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Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to play a number of “epic” space opera board games -- the kind that consume an entire table in plastic bits and take well over three hours to play. While I’ve never had a chance to play any of these games a second time, I thought it might be worth exploring, comparing, and contrasting what my initial thoughts of each were.
These five games are Eclipse, published in 2011 by Asmodee, Firefly: The Game, published in 2013 by Gale Force Nine, Forbidden Stars, published in 2015 by Fantasy Flight, Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition, published in 2017 by Fantasy Flight, and Xia: Legends of a Drift System, published in 2014 by Far Off Games.
Eclipse - The crunchy Euro of your intergalactic dreams
I played this at Granite Game Summit with six players, and it took over six hours to finish. It was definitely epic, not only because of the time commitment, but due to the slow build up of fleets to the crescendo of late game combat. However, of all the games on this list, this one still had the most “Euro” feel to it despite the combat. While there is dice chucking, as well as randomness in the exploration of new space tiles, the game’s main engine lies in its player board, where lots of resource cubes need to be carefully managed. One thing I wish I knew going in was that upgrading ships without upgrading their shields was not a viable strategy, as my armada of “glass cannons” was easily dispatched when I finally made my big attack.
Firefly - Picking up and delivering on (low conflict) theme
This is one of the shorter games on this list, as my play of the first mission was about 3 hours. It’s also admittedly the least epic game here -- and one of two games on this list where players each control one ship, instead of an armada. At its heart, it’s really a pick up and deliver game, where players can choose safer legal cargo, or higher risk contraband cargo. That said, it integrates the Firefly theme beautifully, from it’s components, to its art and design, to its integration of nearly every character in the ‘Verse. While objectively not the most exciting or rewarding game to play, especially considering the time commitment, for avid Brown Coats such as myself, a lot of its faults are easy to gloss over for the chance to pilot our own Firefly class vessels for a few hours.
Forbidden Stars - 40K ways to exterminate your enemies
I got to play this at PAX Unplugged at four players, with two veterans and one other rookie, and it took around four hours to play. While the Warhammer 40K theme is wasted on me, as I’ve never played, this is still one of the best epic space experiences I’ve had. The game has a lot of neat little twists, from the moving warp storms which change where players can move each turn, to the blend of card and dice combat, to -- most importantly -- the action order mechanism where each square unveils in the opposite order in which it was assigned. It was clever and engaging, and I felt I had a good handle on it from the beginning. While the four different factions were unique, they felt balanced, as everyone seemed to have their chances over the course of the game I played.
Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition - My war sun is bigger than yours
I would have called Forbidden Stars my favorite of this group, had I written this before playing TI4. This, like Eclipse, is another game I got to play at six players, and took over six hours to play. I loved every minute of it, and can’t speak highly enough of it. It fired on all cylinders, and I very rarely felt there was any downtime. The agenda phase, which was basically its own minigame, was such an interesting break from each turn’s action phase, and the things we voted on really mattered, making the political game impossible to ignore. And in the action phase, I never felt limited in what I could do, due to the bonuses of the strategy cards. I cannot wait to get a chance to play it again, if only so I can confirm this is one of my favorite games of all time, and my first experience wasn’t a mirage of some sort (especially since I won the game I played). I will note that, as with Forbidden Stars, there is no exploration in TI4, so that may be a disappointment to 4x purists.
Xia: Legends of a Drift System - The galaxy is your ship’s oyster
The other game on this list where you only control one ship is Xia. Like in Firefly, you can win the game through picking up and delivering goods, but this game is much more of a sandbox game, that will also allow victory through mining, smuggling, and fighting. I got to play it at Origins, and it took about 3 hours, although we only played to 5 points, and you can play to much higher if you choose. This is most likely the most random game on this list, with dice rolls controlling both movement and combat, and random tile flips during exploration. One thing I loved, in addition to the open world nature of the game, was the way you outfitted your ship with polyomino pieces that determined your speed, strength and shields. One thing I am told is fun, that I did not get to experience in the game I played, is the fear of drawing the Xia Star, as it was out on the first turn of our game, and hence easy to avoid.
While each of these games is unique, and has its own merits and charms, they all share the “epic experience” factor in common. Regardless of the game chosen, that is a feeling I hope everyone gets to enjoy at some point while at the gaming table.
Let me start, as is tradition, with some caveats:
• I haven't played even a fraction of the games that were released in 2017, especially anything that released at Essen or after.
• I don’t put expansions on these lists.
• My preferences don't make a game objectively good or bad, these are just my opinions based on my personal tastes.
However, unlike previous years, I’m not going to list my favorites alphabetically, as I found this year my choices were easier than in previous years to list by personal preference. So in descending order, here are my ten favorites of the year, followed by a few honorable mentions.
10. Go Nuts for Donuts
A really pleasant surprise that I am very glad I backed during Daily Magic Games’ Kickstarter. I figured my kids would like the simple gameplay and cute art, but I never imagined I would enjoy it as much as I do. Also important to note -- while this game looks like Sushi Go with donuts, the simultaneous action selection mechanism works very differently than drafting.
I’ve always been a fan of two-player games, and I love when one plays entirely different, as opposed to feeling more like a chess or Magic the Gathering variant. While there are other two-player deduction games, none feel like this asymmetrical chase. See my full review here.
This is a late addition to this list, as I received it as a Christmas present. However, since I played it ten times over the holidays, I feel very certain in my conviction of this colorful abstract with its impressive, high-quality components.
7. Ladder 29
This is another Kickstarter game that really surprised me. It has the feel of a number of classic card shedding/climbing games, but the Hot Spot cards add a unique twist that really modernizes and brightens its game play, without over-complicating it.
I do love bears -- but pasted-on theme aside, I really enjoy manipulating polyominoes in the most efficient manner possible. While I don’t love Barenpark as much as Patchwork, it scales well to four players, and does it much smoother than Cottage Garden. See my full review here.
5. Century: Spice Road
Smooth, intuitive, and so themeless it was released twice with diametrically dissimilar motifs -- spice trading and fantasy golems. It serves as a wonderful gateway to European-style board games, and as a first step into the Century trilogy which will grow in complexity with future installments. See my full review here.
4. Whistle Stop
Bezier Games’ strategy titles -- Suburbia, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Colony -- are a near perfect match to my gaming proclivities, and Whistle Stop is no exception. I love everything about it, from the decision space the train movement creates, to its resource and stock management, and its quirky, unique art style, with one exception being the game’s set-up time.
3. NMBR 9
Remember when I said “I really enjoy manipulating polyominoes in the most efficient manner possible” when discussing Barenpark? Well here we are, at it again, with an even more abstract, quicker-playing polyomino game that incorporates a three-dimensional stacking element. Pure puzzly fun. See my full review here.
2. Circle the Wagons
My favorite microgame, and a phenomenal two-player game that plays way bigger than its eighteen-card deck. See my full review here.
My biggest Kickstarter surprise of the year is my favorite game of the year. While I expected to like this, I did not expect myself and everyone in my family to fall in love with it, to the point we’ve played it almost 40 times, and show no signs of slowing down. It’s simply a gorgeous Sudoku-esque puzzle with tons of colorful dice. See my full review here.
In my Origins blog, I wrote “I have to give Barenpark the caveat of best published game, and say that Ex Libris was hands down the best game I played at Origins... I have absolutely no doubt that Ex Libris will be a gangbuster hit for Renegade and Adam McIver.” I couldn’t add it to my favorites for the year only because I only played it once, and it was in prototype form at that point. I’m sure I’ll rectify that in the future.
Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition
Another game that didn’t make my list because I only played it once -- albeit that one game took over six hours. This colossal space epic, which I got to experience with five other players over the course of a full day, definitely makes my list of favorite gaming experiences without any caveats, that is certain.
Near and Far
I wasn’t able to find a group to experience the campaign with, but nevertheless did really enjoy the one play of this game I was able to manage. I can only imagine my opinion of the game improving if I was able to play through a campaign, as intended. See my initial thoughts from that play here.
My next blog post will highlight my favorite games of 2017, but I always find it's useful to look back and reflect on the previous year after another year has passed. Basically, this is my annual mea culpa for missing some great titles and overvaluing the staying power of others. So let's see which of my 2016 favorites held up, and which 2016 games I have played since then that deserve some praise.
My favorites of 2016 named in my previous blog were Colony, Dream Home, Islebound, Kanagawa, The Networks, and Tavarua, with honorable mentions for Ice Cool, Order of the Gilded Compass, Millennium Blades, One Deck Dungeon, and VENOM Assault. Looking at this list now, it's admittedly a bit on the weaker side for a "Best Of" list, with the exceptions being Islebound, The Networks, and Millennium Blades.
While most of the games on my list are good, they don't stand out as great in a crowded field, which partially explains why I haven't even played Colony, Kanagawa, Order of the Gilded Compass, or One Deck Dungeon again since writing my 2016 favorites list. Worse still, after playing VENOM Assault a few more times, my opinion of it has declined drastically due to some scaling and balance issues.
But, of course, there were plenty of very good 2016 titles I played for the first time in 2017. These include Arkham Horror: The Card Game, Clank: A Deck-Building Adventure, Imhotep, Kingdomino, New Bedford, Odin's Ravens, Star Wars: Destiny, Terraforming Mars, Ulm, and Yokohama. This is partially because I rarely have a chance to play Essen releases the same year they come out, and partially because with so many games releasing, I can’t play everything I’d like, as soon as I’d like, even if I have access to it.
While the 2016 games I’ve played this past year certainly strengthens my opinion of 2016’s overall crop of games, I stand by my previous statement that “the 2016 games I've played don't match up to this banner year of 2015, despite many standouts.” That said, the further we get from 2015, the more I see it as one of those special years that will be remarked about for many years to come.
Thu Jan 18, 2018 11:23 pm
I was really excited for my kids first board game convention, and knew Kid’s Day would be the perfect opportunity for it, considering its proximity to home and it being planned with kids in mind. But I also knew I wouldn’t be doing the things I normally like to do at a convention, as I knew my kids wouldn’t find chatting with boring adults interesting (no matter what games they designed or companies they ran), and demoing or playing anything heavier or longer was out, as I had to make sure my attention and focus was on them and not on a game -- temporarily misplacing my kids would have, rightfully, been the end of this hobby for me.
So I was going to let them pick and choose whatever interested them, and in doing so, I really got to see the convention through new eyes, and saw a bunch of things that I am not even sure how I missed earlier.
But first, since I was with my wife and kids, who did not have exhibitor badges, we had to wait in the queue to get in. This is where it becomes clear that PAX knows what they are doing and can handle large crowds. In large hall near the main hall, they set up a series of roped areas, parallel to one another. They filled each roped area into rough lines. At 10:00 am, they allowed one line at a time to begin walking into the main hall -- much different than the Gen Con opening door rush. It was fairly orderly, and even standing at one of the last lines, it took less than ten minutes to get in.
My eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son, both very proud to have their very own shiny Kid’s Day badges, had eyes as big as saucers upon entering the hall. Not knowing where to start, I steered them toward the APE Games booth, as I remember Jason Lees telling me they had a game called Major General that was good for all ages. Of course, when we got there, my kids weren’t interested in that game at all, because Duck! Duck! Go! was set up on the table -- with actual rubber ducks as player pieces. We demoed the game, and my daughter instantly said she wanted to buy it. I told both my kids that I would buy them each one game that day, but not until the end of the day after they played everything and picked their favorites.
After the demo, I steered the kids away from the exhibitor hall for a moment to meet up with my friends Marti and Sarah from Open Seat Gaming. I had promised them I’d teach them NMBR 9 and sat down with them and Devon, who we’d met up with earlier, to play a quick game. Sarah picked the game up right away and crushed all of us.
My wife -- a veterinarian and animal lover -- came back to the table with a game she had just bought on impulse, called You Gotta Be Kitten Me! It played up to ten players, so we opened it right up and jumped in a game. It was a bidding/push-your-luck game where you had to guess how many of a certain symbol or color there was on all the cards in every player’s hand. Bidding would go up until someone would say “You Gotta Be Kitten Me!” and the players would then count that item. If the player’s bid was correct the person calling them out would lose a card, if the bid was over, that player would lose a card. The last player with cards remaining won. The game wasn’t very good, but the company made up for it.
Not long afterward, walking around the exhibit hall, we saw a demo for Schrödinger's Cats. We stopped because my wife loves cute animal-themed games, and listened to the pitch -- and were really surprised to hear it was about a bidding-push-your-luck game that played almost identical to You Gotta Be Kitten Me! What are the odds that we would find two nearly identical cat-themed card games back to back? And what happened to doing market research before publishing? For the record, BoardGameGeek says Schrödinger's Cats came first, being first released in 2015.
Devon suggested finding Chip Beauvais so the kids could play Chroma Cubes, the “roll and color” game he designed. So we did. Of course, a game revolving around rolling colorful dice and coloring in pictures with crayons was a big hit with the kids -- as well as the adults at the table -- and I can’t wait until this one hits Kickstarter next year, as it’s a no-brainer for my household.
At this point, it was nearing lunchtime, and we headed toward the food court. We passed the Alpha Build room (a.k.a. The Unpub room) on the way, and Ben corralled us into a playtest of Shapes: The Game. The game involved drawing cards and stacking the oddly shaped pieces referenced on those cards onto a triangular base. Unlike, Junk Art, there was only one ruleset, and all the players played to the same base. This made the game more interactive, but otherwise it felt similar. It was fun, but I am not sure there is a market for another block stacking game. Even so, we all had fun playing it, and I wish the designer the best of luck with it.
My son and I had tickets for a learn to play Pokemon: The Card Game, so we were a bit pressed for time, and made the mistake of eating at the extremely overpriced food court. The pricing and food quality were similar to professional sports stadiums, but it did allow us to get back to the hall in time for the Pokemon Master Trainer to teach my son and a half dozen other kids how to be Pokemon trainers. The game was better than I expected, and the event came with a deck of Pokemon cards. Of course, I need to buy another deck so we can play together, but Christmas is around the corner, and I have a Pikachu deck on its way for us.
While the kids were still having fun trying all these games and walking around, they were also getting a bit tired. To be honest, after three days, so was I. So we agreed to walk around the exhibit hall for one more hour, get the kids each a game, and then head home.
My daughter pulled me over to the Beasts of Balance demo, which she had tried while I was learning the Pokemon game with my son. The game was a stacking game that was heavily integrated with an app. The cool toy factor on this one was off the charts, as it sensed which animals and other pieces you stacked on the base, and modified the game goals and points accordingly. I was spared the kids asking me to drop $80 on it only because it was already sold out.
Another demo we tried out that had a high toy factor was Maze Racers, which gives each player a white board and a set of rectangular pieces made of foam and magnets, and allows them to create a maze. When each player has created one -- which can be timed -- they switch and see who can solve the other’s maze the quickest. We all loved this one, and my son asked to bring it home. As they only had two copies left, and we were leaving shortly, we bought it on the spot.
Our final demo of the day was at the Calliope booth, where my kids wanted to try Scott Almes’ Dicey Peaks. This was a dice-based push-your-luck that reminded me of Zombie Dice with a few added elements, including a hex-based mountain to climb. The kids and I enjoyed it well enough, but I enjoyed my Friday demos of Capital City and Ancestree more.
My daughter, not swayed by any of the other demos she played, still wanted Duck! Duck! Go! as her convention purchase, so we swung by and picked it up on our way out of the convention hall. From there we headed back to the hotel and our car, out of Philadelphia and onto the New Jersey Turnpike, for our drive back home in Sunday evening traffic.
Overall, PAX Unplugged seemed well attended, but not overcrowded, and had a good, but subdued, publisher presence, as almost none of the pubs were pushing hot new games. The convention seemed tentative and lacking a firm identity; a golem without a soul. I look forward to seeing it evolve in future years, as publishers, designers, and convention goers -- both from the PAX crowd, and from the non-PAX board gaming community -- return with more concrete ideas and expectations from it, and infuse it with the life they want in return from it.
I’m not normally a morning person, but conventions have a certain indescribable electricity to them that makes me buzz with excitement and wake early. After a quick shower I headed to the convention center with time to spare for a quick breakfast and coffee. I stopped at the Reading Market and got in a long -- but fast moving -- line for a apple fritter donut from Beiler’s, a Pennsylvania Dutch bakery that has been hailed by Fodor’s as one of the 20 best in the country. They’re not wrong.
Sugared and caffeinated, I headed into the convention center and circumvented the queue process with my exhibitor badge. I helped Zach set up his Deathbot Derby demos at the Royal N Games booth and chatted with him for a bit, then made a few stops in the exhibitor hall, picking up review copies of Whistle Stop from Bezier Games and Alien Artifacts from Portal Games, and introducing myself to, and setting up an interview with, Looney Labs CEO Kristin Looney.
I was hustling with a purpose, as I knew my wife and kids were heading down that night and my convention would be very different after they arrived. My kids -- eight and five -- had never been to a convention before, and had asked to come to GenCon and Origins with me previously. This convention being driving distance was a much better fit for their first convention, so I was thrilled to get them Kid’s Day badges and have them meet me there. However, it meant that anything I wanted to do -- especially any networking and longer, heavier games -- needed to happen before they arrived.
As I rushed about, I swung by the Button Shy booth, and was introduced to their newest microgame designer, Duane Kolar. He was demoing Herotec, a drafting and multi-use card game about outfitting superheroes with high-tech gear, and I sat down and beat him at his own game (He totally didn’t let me win). It was a fun one, and I hope it finds a wider audience after its Kickstarter campaign flew a bit too far under the radar, despite funding.
At 11:00 am, I had the only event I had signed up for at the convention, The Reckoners from Nauvoo Games. I won’t lie, the entire source of my excitement for this game involved being a huge fan of the book series the game is based on, which were written by Brandon Sanderson. The books are about a ragtag team of “Reckoners” leading a resistance movement against superpowered villains. We sat down for a full game in the free play area with a full complement of six players, and I was happy I would be able to see how all six heroes played, but concerned that this would mean there would be significant downtime. But my fears were unfounded, as the players all rolled dice and played simultaneously. Each player had a specialty, and communication between the players was key to efficiently managing threats from various villains and henchmen, all with the goal of defeating Steelheart, the arch villain of the first book. The game did an excellent job of adapting the first book, and will be a big hit with fans of the series for that reason alone, but it was also a smooth playing cooperative experience that actually worked well at six players. My only gripe was in between each of the heroes turns there was a lot of bookkeeping to do on the villains turn, and that probably would have taken even longer without the game’s co-designer there to manage it for us.
Since I was learning The Reckoners from its co-designer, I asked how exactly a small board game publisher like Nauvoo got permission to make a board game based on the intellectual property of a well known speculative fiction writer. The answer: Simple, they went to one of Brandon Sanderson’s book signing and asked him. Sanderson asked if they had already made games, they sent him a copy of Stockpile, and that was that. Proof right there it never hurts to ask.
Two guys from my local game group, Andy and Matt, had texted me that they’d arrived to the convention center, and I met up with them in the First Look area. Matt broke out his brand new Kickstarter backer copy of Pocket Ops and I played against him in what I can best describe as Tic Tac Toe meets Chess. This is one of those little $10 games that will probably see a lot more play than a lot of bigger, way more expensive games just because of the combination of its size, how easy it is to play, and how quick the games are.
After a few games of Pocket Ops, I suggested Card City XL, a recently fulfilled Kickstarter that I’d brought with me in hopes of getting to the table. We started a game, got halfway through it, and realized we were playing at least half the rules wrong. To their credit, Andy and Matt volunteered to restart the game instead of pitching it in the nearest recycling bin, and our second play we managed to play a basic game with the rules correct. Unfortunately, the combination of 1. the “I cut, you choose” drafting method making everyone feel like they’re always choosing the “least bad” option, 2. the rules being very restrictive about placement and growth, and 3. the rules for growth and scoring being expressed as mathematical functions (the rule book has phrases like “N+1” in it), made the game feel more frustrating than fun. I think this may be a case of errant expectations, as I was hoping this would be a city builder along the lines of SimCity, but there is no indication from the actual game that it would deliver on that, despite the similar theme.
At this point it was back to the Reading Terminal market for lunch. If you are wondering “could you only eat there for the whole convention?” the answer is yes, and you wouldn’t even have to go to the same shops twice. This time I had a boneless rib sandwich with a side of mac and cheese, which was exactly the kind of substantial lunch I needed after a breakfast consisting of a donut.
While chatting over lunch, Andy, Matt and I realized we were all interested in checking out Root at the Leder Games booth. So that is exactly where we went next, only to find a group had just sat down and we’d need to return in 45 minutes. So we walked around the exhibition hall until I found a demo for the Unlock! games. I’ve played a few escape room board games, but never one from the Unlock series, so I gave it a go. Frustration ensued when I realized I was simply searching for tiny hidden letters on some of the cards in poor convention lighting with glare coming off the sleeved cards. I prefer the EXIT series, as I like the puzzly nature of those games better, but I am sure at home in better lighting the Unlock series is more fun than my demo would otherwise lead me to believe. I did succeed and win a special Pinny Arcade pin, though.
Our second stop at the Leder Games booth was timed better, and we only had to wait a few minutes to hop into the next Root demo. The demos, understandably, due to the length and complexity of the game, were not full games, but a few turns. It was enough for me to get a decent handle on my faction, and a vague idea of the other three factions worked -- note that the game, like Leder’s earlier game Vast, is totally asymmetrical. I liked the art style, and what little I saw of the game, but a very hesitant to make any broad proclamations based on playing two turns of such a complex game -- just that I am looking forward to playing a full game when it becomes available.
It was getting close to the exhibit hall closing, and to my family arriving, but I had one more stop I wanted to make before I called it a day at the convention center. One of my all-time favorite games is Burgle Bros, which is a bit odd as I don’t normally gravitate to cooperative experiences. But seeing that Tim Fowers was at the convention, I knew I needed to stop by and tell him how much I appreciated his work. He was engaged when I got to his booth, so I demoed Fugitive while I waited. During the demo, Tim came over and I introduced myself and told him what a fan I was of Burgle Bros. We had a nice chat, and I’ll just say it’s just everything when the people that make things you like turn out to be such lovely people in person. I left the booth -- with a demo copy of Fugitive, so more on that game in a future review -- as the exhibition hall was closing.
At this point I had to check into my hotel room, as I had shared a room with five other people on Friday night, and that obviously wasn’t going to work with the wife and kids joining me. I chatted with Craig Marks a bit while carting my luggage -- made up mostly of board games -- through the hotel. When my family arrived, the kids chose our dinner location. Of course, they picked the brightest and flashiest option they could find, the Hard Rock Cafe, which may have been the loudest meal I’ve ever sat through. Afterward, I walked the family over to the convention center -- which was connected to the Marriott -- to give them a lay of the land, and to say hi to a few people in the Unpub room, which was still open after hours.
There we ran into board game artist Nolan Nasser, who, in addition to be a super friendly guy, may be one of the hardest working people in the industry, having recently cofounded a company called Deep Water Games that is partnering with international publishers to bring games to the U.S., partnering with U.S. publishers to bring their games overseas, and developing their own games based on IPs they’ve created. Whew, I’m exhausted just thinking about all of that. We also saw designer Emerson Matsuuchi playtesting a solo slot machine game designed by Chip Beauvais, and my wife ran into her college friend Devon, who we would have the pleasure of spending a lot of the next day with. After this very brief taste of the convention, we herded the kids back to the hotel room and off to sleep.
I’m a planner by nature -- compulsively researching, at great lengths, any new situation I’m getting myself into. But with PAX Unplugged being the inaugural non-digital PAX, information was scant. I was unsure of how big the convention would be and what I should expect in terms of, well, most everything. All I had was the list of exhibitors and convention center map to guide me. However, luckily for me, a friend had an extra exhibitor badge, allowing me to get into the exhibitor hall early, get my bearings, and not have to wait on the queue for the 10am entry time.
I started with a walk around the exhibition hall, which was a large space with wide lanes for foot traffic. It wasn’t as big or elaborate as GenCon, but was similar to Origins -- though possibly a bit smaller.
In conversation with Grey Fox Games “Chief Noisemaker” Alex Goldsmith earlier in the month, he‘d mentioned they’d be demoing Bushido, which he said would be a hit with Magic: The Gathering style gamers. So I made my first stop at their booth to check it out for myself. As a former MtG player, I can tell you he isn’t just making noise. Bushido played quick and fun, with exactly the kind of push and pull players want in a two-player dueling game. Add to that a nicely illustrated martial arts theme and lots of custom dice, and I see this one being a winner for them.
My next stop was the Button Shy booth, where Chip Beauvais showed me a partial demo of Universal Rule, proving to me that a 4X game, through designer magic I still don’t fully understand, is possible with a deck of eighteen cards. He also briefly showed off an early copy of the upcoming Universal Rule: Second Wave expansion, which will be able to be played standalone or integrated with the base game.
I took a break from the exhibitor hall at this early juncture, as I had planned to play my first game of Sid Sackson’s Acquire with Devon, an online friend I met through Twitter. The main hall -- a cavernous space -- housed the exhibitor space on one side and the free play area on the other. Once you cleared the last of the exhibitors, there were simply open gaming tables for days. I easily found Devon, as it was still early in the day and not yet crowded.
Acquire, originally published in 1964 -- ancient in modern gaming terms -- still holds up quite well. In fact, beyond the vast amount of arithmetic involved in figuring out the end scores (Manny, who won, scored $60,800), it was quite an elegant design. The version we played also had chunky plastic pieces that gave the game a nice tactile quality and an interesting, if retro, table presence. I also discovered, while chatting during our game, that Devon was a friend of my wife’s from college together years ago. It really is a small world sometimes.
Next up was the Calliope booth, as I wanted to check out Capital City and Ancestree, two upcoming games from their Titan series. For those unfamiliar, the Titan line, according to Calliope, is “designed by some of the greatest designers working in the industry” and “presents family-friendly tabletop games that are easy to teach, play in under an hour.”
Capital City, from designer James Ernest, is a game about drafting a Old West town full of anthropomorphic animals over the course of four seasons. The animals and the buildings they are placed in give players bonuses when activated, and are activated when other players play the same type of animal. So in addition to drafting, the game is mostly about engine building, but very fast, as the game is lightning quick at only four rounds. This is definitely a winner for the lighter crowd, and as a parent of young children, I fit that mold.
Ancestree, from designer Eric Lang, is also a drafting game. But this one is about drafting a family tree, with scoring for the vertical length of the tree, the riches of its members, and the marriages within. There is a set collection element, but again, like with Capital City, it is over quite quickly, with only three rounds of drafting before final scoring. This one was originally designed as a two player game, so it may be a rare unicorn that features drafting but works well with only two -- I can’t be sure, as I played it with three, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t scale down to two well.
These were so quick that I got to play full demos of both of them, and I walked away impressed with what I saw, not only with both games, but with the company, as it’s nice to see a clear vision and focus, especially on accessible games I can play with my non-gamer wife and kids.
It was early afternoon at this point, and my friend Craig Marks from the Botch Games Podcast had just arrived at the convention center. He picked me up a reuben from Reading Terminal on his way in, because he is the best. Reading Terminal is a market right across the street from the convention center -- similar to the North Market in Columbus Ohio, for those familiar with Origins -- with lots of different food options, from sandwiches to ribs to, of course, Philly cheesesteaks. Oh, and they also have an amazing donut shop, but I’ll circle back to that in Saturday’s recap, I’m sure.
The Philly convention center has a food court upstairs, which is where we ate. And I supplemented my sandwich with a 20 oz. Pepsi from the food court, which cost $5.50. Pro-tip: Do not get anything at the food court, it is beyond overpriced. After washing my delicious sandwich down with overpriced sugar water, we wandered the exhibit hall, as Craig hadn’t seen it earlier that morning.
At this point I spied a familiar Indiana Jones hat and jacket at the Level 99 booth, and knew I had to go say hi to D. Brad Talton, the man behind Millennium Blades, Pixel Tactics, BattleCON, etc. Brad was talking with someone, however, so I demoed two-player deduction game Automata NOIR while I waited. As someone that enjoys actual deduction games -- read as: not social deduction games -- I very much liked Automata NOIR. I played as the killer, and had to kill off characters from a grid while the demoer, playing the inspector, tried to deduce which character I was. I won, although I am developing a sneaking suspicion -- due to how often I win game demos -- that demoers are told to let those demoing win. Probably better for sales that way.
Anyway, when that wrapped, I chatted with Brad, mostly asking about how Empyreal: Spells and Steam was coming along, because it blends wizardry and trains. Because of course a train game from Level 99 would also have to have something ridiculously thematic and cool like technomancers in it. Anyway, look for that one early next year on Kickstarter.
Craig swung back around with Matt Halstad from the League of Nonsensical Gamers, and they were ready to play a game. We had previously discussed getting in a game of Forbidden Stars, so I figured there was no time like the present, and I suggested we go to the free play area and commence a galactic war for supremacy. We started setting up, and were joined by Chris Kirkman to round out our full table. It was just before 5:00 pm when we started. I’m proud to say that at one point, I held the four objectives I needed to win, although I didn’t hold them until the end of that turn, letting victory slip away from my Ultramarines and into the hand of Matt’s Chaos Space Marines -- almost five hours after we’d begun.
After we wrapped up the game and repacked the mammoth box, Chris and I headed for food. While I don’t normally love chain restaurants, the quiet and relaxed atmosphere of the Maggiano’s one block away was just what I needed after the intensely stimulating first day that was PAX Unplugged. The two cocktails I had there didn’t hurt either. However, unwinding over the meal, I realized that due to my early 4:00 am start from New York, I had nothing left in me, and called it a night before midnight. I’ve learned this after attending a few of these -- conventions are a marathon, not a sprint. Better to call Friday early and get a fresh start on Saturday morning.
Legends of Sleepy Hollow, designed by Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback, and published by Greater Than Games, is going to be rather tricky for me to discuss for two reasons. First, the preview copy I was sent only had the first chapter of the game in it, and second, because even with only the first chapter, there are spoilers, as the game has a very strong narrative element that runs through its eight chapters. These limitations are also why I am only giving my initial thoughts, as opposed to a full review. As for my specific experience, I played the first chapter twice, first at the full player count of four, and the second time solo. That all said, let’s start with what’s in the box -- without any spoilers -- and then I’ll get into the specifics of gameplay.
While the version I played was a preview copy, and did not have finished components, the artwork -- which was done by a team that includes Hugo award-winning artist Abigail Larson -- was, by itself, enough to draw me into the world of the supernatural fable. And while Washington Irving’s source material never makes clear that anything supernatural was at play, I won’t be spoiling anything to say this board game adaptation comes with ten pumpkin-headed Gobkin monsters, as well as ten evil ent-like Schrikroots, making it clear that this imagining of the source material has more at play than a suitors’ quarrel. I’d like to digress a moment to say how happy I am this game decided to use the Dutch folklore found in the Sleepy Hollow mythos, and is not yet another game revolving around Cthulhu or zombie theming.
Legends of Sleepy Hollow is played on a series of maps, with the first chapter taking place in the schoolhouse where Ichabod Crane taught. There are four unique characters in the game, and players will always play all of them, regardless of player count. This makes sense, as each character has a very specific skill set, with strengths and weaknesses that tie into it. There is sturdy undertaker Jeremiah, armed only with his shovel, calming minister Elijah, wielding his faith and a staff, nimble ace hunter Emily, armed with her bow, and finally, battle-hardened war veteran Matthias, pistol at the ready.
Before starting the scenario, some flavor text is read aloud, setting the scene and the goals of the scenario. In the case of the first chapter, the four heroes are looking for two journals they believe will provide clues to Ichabod’s whereabouts, and will need to find them and bring them to the teacher’s desk to progress the story. Of course, this is more difficult than it sounds, for two reasons. First, there are twelve tokens that need to be investigated and only two will reveal the journals. Second, the schoolhouse is already populated with both Gobkins and Schrikroots, and more will spawn as you search the area.
The gameplay is very straightforward. In fact, the rule book -- at least in its preview copy form -- is only three pages long, and allowed us to jump right into playing the game. A character’s turn consists of both an action and a movement, taken in any order. Once each character takes their turn, the environment gets its turn, with the monsters moving, attacking, and spawning. The intimate scope of the game keeps this from being too fiddly. Even when I played solo, I was able to control all four characters and the environment without any issues or confusion.
Each player has standard actions they can always take -- attack, rest, and interact with the environment -- as well as a few special actions which can only be taken once each before refreshing. One interesting mechanism featured in the game is the fear system. When characters are attacked, they not only lose health, they gain fear tokens. Acquiring these tokens is not only a potential loss condition, but each fear token also becomes an action token, meaning characters cannot refresh their actions -- and use their more powerful special actions -- until they use or cull their fear tokens from their action token pool.
When I played with four players, the exploration of the schoolhouse felt similar to a traditional dungeon crawl, with each player becoming one of the characters. While, due to the openness of information, this created the potential for “quarterbacking,” the non-deterministic combat and the narrative pull of the game made it feel less like a puzzle one player needed to solve, and more like a difficult situation everyone needed to survive together.
When I played solo, however, the game felt like a turn-based tactical video game, such as Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, where I was the tactician, in control of the actions of all of the heroes. Despite controlling multiple characters, playing Legends of Sleepy Hollow solo gave me a similar feeling that I had playing Arkham Horror: The Card Game, and I feel it will likely appeal to those that play AH:CG solo for its story-driven, exploratory horror experience.
In both plays, the game was difficult. In the first, we lost before retrieving both journals. In the second game, my solo run, I only “won” as I used the easier rule set, allowing for a character’s revival if they lose all their health. I don’t bring this up as a negative, although, of course, your mileage may vary, but as a selling point, as the difficulty of the game kept me on the edge of my seat for each token reveal and dice roll, and my decisions really mattered.
Legends of Sleepy Hollow, even in its first chapter, held some narrative surprises and the beginning threads of an overarching mystery. I won’t spoil them here, even with a spoiler tag, as I feel the storytelling element is one of the most compelling reasons to play this game, and I wouldn’t want to ruin those moments from anyone else that is yet to experience them.
That said, one very minor potential spoiler I feel compelled to mention is that after successfully completing the first chapter, I was told to open an envelope that had a postlude to the chapter. It also had a number of upgrade cards for each character, allowing for character growth before continuing on to the second chapter -- however, players are instructed to choose only one upgrade for each character, making them make difficult choices regarding which aspects they should boost, tailoring them to their individual play styles.
Final Initial Thoughts:
Or would this be initial final thoughts? Either way, based on what I have seen and played of Legends of Sleepy Hollow so far, I can say I’m in love with its art style, its commitment to a unique and underused mythology rooted in Dutch folklore and superstition, its storytelling elements and arc, and its streamlined gameplay -- with tough choices based on a set of easy to learn and manage mechanisms. The biggest compliment I can likely give it is my high level of frustration at having to wait so long to continue chapter two in my own search to find Ichabod Crane.
Full disclosure: I received a preview copy of Legends of Sleepy Hollow from the publisher, Greater than Games. Chris Kirkman, Game Development Manager at Greater than Games, is a member of Punchboard Media as a co-host of The State of Games podcast.
I was only able to get a preview copy of New World Magischola House Rivalry when the Kickstarter campaign was already underway, so I wasn’t able to play it enough to give it a full review, but I did want to give some impressions after my one play for anyone considering backing the game.
The copy I received had prototype components and no box, but I want to mention a few notable things about the finished components I did receive.
The artwork on the character cards, the rulebook, and the player mats was charming and evocative, and did a lot to help sell the magical school theme. The player mats were laid out well, allowing us to play our first game with few references to the rule book. The tarot-sized course, club, and conjure cards allowed for a lot of information to be present without feeling cluttered, and left room to hold the grade and time cubes without obscuring the pertinent details on the cards.
My one component issue was with the scoring track, which is a hexagon shaped board that spiraled counter-clockwise toward the center, and made the score hard to see at a glance and a bit fiddly to update.
In House Rivalry, players are students at the New World Magischola wizard school, competing to score the most points by completing courses and clubs, and casting conjures. The game ends either when a player reaches 100 points, or completes their required course, three additional courses, and two clubs.
Every turn, the players will simultaneously select from three actions -- the first allows them to take new cards, the second allows them to play conjure cards, and the third allows them to manipulate the time cubes on their existing courses. Not only do players get to do their own action each turn, they also get a minor version of their opponents’ chosen actions.
The courses all take different amounts of times to complete, and are worth differing amounts of points, depending on the grade earned. Players will try to boost their grades for each course as they remove that course's time cubes. When the last time cube is taken off, that course is completed, and scores, regardless if the player is happy with their grade. Courses also have symbols on the side, such as skulls and moons, which will give bonuses or detriments depending on their chosen house, character, and other enrolled courses and clubs.
We played with three players, and it was the first game of House Rivalry for all involved. We were able to get into the flow of our simultaneous selections -- taking our actions and reaction actions, and getting our course engines running, fairly quickly. We found the game to be on the lighter side, with considerable randomness due to the drawing of cards off four decks. The Magischola cards added unique events at the end of each round, and helped to sell the whimsical magical school theme. The conjure cards added an element of take-that to the game, but we more often than not found it more efficient to use our actions to further our own goals over sabotaging the goals of others. Of course, I am sure that is quite group dependant.
Very early in the game, I drew the ‘Debate Club’ card, which did negatively affect the flow of our game, as it penalized me for not prefacing everything I said with “wrong.” Of course, since I was teaching the game, this became problematic rather quickly. There are other cards of this sort in the club deck as well, such as the ‘Sign of the Arrow,’ which does not allow the player to say “I, me, or my,” but I spoke to the publisher, and they are considering marking those cards so they can be easily removed in the case of a teaching game, or with a group that does not enjoy that kind of gameplay element.
The game took just under an hour to play, excluding setting up the boards and components. While we didn’t find any groundbreaking innovations or unique new mechanisms in House Rivalry, it blended existing board game mechanisms with a strong magical school theme that will attract fans of JK Rowling, Lev Grossman, Ursula LeGuin, Rick Riordan, and more. Importantly, the game was easy to learn and teach, giving it a low barrier to entry, and allowing non-gamers that are interested in the magical theme an entryway into the hobby of modern board gaming.
Full disclosure: I received a preview copy of New World Magiscola House Rivalry from the publisher.
Almost a year ago, I posted my favorite Android board game apps, and while I still enjoy them, tons more board game apps have been released for Android. Here are ten new favorites, measured as a combination of how much I like the game and how much I like the digital implementation:
A favorite of mine on the table, I was very excited when the digital implementation was released. The app has lived up to my expectations, with smooth gameplay and lots of options as far as characters and levels. Unfortunately, this does not support online play (yet?).
Lords of Waterdeep
I know this has been on iOS for a long time, so this is probably not exciting news to most of you. But for other Android folks like me -- it’s finally here, it’s a great implementation, and it has online play!
Just like regular Onirim, but without any shuffling -- so even better. And as the game is a solo game, it loses less than most in its transition to digital. Plus the app has added expansions.
Smooth gameplay with multiple difficulty levels and a campaign mode, as well as online play, makes the digital version of this classic two-player trading game a winner.
Despite some early stumbles with online play notifications, which have long been resolved, this app is a solid implementation, and honestly, a lot easier to play than setting up the physical, marble-laden cardboard dispenser version.
A beautifully done production with music and animations that really help sell the zen nature of the game. Like most listed, this too supports online play.
Race for the Galaxy
Do you prefer Race for the Galaxy over San Juan? Well now you can play it online, like San Juan fans have been doing for years. With multiple levels of difficulty and online play, this is great for an intergalactic engine-building fix.
Sentinels of the Multiverse
This app, which is intuitive and attractive, fixes all my issues with the fiddliness of playing this game on the table, but the one downside is that I find it works much better on the larger real estate of a tablet, and I do most of my app gaming on my phone.
Bottom of the Ninth
This sits near the bottom of the list solely because I just got it and haven’t dug in too deep with it, but from what I can see, Handelabra has done a nice job with this one, both mechanically and thematically.
Baseball Highlights 2045
This app version of this near-future baseball deckbuilder has two difficulty modes and a world series simulation against its AI -- CPU Stengel. While it’s not the prettiest, and doesn’t have the amount of options as many other apps on this list, it’s perfectly functional, and fun to play.
Honorable mentions that I don't personally like for one reason or another:
The app is slick, the tutorial is great, and the game plays just fine. But this is exactly the kind of game that loses something not being played on a table with its physical, overproduced three-dimensional components.
Eight Minute Empire
Again, my issue isn’t with the app implementation, which works as intended. I just think the game is a bit dull, like a less interesting El Grande -- and I say that as a huge Ryan Laukat/Red Raven fanboy.
Playing this on the table is a relaxing and pleasurable experience. Playing this on the app, despite how pretty it is, was a stark reminder of how few decisions are actually made and how much the game plays itself, as my AI opponents never over the course of an entire game skipped over a space on a move.
Apps available on Android that I haven’t yet played:
Brass, Terra Mystica, and Through the Ages -- For some reason, I just don’t play these heavier games using their app implementations, although I will play all three of these games using browser-based PC implementations. The most likely culprit is my mobile not being as conducive to these meatier games, or at least, my perception of that likelihood.
I had a list of goals and plans before I came to Origins, and I did manage to check most of them off, in addition to getting to do tons of unplanned fun stuff. But by Saturday, running on little sleep for four straight nights, I was exhausted and scatter brained, and missed my ticketed event to learn to play Watson and Holmes that morning. However, I did start the day with a delicious sausage and eggs breakfast at The Guild House, my hotel’s fancy farm-to-table restaurant, and got to see a bit of the Pride Parade on my way over to the convention center.
Since I was scheduled to play Watson and Holmes for two hours, I didn’t have any other plans for a while, and I wandered aimlessly around the exhibition hall, until I found the Plan B booth, and got to demo Junk Art against Emerson Matsuuchi, who was likely free only because all the copies of his Century: Spice Road had already sold out. Far more practiced at the stacking game, he bested me and another playing the Montreal version of the game.
After some more meandering about, I headed back to the Unpub room. First, let me again say that this was my favorite place to hang out at the convention. Every time I went in, there were awesome people hanging out and showing off fun games. Kudos to Renegade Games to sponsoring the room, they are really doing right by the board game community with that move.
On this particular occasion, I saw Chris Kirkman, who was showing off a prototype of Ben Rosset’s latest brewing game, Home Brewers, which Dice Hate Me will be seeking funding for on Kickstarter. I sat down and played a game with Chris, Darrell Louder, and Aaron Wilson, and we all had a good time with it. This game played in about an hour, and was much lighter than Brew Crafters. It also featured dice action selection as its main mechanism, not worker placement.
When that game ended in a Kirkman victory (of course he won, he knew how to play already!), I sat down with Darrell Louder to play his latest version of his roll-and-write, Compounded: Lab Notes. I had played an earlier version solo that I’d print-and-played, but this version had some added elements for multi-player.
While the game still needed some significant tweaking and balancing, I could see it was headed in an interesting direction. And I absolutely love the chemical compound writing aspect of the roll-and-write, as it is so unique to other games in the genre.
I then met up with Jamie Maltman, who had made the trip down from Toronto, and we wanted to make sure we got in a game together before the convention ended. He had brought Railroad Revolution with him at my request, and we sat down for a three-player learning game with Joshua Acosta. I diversified my strategy too much, and wound up finishing in last place, which is strikingly similar to my experience -- and the end result -- of my play of Russian Railroads. I still enjoyed my play, as I love lighter-to-medium weight Euros that don’t overstay their welcome at the table, and, more importantly, I enjoyed their company.
One of the remaining things on my to-do list was to play Ex Libris, an upcoming game by Adam McIver that Renegade Game Studios is releasing later this year, that I knew he would have on hand at Origins. So I tweeted him, and he said to find him in the Unpub room (Did I mention I loved this room?). So I popped back over there and found a group had just started a game without me. Adam told me he’d run another game after, and to come back in an hour.
So back to the main gaming hall I went, where I found Patrick, Allen, and Craig starting up a game of Century: Spice Road, which I jumped in on. Craig, who also doesn’t like Splendor or Concordia, disliked Spice Road intensely, which made me glad the game only lasts 30 minutes. There must be something deep-seeded about trading goods that just turns Craig off. Maybe if it was Star Wars smuggling themed he would like it better, who knows.
Returning to the Unpub room with Brian and Will of Cloak and Meeple, we were joined by Ryan LaFlamme of the Cardboard Republic and sat down for a four-player game of Ex Libris, taught to us by Adam. The game was fairly straightforward -- you are looking to build a library, in alphabetical order, with the best collection of certain types of books, while avoiding banned books, and keeping the shelves balanced. This is accomplished both through card play and a worker placement mechanism, with each player having a special character meeple that allows them a rule-breaking ability. Though my Trash Golem, with its ability to steal discarded books, put up an admirable fight, I finished in second place to Ryan.
While I’ve mentioned earlier that Rhino Hero: Super Battle was the most fun I had at the convention, and Barenpark was my favorite game of the convention, I have to give Barenpark the caveat of best published game, and say that Ex Libris was hands down the best game I played at Origins, and I am extremely impatient for it to be released so I can get my own copy. I have absolutely no doubt that Ex Libris will be a gangbuster hit for Renegade and Adam McIver.
Speaking of Renegade, my last play of the convention was Sentient, one of their new titles. I had tried to demo Sentient on Thursday, but they unable to show it due to a manufacturing error that wasn’t corrected until Friday. But Matt Halstad had bought a copy and I got to play it with his wife Kelly, Dan Licata, and Zach Connelly. The game was good, especially if you don’t mind math in games, which I don’t. But I didn’t like it as much as I like J. Alex Kevern’s earlier title, Gold West, which is totally not fair for me to compare it to, as that is one of my favorite games. It does have a similar area control aspect to his game World’s Fair 1893, but the set collecting has been replaced with the mathy card placement. It’s definitely worth playing, but I have a feeling it will be a divisive game -- with some loving it and others not caring for it at all.
I thought I might meet up with Craig afterward, and teach him Near and Far, or play some more late night LCGs, but he and his son Tyler were spent, and heading out themselves, so I said my farewells and grabbed a late night bite at a nearby bar -- which was still hopping with Pride revelers -- and made my way back to pack for my early morning flight home. Absolutely exhausted, but still elated by the entire experience, I turned in for one last night of insufficient sleep.
As for my friend and hotel roommate Zach, I didn’t get to see him as much or play as many games with him as I thought I would, considering we shared a room. But this is only because he got a lot of interest in his latest design, Lots, and had a number of pitch meetings with publishers over the course of the convention. So totally understandable, and the best kind of problem to have for any game designer.
To sum it all up, Origins was a blast. I met literally dozens of people I’d only previously interacted with online, and got to catch up with many others I hadn’t seen since conventions in years past. While Origins wasn’t perfect, with the nearby construction being an obnoxious obstacle, and the lack of open gaming tables, and lack of clarity on which tables were open gaming tables, being a frustration on the busier days, I can’t complain overall. It was easy to get my badge, I was never stampeded or felt claustrophobic, the one game I wanted to purchase didn’t sell out, people were always fairly easy to find, and the food options were really good whenever I could pull myself away from playing games. If and when I can make it work logistically, I definitely plan to attend Origins again in the future.
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