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Recent gaming: GMT Weekend at the Warehouse (Apr 22-24, 2016)
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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Apr 18-24, 2016

I normally post geeklists on Mondays that give quick impressions about what I played the previous week. This time, all of my plays last week were at publisher GMT Games' in-house event, their Weekend at the Warehouse. This is something that's been happening twice per year (April & October) for quite some time. I'm not sure when the first one took place, perhaps around 2010? I may be way off.

It's an odd thing. It's not a convention. It's not a trade show. It's not a product launch, or a shareholder's meeting, or a gaming weekend at your buddy's house. Instead, it's kind of all of those things. GMT Games is located in the boonies of central California (Hanford--look it up!), and they have an old warehouse that matches the 100 year old farm town surroundings. They make room to set out a couple dozen folding tables and plenty of folding chairs, then invite gamers to come play all weekend.

Did I say gamers? I should've said wargamers. GMT publishes other games, too (e.g. Urban Sprawl, Thunder Alley, Dominant Species, Battleline), and I'd heard friends tell me that plenty of euros are played at the warehouse weekend...but that wasn't true! Yes, there were a few, but very few. The event is focused on wargames, which are still GMT's bread & butter. That was fine for me, since I get plenty of eurogaming, while wargaming is more of a rare treat. But it was a bit of misdirection for a few of my friends who were also attending for the first time. They still had fun, but now know this really isn't their kind of event.

As for me, time will tell. I think I'd like to make it back, and will be sure to pre-arrange some wargames to play with friends & strangers.


-Mark

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1. Board Game: Touring [Average Rating:5.22 Overall Rank:13852]
Mark Johnson
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Santa Clarita
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You can't fly to Hanford, but you can drive there. (I think you can also take a train.) My buddy Brian rode with me up & back. From my town (Santa Clarita), the drive is just under 3 hours. Very doable. Over the Grapevine Pass, then down into the vast San Joaquin valley that is central California. I grew up in Lodi, California, a town not unlike Hanford. I knew what to expect. (One star removed because I need to get a new car. My '99 Toyota Celica convertible isn't the most comfortable for this kind of trip.)
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2. Board Game: Keltis: Der Weg der Steine Mitbringspiel [Average Rating:6.44 Overall Rank:2191]
Mark Johnson
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After arriving at the warehouse, we got our nametags and tried to figure out what was going on. On the one hand, it's like a big family. Most people seemed to kind of know each other (lots of regulars), and had already been there since the morning or day before. Also like a family gathering, there was no registration, no schedule...everyone was kind of on their own. We got back in the car and headed to the center of town to grab some lunch. We'd met a 3rd friend at the warehouse (he flew up from San Diego to Fresno, then rented a car to drive to Hanford), and a 4th from our LA area was driving up to meet us. Found an ok bbq place on 7th street and played Knizia's "travel version" of Keltis while we ate. Actually, I think this is the best version of Keltis. Never published in English, I guess. Too bad.
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3. Board Game: Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection [Average Rating:8.00 Overall Rank:858]
Mark Johnson
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After lunch it was back to the warehouse, time to play our first wargame. I'd filled my buddies' email inboxes all week leading up to the event, with my excess of planning & anticipation. Out of that came the unanimous idea that we try Liberty or Death. Dave & I had each played one COIN game (him Cuba Libre, me Fire in the Lake), Brian had played several, and it was new ground for Greg. LoD is reportedly at the easier/shorter end of the COIN spectrum, and it's also the "new hotness" in wargames. Added bonus: designer Harold Buchanon was at the warehouse, playing another game at the next table over, and happy to talk to us about his creation.

It was one of those "good experience" games, meaning I'm glad to have had the experience playing it, but am not in a hurry to do so again. In my limited experience with COIN, I find I'm just so preoccupied with remembering how to turn all of the knobs in the game that I lose sight of the subject and history being depicted. On the other hand, it teaches me things I didn't already know, and lead to reading afterward. (Of course, ALL wargames do that--see below.) I know the hobby has moved on, but deep down I'm still a hex & counter wargamer who is happy with a CRT.
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4. Board Game: Eight-Minute Empire [Average Rating:6.64 Overall Rank:934]
Mark Johnson
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LoD was deeper and took longer than most of us expected. That, combined with warehouse rotary roof vents that were squeaking THE ENTIRE TIME left us kind of fried. Stepping outside for some cool & quiet air gave us the idea to head back to the hotel and play some games there. At that point I think everyone was wondering if the weekend was worth it, since we could've stayed home and done that. Dave went to buy some beers for us and we found a place to play in the hotel breakfast room. Not ideal, but more comfortable than the warehouse had been. I opened my copy of 8 Minute Empires, thinking it was a little more wargamey than your average filler eurogame. Nope, it was so non-confrontational, it was a standard euro. (Nothing wrong with that--we own & enjoy a million of those--but I was trying to find something slightly different for this weekend. Whoops.)

It served its purpose, giving our brains a little refresh before diving into the next game. I heard the Legends version is a little better (some differences of opinion about that), but what I really want is the real-world map of Europe to play on. I guess that was a Kickstarter special? Didn't see an easy way to get it now, and don't want to spend top dollar for it. Just thought it would be kind of fun.
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5. Board Game: 1775: Rebellion [Average Rating:7.81 Overall Rank:228]
Mark Johnson
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While playing LoD, someone bubbled up the idea of playing this lighter treatment of the same conflict. Only half of us had played before, and I already knew I loved it (also 1812, though I think this one is slightly better). It took a little longer than expected to re-read the rules and get them right, but then we were off. It's definitely fun, and has just enough history in it to feel significant (though that limitation keeps it from a 5th star). Unlike in COIN, here your partner really IS your partner, 100%. That's just fun, to play as a heartfelt team. We kept the notional teams from LoD but switched sides. Dave & I lost again.


Went out for late pizza, then called it a night around midnight.
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6. Board Game: Let's Go Shopping [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
Mark Johnson
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On Saturday morning there's a talk given about the company, its products in development, and so on. It's a very open & informative session that was well-attended and listened to intently. (You had to listen intently to hear past those squeaky roof vents! Fortunately, they were quieter for the rest of the weekend. Whew...)

Then there's an opportunity to buy GMT products. This is a company that has always done some direct sales from their website, so it should be no surprise that they're set up to do so from the warehouse, too. Seemed like just about everyone was involved, including myself. It's pretty fun to be in a warehouse stacked high with games you've considered, and you might find yourself buying more than you originally intended. I know I did.
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7. Board Game: Wild Blue Yonder [Average Rating:7.18 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.18 Unranked]
Mark Johnson
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Santa Clarita
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We're probably not supposed to say much about playtesting, but I can talk around this one. It was one of my two scheduled "events" for the weekend. WBY is going to be the latest version of Dan Verssen's Down In Flames series of WW2 air combat card games that he first launched with GMT over twenty years ago. I have those originals & still love them. I don't really need a new version, but Brian does. He preordered WBY some time ago (using GMT's P500 system), and when we learned that some late playtesting was happening at the warehouse, we signed up. Better still, the testing was on the Battle of Britain campaign, which syncs up perfectly with my latest wargame podcast series! Hurray!

I didn't read as many of the new rules as I should've, so the developer's goal of just sitting back to watch us play on our own didn't work. We needed his guidance to remember how to play everything. We still had a good time, and I hope it was still useful for him.
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8. Board Game: 303 [Average Rating:6.36 Overall Rank:5369]
Mark Johnson
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Now we'd played one Battle of Britain game. When we first arrived the previous day I watched two other wargamers play The Burning Blue, one of the heavier games on the topic. Now I pulled out what must be about the lightest Battle of Britain game ever. 303 is a small game commissioned(?) by the Polish National Museum to commemorate the role expat Pole and Czech pilots played in the famous battle. I played the online/flash version a few times, and happily ordered a physical copy (along with two other games made under similar arrangement).

This is REALLY light. It's got close cousins in checkers/draughts as much as wargames. One player attempts to move a single German bomber from a starting hex near the Pas de Calais to London. If he makes it there, he wins the game. He also has a few escorting Me-109s. There aren't many hexes to begin with, and there is no stacking. Attacks are rolled with custom dice, which have 50% hits for the Germans, 50% for the RAF. The defenders have some Spitfires/Hurricanes, a couple more than appear mid-game (these are the Poles of namesake 303 Squadron, plus Czechs), and similarly simple move & combat rules. That's it! Makes good sense as a game you might buy in a museum gift shop, and actually play it a few times, even if you aren't a gamer.
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9. Board Game: Air Superiority [Average Rating:6.73 Overall Rank:3440]
Mark Johnson
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Santa Clarita
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No, we didn't play this game. We went to lunch at Superior Dairy. This was one of the highlights for me. It's a throwback ice cream shop with a long lunch counter and several booths. They have basic stuff for lunch (this is where they lose one star--the sandwich & chips were also a throwback to an earlier, basic era). The real attraction is the ice cream, which is served in enormous quantities. A couple guys had root beer floats, a couple more had milkshakes. By now we'd acquired our 5th friend, Jeff, too. He grew up in Bakersfield, and lives in Fresno, so he KNOWS this neck of the woods. He suggested Superior Dairy and it was a winner.
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10. Board Game: Tank Battle [Average Rating:5.28 Overall Rank:14170]
Mark Johnson
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Santa Clarita
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More playtesting. This one has further to go than Wild Blue Yonder, so I don't think I should say too much. Suffice it to say that it's a relatively quick card-based, multiplayer tank duel game that's played with cards & systems reminiscent of Up Front. To me, that's a good thing. Half of our group (the more euro guys) felt it was a little slow & overly complicated, while the other half (the more wargamey guys) thought it was pretty fun already, and on its way to being a good product. So, you see, it has as much to do with the intended audience as anything.
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11. Board Game: Fading Glory [Average Rating:7.55 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.55 Unranked]
Mark Johnson
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I was really happy about this one. I already own & enjoy several of the Napoleonic 20 game series, the little ziplocks from Victory Point Games. During the morning's shopping spree I finally picked up this deluxe edition from GMT, and I'm very pleased with it. The maps & counters are beautiful to this lover of hexagons & old school wargames. I'm aware of the criticisms that this system's high scale means that much of amazing detail in Napoleonic combat gets filed away to just the core system. However, that doesn't bother me. In fact, I really love how amazingly simple & smooth the gameplay is. At the same time, the event cards, cavalry rules, morale resource, and unique maps give it plenty of real history for me. This system just hits the sweet spot for me, with a near-perfect balance of historicity and streamlining.

Dave had owned the game for some time, but never played. We played the Salamanca scenario, which was designed by my friend Steve Carey. He was at the warehouse, and stopped by to watch us play a bit, and talk about it after. He grinned and said we, "made a papa proud" to see his scenario being played. A couple days later I've read more about the history of the actual battle, and studied some maps to gain a greater understanding about what happened in reality, and how our game relates to that. It's what I love about our hobby.
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12. Board Game: Urban Sprawl [Average Rating:6.78 Overall Rank:1163]
Mark Johnson
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Santa Clarita
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I'd heard some mixed things about this game, but Brian is a fan and Greg owns a copy. Jeff was at another table playing Thunder Alley, so the four remaining (that includes Dave) gave Urban Sprawl a shot. It's a compelling theme, one that's been behind games like Metropolis, Sim City The Card Game, Big City, Machi Koro, and others. Brian warned us that it can have a rich-get-richer thing going on, and that we should pounce onto any leader that emerges. That turned out to be him, and it looked like none of us were doing a good job bringing him down. I did horribly, partly through stupidity, but partly because I was tired and couldn't always read the "event" portion of the city development cards from across the table (the cards have quite a bit of text on them). Dave started gaining on Brian near the end, though, and managed to have most of the elected politician tiles, all of which generated endgame bonuses. He ended up squeaking past Brian for a competitive game, after all. (That is, if you ignore me!)
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13. Board Game: Welcome to Centerville [Average Rating:6.78 Unranked]
Mark Johnson
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I'm going to go out on a limb here, because I think this was technically still in playtesting. But it seems essentially finished, and I thought it worked really well. Maybe a bit of work to-go on the graphics, but even those are in good shape. This is, essentially, the dice game version of Urban Sprawl, and it also will remind anyone of Ra The Dice Game. I think it's a dice game with some meat on its bones, as there are some real decisions to be made about which colored dice to roll (they're all different), and what to do with the dice faces you're left with. Different strategies to follow, all anchored by a scoring system that requires SOME balance, but doesn't make everyone follow the same path. Good stuff.
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14. Board Game: War in the Wind: The Battle of Attu Island, 1943 [Average Rating:7.33 Unranked]
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
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The other game I pre-arranged to be played. My opponent, Jason, had recently posted an excellent session report about this unusual game and its unusual topic, the American recovery of Attu, the Aleutian Island the Imperial Japanese had invaded a couple years earlier in WW2. At the end of his report, Jason indicated he was going to bring the game to the Warehouse Weekend, and hoped to get a 2-player game going. I wrote to him to ask if I might be that second player, and it turns out he'd wondered the same since he knew me from my wargame podcast (including the fact that I like smaller wargames, even about obscure subjects). Perfect! I'd never met him in person, but Jason turned out to be a good person to meet, and a new wargaming friend. I met him early on Sunday morning (8:30am), and he'd already set up the game for us.

The situation is a desparate one for the outnumbered, unreinforced Japanese. In fact, they are doomed. They can only make the Americans pay dearly for retaking the island, and that's how victory is measured. The Japanese units are semi-unknown, placed & moved face-down until hit or engaged in melee combat. Then they are revealed, and may be 1, 2, or 3-step units. The American infantry all start at 4-step units, and have better artillery, too.

One of the stars of this game is the map, which I just saw was done by the same talented Knut Gru╠łnitz that did my Salamanca game, above! The terrain is steep & brutal, with no roads. The Japanese can move more easily here, but the Americans have all the firepower. At one point I felt I had the momentum to crush the Japanese defenders, and foolishly pressed an attack when I was not in supply. (There are separate engineer counters that can set up a chain of supply depots from the invasion beaches.) Ouch. Lesson learned.

The other cool thing is the weather, which goes from bad to worse. You end up learning a new word, williwaw, for a brutal combination of high wind and fog. (Its word origin is unknown, perhaps originally from sailors going through the Straits of Magellan in South America, and now applied here in the northern hemisphere where the same thing occurs.)
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15. Board Game: GEM [Average Rating:6.37 Overall Rank:4912]
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
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While I played War in the Wind, Dave & Brian played Labyrinth at the table next to me (Greg had to leave early that morning). When we all finished around the same time, there was time for just a couple short euros (microgames, really) to end the weekend on a lighter note. GEM is one of the original Pack O Game series I'd most wanted to try. It's a clever bidding game using double-ended cards to expend & "reinvest" in money to buy gems...and then gems to buy more gems. It was a bit of a head-scratcher, and then we ended with a tie that seemed almost inevitable. Hmm. Need to try this again.
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16. Board Game: BUS [Average Rating:6.37 Overall Rank:4297]
Mark Johnson
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One final Pack O Game titles, the pick up & deliver game that's really about route planning. Again, all played with these long, skinny cards. This is just for 2-3 players, kind of interesting that way. We played the more challenging version where the side of the street matters for pickups and dropoffs. It was over too soon, and also deserves another play.

Edit: Bonus for the fact that the Pack O Game family and designer Chris Handy also hail from the San Joaquin valley. In this case, it's Turlock, where my dad grew up in the 1940s & 50s. (I went there in the 1970s to visit my grandparents.)
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17. Board Game: Home You Go [Average Rating:4.06 Unranked]
Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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That's a Palm Pilot on the left, and a pink iPod mini on the right. Yes, I've been doing BGTG that long!
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And that was it. Brian & I loaded up my little car again, Dave went back to the airport, and the other guys had already left. Unlike other gaming events I've been to, the attendance was really light on Sunday. It's technically part of the weekend, but I gather that the regulars mostly focus on Thursday-Saturday, then travel home leisurely on Sunday.

It was a unique experience, and I'm glad I went. As I said, I think I'll be back, and I hope so. Now I know that it's really focused on just wargames, which is no problem for me as long as I have them scheduled. I don't do pickup games so well with wargaming, as I like to pick something we both enjoy, and ensure at least one of us knows the rules beforehand. The wargame podcast gives me a perfect opportunity to schedule stuff with friends & strangers, if I care to do so. The relative proximity to home is a plus, and the quirkiness of farm town California is ok with me.

Thanks to those that put on the event, especially Elizabeth and the other staffers.
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18. Board Game: Talon [Average Rating:7.72 Overall Rank:2014] [Average Rating:7.72 Unranked]
Jeff Myers
United States
Fresno
California
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I'm too lazy to make my own geeklist, so I am just going to ham in on Mark's.

This was my first time attending the Weekend at the Warehouse, in spite of my buddy Mike telling me for years that I should give it a try, and I ended up having a really nice time. Everyone I talked to was really nice and made me feel welcome.

My first game of the day was Talon. Now, I used to play Star Fleet Battles back in high school, but Talon has everything I loved about that game, and you don't have to have an accounting degree to play this one.

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19. Board Game: Thunder Alley [Average Rating:7.41 Overall Rank:514] [Average Rating:7.41 Unranked]
Jeff Myers
United States
Fresno
California
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This was the first time I got to play Thunder Alley, and I can't say that I was overjoyed with it, but I have a feeling it was just one of those games where a combination of sub-optimal play and unlikely card draws led to a weird experience. I will certainly give it another try.

Huge bonus for getting to play with some old friend I hadn't seen in a while.
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