands up as the most unpleasant experience I had during the entire convention. Even with the basic card set there are tons of lock down and denial effects that essentially make you pay another player victory points in order to accomplish something. Even accumulation was difficult as multiple player were able to get powers that let them discard an energy in order to cause other players to lose victory points, resulting in a situation where you had to spend victory points in order to do something, and even if you accumulated some victory points, you were likely to lose them before your next turn, which was rather unpleasant.

I have since heard some indications that Seasons is perhaps at its worst as a four player game, and that I would probably have had a much better experience with two players, and this might be quite right, but I doubt I am going to go back to investigate. The presence of strong denial/lock-down strategies is unpleasant enough that I consider it a pretty major black mark against the game. While a player should not be able to do everything they want, having game states that exist where a player cannot do anything is not conducive to getting people to want to playing the game again, and the two and three player card game market is competitive enough that I do not feel any strong need to explore it further.

Rating: 4

Tammany Hall
Tammany Hall was another game that I played mostly based on the recommendation of friends, and while I can understand its appeal, it is another one that ultimately failed to work for me. The game’s mechanical structure is solid. There are interesting contests two or more-way blind bidding contests for control of districts, multiple, interwoven, levels of area control, and a neat mechanic where the current leader hands out special abilities to the other players. Unfortunately, layered across the top of this is an unfettered negotiation game where players have limited constraints in how they are able to effectively attack each other. I am not really against negotiation games per se, though it is hardly my favorite mechanic, but I do dislike games where most of the game is taking turns beating on the leader until someone sneaks through for the win, and unfortunately that is what Tammany Hall ultimately is. I suspect for those that like negotiation-based beat on the leader games, this one will work quite well (as its average rating of 7.25) indicates, but if you dislike that you probably should stay away.

Rating: 5

I ended up liking Trajan way more than I expected to, as I typically dislike Feld’s games, but unfortunately the color issues were pretty severe and I found it very difficult to effectively use the mancala as I frequently had to ask what color particular pieces were and how they matched up to the colors on the Trajan tiles. This pretty much killed my interest in exploring the game further as the mancala really is a driving force behind the game, and if I cannot effectively strategize around it there is little use in me playing it.

Rating: 5 (probably a 7 without the color issues)

So that is it! I ended up playing a lot more new to me games then I was expecting, and while most of them did not work for me for one reason or another I am pretty excited about getting a copy of Andean Abyss and exploring it deeply. I am also looking forward to BGG.Con. It remains the best of the board game conventions that I have attended, and I am looking forward to seeing the new hotel and how well the staff handles the increased sized of the convention.
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