Everything I Played: Pacificon in Santa Clara, CA
Chris Ferejohn
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Originally posted at EverythingIPlayed.blogspot.com.

Over labor day weekend I went to Pacificon, a local game convention. It was the first game convention I'd been to since my freshman year of college, about 18 years ago.

Woah. There really needs to be an English word for suddenly realizing how long ago high school was. I bet there's a German one.

I digress.

I volunteered to run a couple of "official" game sessions at the Con - Race for the Galaxy on Saturday and Die Macher on Sunday. As a result I got free admission to the con. I didn't stay at the hotel either, and with the money I saved I splurged in the dealer's room and picked up Cutthroat Caverns and all three expansions, the new Race for the Galaxy expansion (Rebel vs. Imperium), and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation from the dealers room. I also bought used copies of Candamir: The First Settlers and O Zoo le Mio for a total of $15 on Sunday.

But this isn't Everything I Bought, it's Everything I Played, so lets get to it.
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1. Board Game: Race for the Galaxy [Average Rating:7.77 Overall Rank:50]
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September 5th, 11:30 AM: Race For the Galaxy Tournament


I arrived on Saturday morning in time to run my "official" Race for the Galaxy tournament. I had intended to use just the first expansion, but I had about 45 minutes to kill when I arrived, so I wandered over to the dealer's room and picked up the second expansion as well.

It's just as well that I picked up the second expansion because as it so happened we ended up with 12 players, one of whom also had both expansions. With both expansions, it is possible to play up to 6 players, so we split into 2 games of 6.

In Race for the Galaxy, players are competing to gain victory points by putting cards into their tableau (a fancy french word meaning "all the crap in front of you") and by producing and consuming goods using said cards. Each turn, all players secretly pick one of 5 actions and then *all* players get to do every action that was chosen. This works quite well with 3 or 4 players (which is the most you could play with in the original game), but with 5, and especially 6, the odds that a given role will be chosen get very good, so there is less risk to predicting what an opponent will do - even if you are wrong, there's a pretty good chance someone else will do it. Also, keeping track of what 5 other players are doing - which is necessary to play the game well - can get a bit difficult. I managed to set up a pretty efficient produce/consume loop and won the first game.

Scores:
Chris - 50
Raphael - 47
Eric - 35
Brian - 23
Lucy - 18
Charles - 18

Game time: 50 minutes

 
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2. Board Game: Race for the Galaxy: The Gathering Storm [Average Rating:8.08 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.08 Unranked]
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After the first game, I had everyone play a second 6-player game with as few similar opponents as possible (though a few were inevitable with 2 6-player games). In this game, my observation that it you didn't need to worry too much about predicting which roles would be selected came back to bite me in the ass. On the third turn or so I wanted to call the produce action, but it seemed like one of my opponents was very likely to do the same, so I gambled that he would do so, and he did not. This basically cost me a turn, and I never really managed to get back into the game (which went very fast as Paul had a very good draw).

Scores:
Paul - 43
Brian - 37
Thomas - 35
Chris - 23
Charles - 21
Lloyd - 18

Game time: 45 minutes
 
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3. Board Game: Race for the Galaxy: Rebel vs Imperium [Average Rating:7.95 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.95 Unranked]
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After the two "round robin" games, 4 players had each won exactly 1 game, so we had a 4-player "championship" game (and I should stress here that we were competing for exactly nothing other than pride). And yes, I did have a needlessly complicated tiebreaking algorithm to use if someone had won more than one game.

For the final game, we decided to use the optional takeover rules introduced in the second expansion. The takeover rules allow a player to "steal" a world from another player's tableau, but only if the stealer and the stealee meet a fairly specific set of criteria. Unfortunately, this game got put under a bit of time pressure as the official Le Havre event (see below) was about to start and one of the players (Raphael) who was in the final game was signed up to play in it. I was feeling a little frazzled from the combination of organizing and playing the games, so I did not play my best. However, I got pretty thoroughly stomped so it's not clear it would have mattered much if I did.

Scores:
Paul - 56
Raphael - 46
Bill - 36
Chris - 26

Game time: 40 minutes
 
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4. Board Game: Le Havre [Average Rating:7.91 Overall Rank:37]
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September 5th, 2:00 PM: Le Havre

While I was not originally signed up for the Le Havre event, there was room for me, so I decided to join. Raphael (the guy from the Race for the Galaxy game above) was actually the person who taught me Le Havre at the Bay Area Games Day meetup a while back.



In Le Havre (pronounced the way Brett Favre's name *should* be pronounced) players are competing to make the most money. They do this by acquiring goods, building buildings, and using those buildings (both their own and other players') to manipulate, transform, and monetize those goods. For example, you can get a bunch of cattle, use the Abattoir (a fancy french word meaning DIE COW! DIE DIE DIE!) building to turn the cattle into meat and hides, use the Tannery building to turn the hides into leather (earning some money in the process), then ship the leather using the Shipping Line building on one of your boats (which was built using the Wharf building).

At the beginning of the game, only a handful of buildings are available (basically the ones that allow you to build more buildings), but as the game progresses your options become nearly overwhelming. The thing that distinguishes it from a lot of other "build an economic engine" games (Race for the Galaxy and Puerto Rico come to mind) is that in Le Havre, after you build your engine, you get to crank it a couple times before the end of the game. While there is definitely something satisfying about this - Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy can feel like the game ends just as you get everything set up the way you want it - it does make the game a bit long, roughly an hour per player. I don't mind a longer game, and this one stays interesting for me the whole time, but the length does mean it doesn't get played as often as shorter games.

My brain was still a little fuzzy from rushing through the Race for the Galaxy games earlier than zipping over to the Le Havre game. Also, I hadn't eaten anything since about 9 AM and it was now after 2:00. As a result, I floundered a bit at the beginning of the game, allowing the other 2 players (ok, mostly Raphael) to grab the better buildings. I recovered a bit in the mid-to-late game stage, grabbing the extremely useful coal-related buildings and shipping out a couple very valuable loads of goods. However, Raphael, while very cash poor, had a huge advantage in the value of his buildings and despite my 60+ franc shipment at the end of the game, it wasn't particularly close.

Scores:
Raphael - 274
Chris - 209
Brian - 198

Game time: 160 minutes

 
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5. Board Game: Saint Petersburg [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:232]
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September 5th, 5:30 PM: Saint Petersburg



After grabbing lunch and slugging down one of the Venom energy drinks that were being handed out free as a promotion (no better or worse than many energy drinks, may induce sugar-shock in those over 30, art on the bottles is somewhat hilarious - something Strong Bad would design), I saw some folks setting up a game of Saint Petersburg. As there were 3 of them, and Saint Pertersburg plays best with 4, I asked if I could join, and they said sure.

In Saint Petersburg, players are taking turns buying cards that in turn generate money and victory points. As is the case in many games of this type, you spend the early part of the game trying to get as much money as possible, and then turn your attention to victory points.

I'd played Saint Petersburg a few times, mostly with Jay and Vikki, a couple of folks from a San Francisco meetup who play it a lot. As a consequence, I don't think I'd ever come particularly close to winning. The folks I was playing with this evening were new to the game - I think they said they had played half a game once. As Saint Pete's is definitely a game where the strategies become more obvious after your first game ("oh, *that's* what I should have done"), I rolled to a fairly comfortable win.

Scores:
Chris - 119
David - 78
Susanne - 68
Michael - 68

Game time: 75 minutes
 
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6. Board Game: Race for the Galaxy [Average Rating:7.77 Overall Rank:50]
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September 5th, 8:30 PM: The Race for the Galaxy Game that Time Forgot


OK, fine, it's just the Race for the Galaxy game that *I* forgot. I remember I went into the open gaming room, and I remember playing the game, but I'm just drawing a blank as to what happened. I did write down the score, and the picture seems to imply that I had the Damaged Alien Factory as my start world, but other than that, guh?

I think it is because I went on to play five games of Space Alert with (mostly) these same folks, so my memory of them is tied to that game rather than to Race for the Galaxy. Anyway, the blog is "Everything I Played", not "Everything I remember well enough to say something intelligent about that I Played". And there's a picture, so there.

Also, to those who feel obligated to point out that the comma and period in that sentence should have been *inside* the quotes: I know. I was a technical writer for 6 years. Now I'm not. I've had it up to here with your "rules", when do we get the guns?

Again, I digress. "Everything I can contort into a Simpson's reference" is also another blog.

Scores:
Chris - 43
Matt - 39
Kevin - 39
Leslie - 23

Game time: 45 minutes

 
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7. Board Game: Space Alert [Average Rating:7.49 Overall Rank:149]
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September 5th, 9:30 PM: The Space Alert March of Death


Space Alert is a game that I'd heard a lot about. 2008 saw the release of a number of popular new cooperative games: Pandemic, Ghost Stories, and Battlestar Galactica all were big hits (and I've played and enjoyed all three). Arriving at the tail end of the year, Space Alert was one I'd not yet tried, and given that it was designed by the same guy who designed Galaxy Trucker, which I enjoy immensely, I was pretty excited to try it out.

Like Galaxy Trucker (which is *not* cooperative), Space Alert uses an element of time pressure. I found this a very welcome addition to a cooperative game. One of the problems with co-ops is that one player (usually the most experienced - especially when teaching) can dominate the game. "The best thing for you to do is go here and do that." "Uh, OK." "OK, now you go here and do this." "Umm, do you just want to play and we can come back when you are done?" A number of co-ops mitigate this by adding a traitor to the mix. Battlestar Galactica, Shadows Over Camelot, and Saboteur all take this approach.

In Space Alert, all players are working together to try to survive on a ship that is under attack, but they are playing along to one of several CD tracks which is telling them what threats are coming (drawn out of a deck, so even games that use the same soundtrack are different), and gives them a limited amount of time to figure out how to deal with them. While the CD track plays, you select actions (face-down, though you can discuss them), and after it is done, you "replay" the scenario, using the actions that you chose and see if you managed to survive.


For our first game, we played the training mission. This is designed so even a team of first-time players can have a chance to win, so there are not too many threats and you have a decent amount of time to deal with them. Fortunately, Matt, who taught us the game, had played a number of times before, and with his coaching we were pretty easily able to survive.

The next three games (no longer on the "training" level) pretty well showed how one mistake from one player can tank the whole game. In the first game, Robert lost track of where he was early in the game. He managed to figure it out (by playing a card that allowed him to "teleport" to a designated spot on the ship), but by that time it was too late - the lost time cost us the game. In the next game, Matt (the guy who taught us), accidentally went right when he meant to go left (and didn't realize it until we were resolving the orders) and ended up spending a lot of actions in the wrong compartment of the ship. In the third game, I played a card that let me teleport to a certain section of the ship, but I misread the card and thought I was in a different section than I actually was. We lost all three games.


It was getting late at this point and I had to drive back up to San Francisco, so I almost decided to pack it in there. However, the other players talked me into trying one more game and additionally a guy who had watched the last game and a half agreed to join us. I don't recall his name, so I shall refer to him as "Guy Lombardo". With Guy in the fold, we avoided major miscues (though we did have a few minor ones), and managed - just barely - to survive. Success experience in hand, I headed back home for the evening.

Players:
Chris
Matt
Leslie
Robert
Guy Lombardo (game 5 only)

Results:
Game 1 (Training) - Win
Game 2 - Loss
Game 3 - Loss
Game 4 - Loss
Game 5 - Glorious glorious victory!

Game time: About 40 minutes per game.
 
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8. Board Game: Die Macher [Average Rating:7.65 Overall Rank:187]
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September 6th, 10:30 AM: Die, Die Macher, Die

As I mentioned above, I had agreed to facilitate a game of Die Macher on Sunday morning. What I neglected to mention is that I had never in fact played Die Macher before. I agreed to run it several months before, and I hoped to get a chance to play it sometime before Pacificon, but several attempts at organizing a game fell through (I suppose "want to play a 4-hour game about German Parliamentary Elections?" might not be the most tempting offer to most people). I did set it up myself and play through a few turns (which made me want to play it all the more - it looks really fun, if involved).

I was therefore a bit nervous about running the game, and really hoped all the players would know what they were doing, since I was pretty sure that it would be challenging for me to teach. There were three other players signed up to play, so I got the game set up and waited for my players. At about 10:30, when the game was scheduled to start, one of the signed up players came over and said that himself and another of the signed up players were in another tournament and wouldn't be able to play. Then the remaining player came over and said he was also in a game (though he was willing to quit it if we could get started). My attempts to try to recruit additional players to play a game that could take as long as 5 hours with inexperienced players were unsuccessful, so I apologized to the convention organizers, inwardly breathed a little sigh of relief, took a picture, packed up the game, and headed off to open gaming.
 
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9. Board Game: Puerto Rico [Average Rating:8.06 Overall Rank:16]
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September 6th, Noon: Puerto Rico

As I arrived in the open gaming room, I found some folks just setting up Puerto Rico. I asked if they'd like another player, and they said sure.


In Puerto Rico, players are attempting to amass victory points by buying buildings and producing and shipping goods. On their turn, a player picks a role, and then all players get to perform that role in clockwise order. If that sounds similar to Race for the Galaxy, that's because it is - Race for the Galaxy was originally developed as a card-game version of Puerto Rico, which eventually was simplified and turned into San Juan.

The fact that actions are performed in clockwise order rather than simultaneously means that seating order is much more important than in Race for the Galaxy, where it is nearly irrelevant. In fact, one of the flaws people have found with the game is that in a game with players of unequal skill, sitting to the left of the least experienced/worst player (where you are in best position to take advantage of his mistakes) can make a huge difference.

This was definitely true in this game. The two less experienced players were on my left, and they did indeed make quite a few mistakes, but I wasn't able to take very good advantage of any of them. The player to my immediate left (Karl) made some in particularly poor plays - calling the Produce action constantly, which generally set up the player on his left (John) to very profitably trade (for money) or ship (for victory points) goods. As a result, John, despite clearly being fairly new to the game, won. He played all right, but it was pretty clear to me that if he and I had switched seats, I probably would have come out on top.

Man, that sounds like sour grapes, but its really just an observation. I still had fun!

Scores:
John A - 48
Chris - 43
John B - 43
Karl - 33
Lois - 33

Game Time: 100 minutes
 
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10. Board Game: Brass: Lancashire [Average Rating:8.01 Overall Rank:35]
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September 6th, 2:00 PM: Relearning Brass

Brass is a game I had played once before about 6 months ago. I remember quite liking it, but I didn't remember exactly how to play. I saw a couple guys setting it up and I asked if I could join. It turns out they had just bought it, so they didn't know how to play either. I was a bit leery - Brass is a fairly complicated game and I generally dislike "let's all slog through the rules and learn together" - if I have a complex game I want to introduce to people I'll set it up myself and play through a few turns solo so I know what I'm doing.


We screwed up a number of rules that I eventually sussed out of the rulebook because based on my previous experience "it didn't look right". I've heard some complaining about the Brass rulebook, but I was actually pleasantly surprised by it. It had a section on "rules that people often get wrong," and lo and behold, there were several rules in there we were getting wrong. It also includes a full page written by the designer (controversial train magnate Martin Wallace) in which he describes some basic strategy to help people who just don't have any idea how to get started.

Once we were playing the game correctly, I suggested starting over so we could play right from the beginning, but neither of the other guys wanted to do that, so I shrugged and played on. I'd dug myself a bit of a hole as I did things basically at random during the beginning of the game, but I was able to claw back to second place by the end despite being pretty far behind the income curve for most of the game. This is one I really need to try and play again soon so I don't forget everything about it again.

Scores:
Miguel - 170
Chris - 130
Paul - 125

Game time: 140 minutes
 
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11. Board Game: Chaos in the Old World [Average Rating:7.68 Overall Rank:93]
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September 6th, 5:00 PM: 2 Games of Chaos in the Old World

The same guys who had just gotten Brass had also just picked up Chaos in the Old World, a new title from Fantasy Flight set in the world of Warhammer Fantasy.

Warhammer Fantasy (distinct from "Warhammer 40K") is basically a much darker, more chaos-laden version of the standard Tolkein-esque fantasy genre, and Chaos in the Old World involves 4 of the factions from this setting fighting over a map of a continent which I can only assume was the titular Old World. I don't know much about the back story, so I didn't much care which faction I ended up playing. I ended up with Khord, who seemed to be the least subtle of the races. Put a helmet on, get in there and hurt somebody. Worked for me.


The game is actually a pretty intricate working together of several different paths to victory. There are victory points that can be acquired in a number of ways - dominating provinces (having the most units in them), corrupting provinces (piling corruption tokens into them until they become wastelands, or by fulfilling goals specific to your faction. These faction goals are represented by little wheels on the board - every time you accomplish a faction related goal (in Khords case killing another unit), you get to spin the wheel and get a bonus which could be victory points, upgrades to your units, or special favors, and if you spun your factions wheel enough times, you could win the game that way. I liked the multiple paths to victory, and upon first blush, they seemed fairly well balanced. While we were all attempting to attend to our own victory conditions, we collectively let Miguel (playing the Slaanesh if that means anything to you) run off with the game.

Scores (ok, there aren't scores really since the game wasn't won by VPs):
Miguel (Slaanesh) - Winner
Chris (Khord) - Loser
Paul (Nurgle) - Loser
Gabriel (Tzeench) - Loser

Game time - 90 minutes

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12. Board Game: Chaos in the Old World [Average Rating:7.68 Overall Rank:93]
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Miguel and Paul were up for another game, so we recruited another player (Trevor) and gave it another go. Miguel wanted to stick with the Slaanesh, but the rest of us traded our races around - I ended up as the Tzeench, a faction that was able to do a lot of manipulation with their hand of cards. I felt like I was seeing what was going on a lot better in this second game and I managed to pull off some clever (well, seemed clever to me, anyway) moves where I was able to teleport other people's units around and set up favorable situations for myself.

On the last turn, Paul (Khord) and I both managed to reach the final spot on our respective faction wheels. A quick trip to the rulebook later we found that the winner in this case was the player with the most victory points. My second to last spin of the wheel had granted me 4 points, which proved to be the difference, and I won what felt like a very close game.

Balancing a fairly complex game with 4 different sides who all have different powers and victory conditions seems like a nearly impossible task, and I would imagine that if I played this game enough which side was "best" would start to become apparent, but at least initially, I'm pretty impressed with the design and balance in this ambitious game.

Scores:
Chris (Tzeench) - Winner!
Paul (Khord) - Loser
Miguel (Slaanesh) - Loser
Trevor (Nurgle) - Loser

Game time: 140 minutes
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13. Board Game: Galaxy Trucker [Average Rating:7.46 Overall Rank:129]
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September 6th, 9:00 PM: One more Galaxy Trucker for the Road

As the evening was winding down, I was looking for one more game. There were 6 or 7 folks hovering around the front of the room with the same thought, and a few of us decided to play Galaxy Trucker. One of the players (Leon) was new, but he seemed quite content to lose happily, which is pretty inevitable for a new Galaxy Trucker player (the losing part, not the happy part).


In Galaxy Trucker, players race to build the best ship they can using tiles representing crew holds, engines, guns, cargo holds, etc. They subsequently fly these ships through a series of hazards, picking up some cargo and maybe cash on the way if they are lucky. Bonus money is awarded for finishing first and for having your ship survive the journey as intact as possible. Most of the game is in the building of the ships. Once you are flying, there are not many decisions to be made, just die rolls to determine where asteroids, laser fire, and other obstacles hit your ship.

In the (possibly paraphrased) words of the rulebook "If you end up with at least $1, you win! After all, you were in this to make money, weren't you? So what if some of those other jokers made more. Of course, the player who made the most money is a bit more of a winner than everyone else."

The game is typically played in three rounds, each round involving larger and more complicated ships (and longer, more dangerous flights through space). In this particular game, the first round ended up being incredibly brutal. We got basically the toughest cards possible for the first round. 2 of the ships didn't even complete the journey. I was concerned that Leon would find this frustrating, but he was fine with it, so on we flew.

The second and third rounds were more in line with expectations. However, it seemed that Monica was some kind of Galaxy Trucker savant. She said after the game "I don't understand what is supposed to be hard about that game - building the ship is very easy." Understand that for myself (and most people I've played this game with), building the ship is 3-6 minutes of frantic terror as you claw desperately around for the perfect piece to complete your ship. Monica, on the other hand, calmly built nearly flawless ships all three rounds. She claimed that her strategy was to focus on pieces with 3 connectors, something I'll have to try next time I play.

As one would expect after such a statement, Monica beat us soundly. My second round ship was pretty credible, but on rounds 1 and 3 I ended up floating about in space. Embarrassingly, even the new guy beat me. Ah well. It was time to go home anyway.

Scores:
Monica - 84
Evelyn - 49
Leon - 24
Chris - 21

Game time: 90 minutes
 
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