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A collection of texts about game experiences, analysis, random thoughts about board games and board game design... and whatever else I think vaguely qualifies as being blog-worthy.
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The year I went to Essen and came back unharmed (mostly) - pt.2

Georgios P.
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It won't be easy. But it can be done.
The last entry grew so long in the write-up I had to split it up into two parts. This part is where I talk about the games.

Continued from part 1.

Games I played

I didn't play quite as many games this year as I did the last time I was there. Additionally, I was mostly underwhelmed by the games I tried with two notable (and purchased) exceptions.

Legacy - The Testament of Duke de Crecy. I had my eye on this game long before I made it to Essen. An unusual theme, coupled with charming artwork and a way to generate nice little narrative moments. It hit all the registers to make a game appealing to me. A young man (whose name I've of course forgotten) with a neat Glaswegian accent explained the game to us. I wasn't sure about the lack of interaction in the game, nor am I a fan of games where players only influence each other by playing cards that have negative side-effects. But the game itself was fun. I loved expanding the family tree, and the single player variant (where you trace your family's ancestors) sounds very promising. After some internal back-and-forth I decided to pick up a copy on Saturday, but naturally by then the game had been sold out. Just as I was about to accept my fate and spend that part of my budget on something else, a small number of new copies were unearthed and I managed to snag one of the last 8 or so. I also ran into Ignacy Trzewiczek and couldn't pass up the opportunity to thank him for his games and express my disappointment, that my favourite design of his: Prêt-à-Porter, turned out to be a financial disappointment for Portal. I'm not entirely sure if I chased him away with being such a fanboy, or if he was just in a hurry. I am hoping it was the latter, but I suspect it was the former.

Countdown: Special Ops. This game was problematic. I don't think it's a bad game, but it did strike me as a fairly average cooperative design, held up mostly by its theme. Which is fine. I feel the same way about Police Precinct. Its theme manages to engage me, where the game design fails to do so. But even so Police Precinct has the gang mechanic which makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Dispersing a group of people because they look like trouble, while a fine mechanic, does carry some difficult implications about social class with it. It takes some effort for me to ignore this to enjoy the game. Countdown suffers from a similar problem in that you're playing a team of assassins basically. Admittedly, that is part of the game's setup. You are called in, when negotiations have failed. You are not there to negotiate with (in our case) hostage takers. Still, I would have preferred the game giving me a reason to at least agonize over the decision of whether to kill somebody or not. I fear that killing terrorists is the game's raison d'etre... and that does bug me for some reason. It didn't help that when we flipped over cards at the end of the game to see who the teorrorits' leader was, the card we drew showed basically a caricature of a machine-gun toting, middle-eastern looking man with a long white beard. I'm not offended or anything, but this game does draw its inspiration from real-life issues that are pretty complex. Aesthetic choices like these make it harder for me to just immerse myself into the game and enjoy being part of a cool tactical team. It just seems that a little more subtlety and self-awareness would have gone a long way. But maybe I'm just being oversensitive. For all I know the rest of the terrorist leaders might be white pride nationalists, sporting swastika tattoos all over their face. My biggest issue, though, was the demo itself. The rule explanation was all over the place, confusing most of us and making us bungle our way through the mission. It didn't help that the one time I did ask a question, I received a somewhat dismissive reply starting with "As I already said....". It also didn't help that the demo guy seemed to delight in us losing the game, and only mentioned one of the losing conditions when we accidentally fulfilled it. Or that, after failing the mission, he went on to explain to us all the things we did wrong. Questions that we raised were given inconclusive answers, and in general he didn't seem all that interested in making the game interesting to us so much as show it off to us. All in all, it was a somewhat off-putting experience and the military fetish evident in the way the theme is handled simply left me cold.

Dark Darker Darkest. Luckily, this game left me with far less conflicted impressions. I flat out didn't like it. This was partly because the demo guy - who apparently was an old childhood friend of the couple I was staying with - was worn out and a little confrontational when explaining the game. But the thing that put me off most, was that it seemed like a long, convoluted cooperative game with no real narrative to the gameplay. Things happen randomly, you move around looking for tokens and eventually you are either overwhelmed by zombies or you've collected the right combination of tokens to run to some side of the board and win. It all just seemed like a slog to get through (the box says it takes about 2 hours to play) with your objectives being so heavily randomised, that you might just wander around the board aimlessly until you are either dead or got what you need. At no point did I feel I was actually playing towards my goal so much as just causing random events to happen that sometimes benefitted me but mostly just dragged the game out. The theme also did nothing for me. In fact, it was so generically zombie-related that it made the game feel duller than it was. But hey... the demo guy was proud to have kickstarted it, so he got some absurd number of goodies on top of the regular game. But I just cannot see ever playing Dark Darker Darkest again.

Deadwood - My friend picked up Deadwood at the Heidelberger bargain sale for 15€ or something like that. Admittedly, he's just a big Americana-fan and the pretty artwork and Western-theme was enough to make him curious. We were both ready to be let down by the game, but to our pleasant surprise it played much smoother than we expected it to. The rulebook was a bit of a mess in places, but with some help of BGG and my trusted smartphone we figured things out soon enough. The worker placement element is nicely implemented. I especially like the fact that not only can you try to chase somebody off a spot you want to use, you also have to call your workers back before you can send them out again. Meaning that you can block certain actions for your opponents, but doing so limits your own ability to do things. It's all rather neat and tidily designed and while this type of game isn't generally my cup of tea; I think it's worth recommending to people who might enjoy it and who don't have a huge library of worker placement games yet.

Among the Stars. I couldn't make it to Essen last year. So I missed out on some of the new games from this Greek publisher. I had played Briefcase in the meantime - which really just needed cubes instead of cards to be easy to play - but had missed out on Among the Stars. A friend of mine had bought it last year, but sold it off somewhat underwhelmed. And in many ways this game feels like the less demanding little brother of 7 Wonders. The drafting mechanism invites comparisons, but for some reason the rounds felt much more similiar to one another than they do in 7 Wonders. I think it hurts this game, that there doesn't seem to be a clear progression in power and ability among the cards as the game progresses. I don't think it's a bad game, and if it had been possible to try it with the expansion I might have picked it up. But by that time, my budget for games was already spent and I had trouble fitting the games I had bought into my bag as it was. I think I want one last try in combination with the expansion, but I don't think I'm missing out on that much if that doesn't happen. Sadly, there were no free seats left for the new releases. They did look pretty, though.

Ace Detective - This game was my surprise hit and purchase of the fair. A storytelling game set in the hard-boiled fiction of Black Mask magazine. I'm a fan of the genre and none of the storytelling games I had tried so far, really seemed to work for me. But this one somehow clicked. I liked the way that the cards give you a very definitive framework within which you have to develop the narrative. I like the evaluation mechanic, especially in how the cards give you hints what to look for in somebody else's narration. I'm not really sold on the vaguely competitive aspect of the game. I think for everything it does right, the competetive element seems to chip away at the collaborative foundation of a narrative game. Instead of building a satisfying story, you are tempted to narrate your story and evaluate other players tactically. I think this is simply not compatible with a shared narration game. In all the years I've spent roleplaying and story gaming, it has always been the competitive element that steered the game in the wrong direction. I'm thinking about house ruling it, when I play it with my regular group. Or maybe I'll just try and see what happens. On my train ride back home, I kept thinking how this game might either be a nice way to roleplay without the hassle off a long rulebook or numbers-heavy character sheets. And I also can't help but think that however people handle narrating a story in this game, should give me a good grasp on how well they'd fit into a roleplaying group.

Another highlight this year was running into Patrick Nickell of Crash Games. And I'm very happy to see that he's just as enthusiastic and affable as he comes across online. I backed Council of Verona as a birthday gift for my girlfriend, and it's really shaping up to be the best kickstarter experience yet. Great communication. Transparant progress of the project. And most of all, it's perfectly on time and in some cases even under schedule. I only had time for quick little chat, and though I meant to come back on Saturday or Sunday to talk about games and the fair with him, I just ran out of time (and energy). It was great meeting him in person, and Crash Games is definitely on my list of publishers to watch now.

I also picked up my kickstarted copy of Democracy: Majority Rules, but failed to combine this with a quick chat with Mark Rein•Hagen. I'd have loved to say hi, but it simply slipped my mind that he would be there as well. Ah well... maybe next year.

I headed back home on Monday afternoon. After getting a good night's sleep and despite Deutsche Bahn trying their best to keep me from it, I made it home after a mere 8 hours. After some fairly exhausting 3 days of Spiel, slightly less sleep than usual, crowded trains and halls, wet and windy weather and getting my son to Kindergarten in the early hours I finally succumbed to the cold that had surely been waiting for me since late Friday night... and came down with a nasty fever. While this is a definite improvement health-wise compared to my last visit - where I took home a fairly large-sized scrape on my shin from falling inbetween train and platform on the way back from the fair - I'm going to try to just stay healthy next time. I think it might be a novel experience.
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