Luck in games, in measured doses, is the catalyst which enables shocking game-changers that you'll remember and talk about forever.
Let the Lord of Chaos rule.
This took place 3 months ago. I wrote most of the report in the 1-2 weeks after, then got into a rut, as my eagerness to write falls off exponentially the further removed from the game sessions. Was limping along eventually, so excuse the abrupt end.
In chronological order:
1200 - GMed Runewars (+expansion) for 2 people (censored).
1800 - Learned 1812: The Invasion of Canada from Jim.
2000 - 5-player 1812: The Invasion of Canada with Jim, Bay, Joe, Tom.
2200 - Taught Claustrophobia to Bay
2300 - Learned Ascending Empires from Bay.
0130 - Late-night Korean food run (kimchi pancakes are disgusting no matter who makes it, btw)
0230 - Bed
0900 - Taught A Game of Thrones: The Board Game (Second Edition) to Steve, Hal, Hal's friend, ?
1400 - 3-player Runewars with Craig, ChrisY.
1900 - Taught Eclipse to Arvin, woman. Hal, Hal's 2nd friend, Staci, AdamK completed the 6er table while Steve moderated.
1930 - 3-player King of Tokyo with Craig, ChrisY.
2030 - Claustrophobia with Joel.
2130 - Glory to Rome with Joel, Robert.
2300 - Learned SPANC: Space Pirate Amazon Ninja Catgirls from Joel.
2330 - Masques with Shanthi, Laura.
0030 - Learned Dragon Parade from Laura with Shanthi, Walter.
0130 - In-N-Out.
0230 - Bed
0930 - Taught King of Tokyo to an aunt and her nephew.
1000 - Learned The Castles of Burgundy from Sean with ChrisM.
1400 - Taught Flash Duel: Second Edition to Sean.
1430 - Eclipse with Sean, Joe (different), Brent.
2000 - Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game with Craig, Sean, MichaelE, MikeC, Ash
2315 - Left for home.
Getting the Bad Stuff Out of the Way First
I love the epic sweep and scale in Runewars, which has almost become a convention-only game for me, since it's too much work teaching and pushing people along at normal game outings that have time constraints (6 hours). This was my 4th convention in a row GM'ing Runewars, and I scheduled it on Friday at noon, since I am always stuck playing fillers on Friday afternoon as people slowly stream over to the con and "warm up" slowly.
This was the 4th time I hosted Runewars at a con, and I might have to rethink hosting games from now on, as I'm now batting .500 in successful games. It's a complete shot in the dark when you let anybody into your game without vetting them beforehand. For all the talk one of the players gave me before the game about loving Runewars, not caring about who wins, and just there to have fun, plus taking over my work and teaching the other player the game, his true colors showed during the game.
I, as usual, surged early, and after collecting one of my Rewards halfway through the game, he accused sharply, "You know you're really taking advantage of us, right?" No kidding, I warned you that I've played this game many times, know all the rulings, and invited you all to take your best shot at me early. But I've also reminded you of every tiny thing on your cards, shared every single piece of strategy when the situation comes up, and as we discussed beforehand, I don't care about winning, only that everybody enjoys the experience. "I think you're cheating. You have to be, I've never seen somebody get so lucky," he added a little later. Excuse me?? Is this guy serious?
Things got worse, as he challenged my rulings in spite of having nothing to back it up, and the fact that I've played far more than him and memorized all the rulings front-to-back (you have to if you host any game through play-by-forum, which I've done the most often for Runewars). He then started cursing and basically throwing a tantrum when he drew a bad card, muttering, "screw this shit!" as he dumped it on the table. If this weren't my game, it'd probably have been must-see to witness a 65-year-old grown man practically lose his shit. Instead, I started worrying about whether he'd start trashing my game (rage-quit was a given, I figured).
The friendly chatter I had kept up devolved into deathly silence. To his credit, the other player was fine and played the game the right way in building up a fearsome Undead army, and smacking me in-game with it. The Undead can get too strong in this game if the other players (especially the Elves) don't make a concerted effort to stop him, and of course I couldn't rely on the whiner in the other corner. I did my best to stop the onslaught, and ended up only making the Undead juggernaut stronger when I counter-attacked (since his Necromancers raised more of the dead). But fortunately, he didn't make too much of a dent in terms of dragon runes, because I had risked it by switching my dragon rune into a less-defended spot, and he picked the wrong spot in taking my stronghold.
You can see on the left how much of a dent the Undead made in my territories. I commented at one point that I had ways to obtain more dragon runes, but no more regions to place them. To which the whiner sharply retorted, "You're one to talk about luck, when you're sitting on so many Rewards there!" Huh... I just mentioned I could convert those Rewards to dragon runes, but had nowhere to place them... what is this guy's problem?
The game couldn't end soon enough, and guess who won? The whiner of course, after nobody messed with him.
I was reminded of Michael Barnes' blog post, Hell is Other Gamers. While I am nowhere near as jaded, this might be the straw that breaks my back in terms of GMing events. Runewars isn't even that mean of a game (and I even specified that gamers without sportsmanship need not apply -- aside, which gods of the English language dictated that the term 'sportsmanship' be positive and 'gamesmanship' be negative anyway?), but it takes some basic emotional maturity, things you can't take for granted when exposing your overfed white belly to be poked at by strangers. Far safer to stick to open gaming and the people whom you know are cool (who, not coincidentally, stick exclusively to open gaming).
Or maybe I'll host something pee-wee like the cooperative Gears of War: The Board Game or Middle-Earth Quest (where you're supposed to get mad at GM Sauron) next time. Now the players have nobody to get pissy at if a die roll fails or they, heavens forbid, lose 1 region they're holding.
Redeeming one of my Favorites
Bear with me here, as that's the only negative experience I had, and thankfully it was over with early, as the first game of the first day. The next day, I broke out Runewars again with Craig and Chris, proven Ameritrashers who play the right way, after we couldn't get a 4th for Age of Conan: The Strategy Board Game, and I was eager to redeem the game. Especially looked forward to introducing them to the awesome expansion (one of the best and most necessary FFG has ever put out, along with the StarCraft expansion and TI3 expansions), which they had overlooked, and having everybody at the table being very experienced ( > 10 plays) for once.
Craig was sleepy at the time and made a few errors early. They weren't game-breaking though; the thing that absolutely blew for him was that I got off to a phenomenal start and used Lost City to quickly get a stronghold in our armistice zone (since I had revealed a Dragon Throne there), then starting pumping out heavy units deep in his territory (heavy units like the giant flying eagles because in my good fortune, I had also acquired 4 ore early, and also took the Guildmaster of Merchants title). Chris and Craig looked wistfully at my massive army, with Craig especially worried.
"Don't worry, Craig. I'm just securing my borders. There is little benefit to me from attacking you," I reassured him, a season (turn) before I full-on smacked him in the front (I wanted a buffer zone in front of my hard-to-defend Dragon Throne to protect it). What did Craig do? He sucked in a huge breath, nodded, then rolled up his sleeves and prepared for war. Despite him being in last place early, the road to victory ran through his regions, and rather than complain, or keel over and 'squeak' (his term - meaning to throw the game), he dug in and fought me to the death. That's how it should be.
Once again, I surged to the early lead, and I had the chance to declare victory (and defend it for a year) in Year 4 Winter, when the Passage of Silverhorn allowed me to tunnel past Craig's defenses, emerge in his undefended stronghold, and take my 7th and 8th dragon runes (you only need 7 to win). This was especially brutal, since Craig's Recruit action would be half-wasted with the loss of 1 of his 2 strongholds, and I'd have the advantage once and for all. And once again, like with all my Runewars games, I choked away my blazing start.
"I'm attacking your home stronghold," I declared. "Hmm... gotta look out for Summon Lightning. I'll bring a few extra dudes. You're not outsmarting me here, Craig."
"Uh huh. You ready?"
"I'm ready to kick your ass!"
"Hah, knew it. OK, I'll kill these 4 guys off, and the result is... 1-1, and, hmm, defender wins ties...
That was the turning point of the game: simple arithmetic. To make things worse, Chris finally reached me during the same season, crossing a frozen river (I forgot about that) to take one of my undefended dragon runes, and engage me on 2 fronts (see right).
Then in Year 5 Spring, Craig removed any last vestige of hope I had in scoring a blitz victory, when he attacked my stronghold containing the Dragon Throne. I had a deft trap set up for him in which I used a Tactical Retreat, then launched my own counter-attack (which I had planned to be later than his) to smash his forces, but I could only watch helplessly as he razed my Dragon Throne to the ground before I could take it back.
The war of attrition between Craig and I went into full swing, while Chris' Elven horde gained 1 more area off me with his fast units killing me before I could get any shots off (but thankfully no dragon rune). Chris pants-ed me again when he used Teleport to go through another river and take another undefended dragon rune from me ("I'm ready for you this Winter, Chris. Teleport? In Summer? Oh great.").
Neck-and-neck in the final year (Year 6). I took back the dragon rune Chris took, while Craig meddled and made me unable to take back another one from Chris for the rest of the game. Since we all believed that Chris and I were tied at that point, it was fair play (especially with how badly I abused Craig all game). But turns out it swung the game when I lost by 2 to Chris' 8 dragon runes, and would have won the tiebreaker. Chris had surprised our counting by having neutral forces keep his dragon rune safe in response to Threatened Home Realms, when the traditional play is to move it to another friendly region. He reclaimed that dragon rune in the last year, and got another free one off the Winter event for the well-deserved victory.
Learning New Games
One of my regrets from the last convention was forgetting to learn any new games. Considering that I learned all-time favorites like Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game, Claustrophobia, A Game of Thrones and Gears of War at the local conventions, I pledged to find another home run this time.
To that end, I actually stuck to an event featuring a game I wanted to learn, instead of taking the easy route and playing Dominant Species or Battlestar Galactica with friends. This was GM Jim teaching 1812: The Invasion of Canada to me and... hmm, I was the only one who signed up, to both our consternation. No worry: Jim started teaching me, and I probably shouldn't have asked so many edge-case questions trying to sound smart, since it turned out to be way simple.
Too simple. I expected some kind of speed bump on my way to the holy grail of Here I Stand, using unique card decks for each faction to weave out a 3v2 game which teams mean more than just 1 person bossing and taking over. It turned out to be refined Axis & Allies. Very well-refined, but still too similar. Strategy is simply defending your regions equally, using cube diversity and tracking of opponents' cards (especially the naval movements) to trivially optimize your movements. Nothing wrong with a light dicing game, but the playtime is a tad long (90-120min) for something like this, and if you're going this route, might as well go the whole nine yards and provide plastic figures instead of generic cubes (who wants to play Risk or Axis & Allies with cubes? Ugh).
Couple of things to like in here though, especially this: the Truce 'mercy rule'. Every dice game or luck-infused game needs to sit up and take notice, and try to incorporate this: a mechanism for the runaway leader to cut short the game.
My 2-player game with Jim succumbed to this in only the minimum 3 turns and 30 minutes, though not because I was the runaway leader, but because I was accidentally forced into ending it, since I wasn't aware of that dangerous possibility.
Bay and Joe dropped by mid-game, which was ideal, because I was looking for Bay to swap games with him. He joined me on the American side, and the game was simple enough that Jim was able to show Joe the ropes on the Canadian side while he smashed me. After the lightning-quick game, Jim proposed a re-match since he had to stay there and host the event anyway. I agreed, not because I hoped a full 5er experience (we got another who also learned while playing) would be better, but because the aforementioned games of Dominant Species and Battlestar Galactica had just kicked into high gear. As I suspected, the 5er game was worse like Axis & Allies, further diluting a game with very little interesting strategic value, and simply adding downtime and disagreements between partners (every time I, the Canadian Militia, got overruled by the British on the correct cube-diversity decisions given the odds i.e. stop killing my dudes!, he'd roll all hits on his next volley, invalidating my point. Grrr, thematic in that way, I suppose. All I was good for in that game was ferrying my tyrannical British friends across the border).
Afterward, the other 3 players retired, while Bay assured me that he, like me, does not require sleep. He had a nice bag of out-of-print stuff, and I requested Ascending Empires. He was rusty on the rules, but I had fun figuring it out along with him. This would have been the bona fide hit for me if it weren't for the component issues. I unwittingly sat in the wrong corner of the galaxy, and had enormous trouble trying to flick my ships onto what I knew was a gray planet I needed, since the junction there kept causing my ships to fly off the board, no matter where I flicked from or how hard I pushed the board down (in case you aren't aware, an incredibly dumb, cheap decision was made for this game to have the board be split into puzzle pieces that don't interlock correctly instead of having a one-piece board). In the end, Bay felt so much pity for me that he gave me free flicks to that planet, but I was already too far behind.
Nevertheless, I greatly appreciate the chance to learn the game. It's the first game where flicking isn't the centerpiece (Catacombs says it isn't either, but no, it's still all about the flicking, dressed up with thematic rules), and is instead mechanically integrated into a simple empire-building engine that does require some strategic thinking in terms of how you want to focus. The thematic integration is tight, with flicks being a cool way to move your ships, and long-distance flicks representing the danger in risky flying. I have 2 notes of caution: 1) there is runaway leader syndrome with the techs, but it should be much less of an issue in multiplayer games, where the other player(s) balance the game; 2) the game can drag and be a little too long, especially if the players are turtling and not being aggressive enough (since it's timed by VP chips, and VP chips are primarily earned by killing and destroying) -- could probably salt to taste by tweaking the number of VP chips needed to end the game.
Ended up learning The Castles of Burgundy because Sean insists on teaching me a Eurogame every con (it was either this or Lancaster for 5). Our 3rd was Chris, a cool guy who demo'd some CCG all day, including during our game (he was that good at multi-tasking!). Like all Feld games, the central idea was nifty at first glance, but the game was unjustifiably long at 2 hours. I have no qualms about playing long games (especially at cons), but it felt like Castles of Burgundy is long without the game state getting any more interesting. It's just rinse and repeat what you did 5 times. Some better control of the game length, including using smaller player boards, would have been welcome. Feld seriously doesn't need another bone-dry 2-hour game that runs on a gimmick that's cute for 30 minutes.
A subsequent play after the con revealed to me that the first 30 minutes ever that you play of the game are interesting; not even the first 30 minutes of each play.
Trust Knizia to put the wrong theme on the wrong game. The dragon parade in Dragon Parade makes no sense, but this game would have functioned well as a simulation of the stock market. Not interested in playing again, but I'd use it in a heartbeat to illustrate signaling in a class about stock markets. I was glad to try it too, now I have a base to compare Hab & Gut (which is still in shrink) to.
And speaking of SPANC: Space Pirate Amazon Ninja Catgirls...
Don't Judge a Book by its Cover
I thought I'd seen some of the images (of questionable taste) from this game. I'm not one to turn a game down solely because of theme or artwork, but this game didn't look like it'd pass the Mom test either ("will I be proud of letting my Mom see me play this?"). And what's that on the side? STEVE JACKSON GAMES. Hmm. But Joel and I were waiting on others to arrive, and were up for a quick 2er that could be mutually aborted at any time. I relented after he promised that the game was less than 45 minutes (for a Steve Jackson game... really?).
Setup was disturbingly Munchkin-esque since you have your own tableau of stuff, and there's a "Caper" (encounter/dungeon) deck and a "Toys" (treasure) deck. Similarities ended there. This was very Diamant/Diamant-esque, with push-your-luck on completing each caper first. SPANC is really SP (Space Pirate), Amazon, Ninja and Catgirls, providing 4 arenas/stats for dueling, each with its own benefits and consequences. And the humor was the best of retro-Munchkin: I laughed when I encountered the Zen Master, who decreed that in order to succeed, I had to fail (the die roll). I put on and took off my spiffy Bandana to help opportunistically with die rolls, until Joel started a catfight with me and ripped it to shreds. And POOLBOYS. A pity we didn't get any poolboys down (we aborted after 10 min when the other guys showed up), would have loved to rip one of them apart like a pinata.
I expected this to be a sexploitation game, but turns out it was about female empowerment, with Amazons ruling over the spaceship while thong-wearing Poolboys in bunny costumes serve drinks. I entered the game feeling pervy and I exited feeling emasculated. In a good way, since that was a new, powerful feeling to get after trying a game (instead of simply like/dislike/indifferent).
Another example of appearances meaning nothing sometimes: I brought my copy of A Game of Thrones: The Board Game (Second Edition) to help out with Craig's event, since I wanted to play it anyway. When I got there, Craig was in the midst of explaining, and waved me over to the overflow table, where I saw a bearded guy, and... hmm a father (Steve) and 2 kids who looked 8-10 years old. I looked for the exit while the dad assured me that his kids loved the books (on hindsight, hey should they be reading those at such a tender age?) and they played Diplomacy all the time. That helped, but... hey, that kid is having a rule confusion in Formula D right now!
I shouldn't have worried. The kids were delightful to be around, took as much punishment as they dealt out, and Steve constantly reminded them of manners and rules. The 5th player privately noted to me that he felt like the son was trying to get away with cheating, but I never noticed anything, and even if he did, sportsmanship is a much better and rarer quality to have at that age than ethics (which get ironed out).
As for the game itself, I continued my abysmal record when teaching A Game of Thrones. Though this time, I, as Lannister, had Steve/Greyjoy on the ropes in Turn 3, before Stark interfered and attacked me first. That one crucial moment put me on the run all game, scraping between 1 and 2 castles, and cemented my pet peeve with this game (the Lannister-Greyjoy axis only requires 1 event to tip over and veer into elimination). I was glad it turned out this way though, since I didn't want his first experience to be marooned on the Iron Islands and doing nothing. The game went quickly and down to the last round, where Greyjoy, Baratheon and Tyrell all had a shot. Tyrell was too conservative with his last set of orders, with both his siege engines failing to make the front lines. Greyjoy and Baratheon exchanged the lead multiple times, and in the end, I got a chance to hand the game to Baratheon, by popular opinion, in retaliation for a full-game torture by Greyjoy. The son (Hal) defeated the father (Steve)! Everybody was delighted with the outcome, especially Steve.
Always heartening to see young players get the right guidance on their way to becoming seasoned but easygoing gamers.
Good Games with Good People
I got involved in two teaching games of Eclipse, and lost 2-3 people who got intimidated by the rules explanation (especially the ship customization)... hmm, their loss. On the game I did play, I was proud of my performance, amounting to 'here's how you answer all the overblown complaints about this game on BGG'. I had 'crappy' Explores,
finding a lot of double-Ancient systems, but quickly tooled my fleet to take those systems and their rich rewards, while simultaneously setting pinning traps for Joe the newbie, who had turned into Galactic Badass by taking the center early. Joe got into Missiles to pair with the Ancient Computers he found early, so I went heavily into Interceptors, as we stared each other down from Turn 4 onwards, under the guise of 'diplomatic interactions'.
Crucial move when I passed on Turn 7 right before Joe did to nab the Monolith next turn (Joe the newbie groaned audibly when it happened, good on him for catching on quick!), but Joe managed to get a Monolith anyway in Turn 9. In Turn 8, I did something cool which didn't occur to be before, shutting down my Science production completely via the Influence action and a white planet to push everything into Materials (and Monolith spam in Turn 9), which I maxed out. I had a stack of discs on the INF action that was at least 6 levels high!
The dominoes finally fell on Turn 9, and as always, it only took one move to start it. Brent the newbie rightfully moved against Sean, but Joe moved against me. I pointed out repeatedly that Sean was the clear leader, but this was hard for the newbies to see (especially with Planta's bonus VPs), and I eventually decided to keep quiet after the other 3 got annoyed and chalk up the 'sub-optimal play' to a learning game (I thought it was a little wonky for Sean to misrepresent the VP situation to newbies, but learning game is learning game). My missile defense was ready, as my interceptor swarm flooded into Joe's much richer systems, including his home hex, which had a Monolith on it. While Brent tried to jump into the center. It was an entire clusterf***, but not much bothering Sean unfortunately, and he pulled out the win by 7 VPs (scoring 46).
There were a few hard feelings in the end as we got caught in the moment, but nothing best encapsulates the session than newbie Joe staring past me as I asked him to clear up his side of the board, then finally him realizing it after a full minute and apologizing, "Sorry. Mind. Blown." I got to witness his mind.blown face!
After dinner, it was 8 p.m., which as Sean always says, is BSG time. Craig and I agreed on the condition that everybody is experienced, since we wanted to leave soon. Funny situation when Craig and I were in a hurry to set up, and Craig told Sean he didn't bring his copy but Sean misheard it as he did, while Sean told Craig he was going to call his kids but Craig misheard it as him going to his car to get his copy. So Craig and I sat at the table, watching the clock, wishing Sean's kids would hurry up and go to sleep... 10 minutes later, we finally got to setting up, and the game wrapped in a cool, smooth 2 hours. It was once again a treat to match wits with a table of experienced players, with the game being lightning-fast as everybody knew the cards by title. Session report here.