Origins 2011 Wrap-Up

I just got back from five days at Origins, the annual gaming convention in Columbus. I had a great time as always. While the convention encompasses non-computer gaming of all sorts (minis, CCGs, role playing, and so on), I always go for the board games. Specifically, I go to check out new games I haven’t played before. Here is my report of the convention from that point of view.

(Sorry, I didn’t have a camera with me. I’m still relatively new to blogging, and I didn’t think to bring one until it was too late. I’ll remember next year!)

I think that three main themes dominated the convention this year:

  1. Pretty much everyone I talked to, from friends to vendors to people on Twitter, agreed that the convention was slower this year than last year. Whether that meant fewer new good games, fewer attendees, or less money spent, everyone says it’s going downhill. I agreed that it felt a lot slower, but I’m not so sure now that I look back. I remember people complaining about how there were not enough good games last year, but I still found a lot of good ones then. I thought I had a lot of downtime this year, but looking back at 2010’s notes, I played approximately the same number of games (32 last year, 31 this year). I’m not going to bother calculating the total time they took, but it does seem that I just forgot about the downtime I had last year. Admittedly, I did learn fewer new games this year (19 instead of 24), but I blame that on my own unpreparedness. I’ve been getting ready for a wedding instead of researching the games I needed to find, and I arguably shouldn’t have taken five days for this at all. (On Sunday, I discovered several games I wanted to play, but I didn’t have time for all of them. Had I known about them ahead of time, those numbers would be closer.) So while there were a few worrisome signs of cutbacks, I think that this meme grew mainly out of human nature. We’re always comparing the present to the best parts of the past.
  2. Pure Eurogames are falling out of style. Last year, the big theme I noticed were that Euro- and American elements were finally being mixed together. My theory was that Eurogames were established enough that the American designers could draw on them successfully, and that Eurogamers were now thoroughly used to the basic mechanics of their games and ready for something new. This year, that has accelerated. There were a few good Euros out there, but they weren’t the ones with buzz. The dice games, dexterity games, and battle games were what everyone wanted to talk about this year. That makes sense, as the tastemakers in the Euro scene have always been eager for the next big thing. Five years ago, every new twist on area control and resource production was interesting to us. Three years ago, Agricola was ground-breaking. Today, all those things are familiar and dull. But making a balanced, replayable space battle based on flicking tokens around the board? That’s new.This ties in to my earlier point. The general consensus always seems to be that there aren’t enough good new games, but I still can’t keep up with them. The only problem is that as we get more familiar with the options, it’s harder to make everything seem new. Given that reality, I’m amazed by how much innovation I’m still seeing.
  3. Dominion is still a big deal, and now the deck-building knock-offs have arrived in force. Thunderstone is now established as a major game, and Nightfall, Ascension, and Resident Evil are jockeying for their position next. The retailers were giving these the sort of major promotional support usually associated with collectable card games, so they must expect huge results from this genre.I’m already on record complaining that all the new games have missed the elements that made Dominion great, without finding anything worthwhile to add. Overall, I found this new crop to be just as disappointing, but there are some glimmers of hope. Most importantly, though, I could still see a lot more games of Dominion being played than every other deck-builder combined. That game still has the fanbase it deserves.

I like to divide games into categories based on the buzz that they were getting at the convention. Note that I’m not saying I liked a game just because it had a lot of buzz, I just think that it’s worth knowing that a game is popular regardless of my opinion. (My sources for this buzz are somewhat arbitrary, of course. It was based mostly on the people I talked to at Origins, who generally shared my interests. I was also influenced by the chatter on Twitter and the promotional efforts I saw, though.)

Also, I’m rating games on a 10-point chart rather than my typical A-F. After only one or two plays, I don’t want to give any of them a firm rating, so using a different system should emphasize that these are preliminary impressions only.

Major Buzz

Alien Frontiers (7/10, but this will definitely change after a few more plays): In yet another attempt to make a serious dice-based game, this uses dice as “spaceships” that attempt to colonize regions of a planet. After rolling the dice, they can be split among many actions: High numbers are good for gathering resources, pairs will let you recruit extra dice, and straights are used to attack other players. Because every die could be allocated towards different choices, and you also need to collect resources to pay for most of these moves, there are a lot of choices to be made each turn. On the planet, the colonies that are established are used for area control, with the leader gaining new points and special abilities. Between those abilities and the cards that can be gained, it is possible for everyone to develop different positions and strategies.

The game is very well-designed and fun, but I’m concerned the amount of time players can spend analyzing their moves. With all the choices available, as well as the special powers people can have, my game was slow and ponderous (with even the experienced player taking a couple minutes to plan his major game-ending move). Some games deserve deep thought, but one like this, with its chance-based swings of fortune, should play fast. I’m hopeful that it will speed up on future plays, since that will determine the difference between a great game and a boring one.

Ascension (5/10): This deck-building game is almost a year old, but a lot of people discovered it this week at Origins. The excitement was incredible: I saw more people walking around with new copies of this than anything else, and it won the Origins Award for best card game. I’m still cynical about Dominion-inspired games like this, though.

A few basic cards are always available. All the rest are shuffled into one deck, with six being available (either to purchase or fight) at a time. This means that, like Thunderstone, players can’t plan ahead for their turn until they see what cards other people take. Also like Thunderstone, every card in your hand can be played, so there is not much danger that a bad strategy (such as too many actions) will hurt.

Fortunately, the cards in Ascension do have very different abilities. It is actually more important to choose cards that work together for a consistent strategy in this game than Thunderstone, despite the selection never changing. So I would call this superior to Thunderstone, even though it doesn’t offer much to make up for the ways it is inferior to Dominion. Yes, there is a stronger theme, and that counts for something. But there is only so much gameplay I’m willing to sacrifice for theme, and Ascension doesn’t have the right mix.

Confusion (9/10): This Chess-meets-Stratego deduction game is like nothing else I’ve heard of before. Each piece has specific directions and speeds it can move, and can be used to capture opposing pieces or move the game-winning “briefcase”. What separates it from other Chess-like games is that the vertical pieces have their movement on only one side of them. Each player can see how all of their opponent’s pieces can move, but only sees useless letters on the backs of their own. (The blocks that show movement are removable, so a specific lettered piece will have different abilities in each game.) On a turn, a player will attempt to move a piece, and the opponent will tell them whether it was legal or not. Whether or not the piece moved, its owner now has a little more information that they can record on a dry-erase board.

This deduction and recording of information is overwhelming at first (most new players make mistakes that invalidate the game by giving their opponent bad information), but it becomes natural quickly. I played this three times, and every one was better than the previous. The third game was an incredibly intense experience, as it slowly evolved into Chess-like situations, but with some mystery making each turn more tense than a complete-knowledge game. I hope to write a full review once I’ve had time for a few more plays. For now, suffice to say that this exciting, unique game was one of my favorites of the convention.

(Update: Full review here.)

Some Buzz

Airlines Europe (6/10): Alan Moon’s new connection-building game (like railroads, but with plane flights) had a lot of fans. The players can buy stock in any of the companies on the board, and make moves for them all. Each airline scores victory points, which are distributed to players based on the stock holdings. While investment games like this have become popular in recent years, Airlines is distinguished by its simplicity. There is almost nothing to the game beyond what I’ve already described. The value of each company’s stock increases directly based on the effort players put into them, with the specific routes barely mattering at all. That bugged me a lot. Personally, if I play a game based on route-building, I want the routes to go somewhere. It doesn’t need to be complex; Ticket To Ride is a great game. But it literally doesn’t matter which 3-cost branch a player will choose to move their route down. It might change the options for neighboring lines, but since those lines can also branch off in any direction, it seems almost impossible to choke one off enough to make a difference. The race to the few 8-cost connections is somewhat important, but that is the only exception. (Some of the companies do have a “goal” city, but it is so easy to reach that there is no route-building tension there.)

I think that this has value as a gentle gateway game. It is the friendliest introduction available for the investment theme. Once a player is comfortable with that idea, though, I don’t see any reason to keep playing Airlines.

Ascending Empires (7/10): This is an interesting hybrid game. On about 1/3 of their turns, a player will flick their spaceship tokens around the board in order to approach new planets or attack other players. The other 2/3 of the turns involve adding or removing tokens in order to build a planet-spanning empire. These two elements (dexterity and strategic planning) don’t always appeal to the same people, but this game simplifies them both to the point where most people will be comfortable with both. I can see a race between an excellent strategic gamer and a coordinated dexterity gamer being interesting.

Some aspects of the dexterity game are well-made. The planets sink into the board so as not to be moved by a wild starship, and the rules about approaching planets and ramming other ships are elegant. However, the board itself is made up of several large puzzle pieces that create a less-than-smooth playing area. You can pretend this represents anomalies in the fabric of space, but to me it just means the components were cheap for a dexterity game.

The turns go fast, and the game is long, making it very satisfying overall. The dexterity element also adds some nice “random” tension to the battles without any true randomness at all. On the down side, it seems that it might be impossible for a player to catch up if they fall too far behind, but I didn’t get to play enough to see that myself. Over all, this is a very clever hybrid of different gaming elements. I’m not sure that I’d ever consider it to be a great game, but I do want to play it more.

(Update: Full review here.)

The Ares Project (3/10 for me, but I’m not the target audience): In this battle-heavy game, a card played face-up becomes a building or technology. A card played face down becomes a resource, adding troops to that building. The trick is that all cards are played behind a screen, meaning that no one will know what their opponents are up to until someone attacks and the screen is lifted.

This is a clever way to make a game feel strategic and complex without having the actual complexity of a board or piece movement. Unfortunately, the battles themselves are just big dice-fests. Each unit rolls a D6 for a chance to destroy one opposing figure. The odds of any individual shot succeeding tend to be low, but there are many units and up to six rounds of attack per battle. It’s easy to imagine a single battle involving a total of 100 die rolls between the two players. That is just a lot more than I enjoy.

Gosu (5/10): If you want to see how much game design has evolved over the past few years, look at how even the chaotic card games are finding clever new mechanics to build around. Gosu features a deck full of goblins who players add to their tableau. Cards act as a limited resource, with certain actions gaining or losing them, and players drop out of a round once they have no more playable cards.  The rules for dealing with the five tribes and three levels of warriors are simple and interesting, but the different abilities that each one brings to the table can cause it to spiral out of control quickly.

Each battle between rounds is simply resolved by comparing the number and levels of goblins. In theory, the first player to win three battles wins the game. This is in stark contrast to the chaos during play. New cards are constantly removing opponents’ goblins or even changing the rules. These rule-changes seem to be a problem, as both of my games ended when a player reached an alternate victory condition that an opponent had added to the game.

Gosu is a cool game, but I don’t see it staying fun for long. In addition to the other issues I mentioned, many of the cards let players dig through the discard pile for a new creature. Repeatedly stopping the game so someone can search for the ideal goblin card is what turns this from a clever if chaotic filler to something more frustrating.

Quarriors (9/10): This could very well be the breakout game of 2011. Amazingly, the first promising deck-building game to follow Dominion doesn’t use a deck of cards at all. This is another dice-roller, with players drawing a “hand” of dice from their personal bag each turn. Dice give magic points or represent monsters, and magic is in turn used to put those monsters in play or buy new dice to be mixed in later. The available types of monsters and spells vary widely from game to game, and it seems that each game will feel very different.

The game is surprisingly elegant. Each color of dice can be one of three monster types (such as categories of dragons), with a specific one chosen in each game. The reference cards for the monsters are out in the middle of the table, providing the details that aren’t included on the dice themselves. I do have to admit that between the reference cards on the table and some tiny symbols on the dice, this can be a little harder to follow than a game of Dominion. However, the deck-building aspects capture more of Dominion’s strategy than any other game I’ve seen.

The point scoring (battling) system does diverge from Dominion, of course. Monsters put out in play immediately attack the monsters of all other players. Any monsters that can survive until the player’s next turn score points and often give other advantages as well. Unlike Nightfall and other games, though, these battles don’t make characters single out their victim. Every other player is attacked simultaneously by the new monsters, meaning that attacks are undirected in a way similar to Dominion. Some of the monsters do have abilities that single out a specific player, and even the choices about what monsters to put in play can be made as a reaction to the leader, but this game doesn’t encourage ganging up on the leader at the expense of good deck-building.

One of the reasons I like this game so much is that it is not Dominion. For all its similarities, Quarriors has found its own niche. It is more luck-based and adds a battle theme, but in ways that feel completely appropriate to the type of game it wants to be. I finally have some faith in the future of deck-builders.

(Note: I wasn’t sure where to put this game on the “buzz” scale. Over the course of the convention, I saw it start out with no buzz but grow to the high end of the scale by Sunday. I’m compromising with a middle category. However, the game won’t be released until August, and if the buzz keeps growing like this, it will have a huge debut.)

(Update: Full review here.)

Resident Evil (6/10): Oh, look, it’s another deck-building game of monster battles. Just as Ascension improves slightly on Thunderstone, I think that this one shows some incremental advancement from Ascension. Players have a few different types of actions they can take per turn, but they are limited to one of each in the same way that they are in Dominion. There is now a reason to ensure that your cards coordinate well, since a poorly-drawn hand will be worthless. The available cards also vary from game to game, and it appears that players will need to change their strategy accordingly.

But even though this hews more closely to Dominion’s successful deck-building elements in some ways, it also embraces the dungeon-crawler more completely. Each player has their own character, with special abilities and health that must be managed. When venturing into the dungeon, the top card is randomly drawn from the deck – the player can’t tell ahead of time if they are strong enough for the next monster, or even if they will find a monster instead of an item. This isn’t as successful as Quarriors, but it also succeeds to the extent that it seems to understand what Dominion’s strengths were and uses them while doing its own thing. This is definitely a dungeon-crawling game that happens to be based on deck-building mechanics, rather than the other way around. I still don’t know if it’s for me, but I would be happy to play it if a friend brought it to the table.

Buzz Games Not Played

Black Friday: Of the free games that the Board Room was handing out this year, Black Friday was the one everyone wanted. Outside of that, though, what I heard about the game was mixed. At least one person told me that it’s very good if you successfully make it through a poorly-written rulebook. Anyway, I got a free copy of this, so I didn’t bother playing it at the convention. I’ll have time to learn and play it at home.

Rails of New England: Quite a few people recommended this new train game to me. However, it’s a long game and the demo copy in the Rio Grande area was almost always taken. I tried to play it several times, but never managed. I am not too involved in the train gaming scene, though, so this won’t be the first major release to pass me by.

Star Trek: Expeditions: Reiner Knizia has made a cooperative Heroclix-based game using the Star Trek license. I didn’t pay much attention to this at first, but a lot of people were definitely interested. In retrospect, that isn’t surprising: Whatever kind of games you play, you’ll find a buzzword that attracts you in the first sentence of this paragraph. Most people seemed to enjoy it, too. Unfortunately for me, the first person I talked to told me that it wasn’t very good, so I didn’t bother checking it out. It wasn’t until Sunday that I realized the vote was something like 6-1 in favor of the game being worthwhile, and I was just giving too much weight to the first opinion I heard. If this is as successful as it seemed at Origins, I will get more chances to try it, though. Expansions are definitely on the way.

Little-To-No Buzz

Cabo (3.5/10): I actually had two people recommend this simple filler to me, but I am assuming that that was an anomaly instead of an accurate measurement of this game’s buzz. It’s nothing more than a rebranding of a game that can be played with a standard deck of cards. Each player has four face-down cards, and only knows what some of them are. Without full knowledge, they can take turns switching them with the draw deck or other player’s cards, hoping to get the lowest total. Each round is too quick and simple for any real memory or strategic elements to come into play, so it’s just a random few minutes of card shuffling. I don’t think I’d enjoy this with a standard deck of cards, and the pictures that give Cabo its unique flavor make it even less appealing to me.

Fürstenfeld (7/10): This is exactly the sort of Euro that would have gotten everyone’s attention a year or two ago. Players are collecting water, barley and hops to sell to local breweries, with a clever economic system to make the prices change based on demand. High sales in one turn also make a player go later in the next turn, which could cause them to get lower prices then. Then the money is used to play buildings from a hand of cards. These buildings increase production or grant special abilities. Finally, everyone discards down to one card, placing those cards underneath their personal deck. These discarded cards will cycle back to the top after several turns, so the game hinges on a player properly positioning (and remembering) the more powerful buildings that they will want later.

The other trick is that there is only space for six buildings total, so before long every new building must replace an old one. To win the game, a player will need to build all six of their “castle” pieces, effectively covering up all of their production.

Fürstenfeld is a collection of clever new mechanics, some of which work very naturally. Unfortunately, the resource-selling and corresponding economic engine is annoyingly fiddly. All the pieces sold must be placed on marked spaces of the chosen brewery’s card. Some of the pieces will be removed (and the price marker changed accordingly) after the player’s turn, and others will stay until the end of the turn. It’s easy to mess this up, and it’s distracting enough to make people forget about marking their total sales for the turn order track as well. I’m also not sure how well I’ll like the memory portion of the game long-term, since it didn’t play a major role in everyone’s learning game. At the very least, though, this is still a clever and original game.

London (7/10): When I played this, my snarky response was “Hey! Someone showed Martin Wallace how Eurogames work!” I stand by that, but it’s not meant to belittle the game. It’s fun and not quite like anything else I’ve played, and I’m interested in trying it again.

The central action of the game is placing cards in front of you, at a cost of other cards (which an opponent could then claim) and sometimes money. A player can later “run” their city by performing the actions on their cards on the table. This is the main way to get points and money (which is also needed to purchase control of districts on a map of London), but the more cards in your tableau, the more your “poverty” counters will increase. Having much more poverty than the other players will lead to large point penalties in the final scoring.

Cards can be played on top of other cards (so as not to increase the poverty penalty), so a player will want to use their tableau as efficiently as possible. There are a few strategies for a player to choose, with a lot of variety among the cards. I heard this compared to Race for the Galaxy, but I don’t think the similarities are strong: Yes, every player has a personal tableau of cards that they pay other cards for, but the sources of interaction and the ways the cards are used are completely different.

My main concern is whether the game will stay interesting over multiple plays. I heard from someone who loves it after many games and also someone who thinks it got old quickly, and I can see both of their points. It will depend on whether the different strategies really turn out to be valid. For now, all I can say is that the first game was fun.

20th Century (8/10): This auction-based game by Vladimír Suchý is not as much of a brain-burner as his rondel-based Shipyard, but it’s similar in that it squeezes every drop of potential possible from a specific mechanic in order to distribute resources, and then requires players to apply those resources to their personal empire as efficiently as possible.

In this game, players bid and money and science points (effectively a second type of money) to either gain tiles with new cities on them, or to pay to avoid disasters. Cities produce points and more resources, but also produce garbage that increases if a player wins multiple auctions in a round. A third, more subtle, form of auction gives players the first choice of new technologies if they drop out of contention for new city tiles before anyone else. The city tiles are then placed so as maximize efficiency and recycling efforts.

This is the sort of game that takes 5 rounds (plus a simple 6th round with production but no auctions), and would probably still take 90 minutes with experienced players. That should tell you a lot about whether you’ll like it. Personally, I think that everything came together well, and the different players at our table found different approaches that all seemed valid ways to build towards victory. Crucially, there are additional scoring steps after rounds two and four which are randomly chosen at the beginning of the game. These change the relative values of resources from game to game, and should keep the strategies interesting even after the basic elements are familiar.

The Cult of New-To-Me

These are the games I learned here, even though they aren’t new to the gaming community in general.

Bacchus’ Banquet (5.5/10): This filler gives each player a character with a secret mission. On a player’s turn, they take a card for themselves and offer another (face-down) to someone else. It is tricky to decide whether or not to accept this “gift”, because cards can both help and hurt. On the other hand, the only way to get a turn of your own is to receive a card from someone else. Even more importantly, this is a difficult choice for the person who is offering the cards: Since the goals are hidden (except for Caligula’s, who wants to kill other players), it’s hard to tell whether the card being offered will accidentally give the game away or not.

This is a cute, light game based on dark themes, and the blind choices can be nerve-wracking. On the other hand, it is too easy to lose the game by accident, so the conclusion is kind of underwhelming. This reduces the tension during the game.

Dice Town (6.5/10): I’d never paid any attention to this casual dice game, but it was a pleasant surprise. On every turn, people build Poker hands with dice over the course of several rolls, and then collect rewards (points for the most 9s, money for the most 10s, special cards for the most jacks, and so on). It’s a fairly random game, but it never tries to be anything more. Watching your opponents’ hands build on roll after roll is is a lot more fun and tension-filled than most modern dice games (in which only one player rolls at a time), and there are just enough choices to keep this light game from getting boring.

FITS (7/10): This was another unexpected hit for me. It’s a casual game that comes directly from Tetris, with a card being drawn and every player placing the corresponding piece on their board. The board has four inserts of increasing complexity, with the first just rewarding the players for complete lines and penalizing for empty spaces, but others making certain spaces worth more or less when uncovered. This certainly isn’t a game a serious gamer would want to play all the time, but I think it will stay fun long-term if I bring it out to the table for non-gaming relatives.

Middle-Earth Quest (5/10): This huge, expensive fantasy game pits one Sauron player against everyone else, with each side trying to complete a secret goal while adding or ridding the post-Hobbit landscape of corruption tokens and evil forces. The area encounters feel like Arkham Horror done right, and there are some great mechanics in play. My favorite is the way players manage cards that are used to move and battle, but that give Sauron a boost when they need to be replenished. The simultaneous-choice battles they are used in are nice as well. Unfortunately, this also has the half-thought-out nature typical of Fantasy Flight games. Much of the battles that take place across the board feel irrelevant to the secret goals of the game, and the ending is triggered by a turn counter that only barely ties into the gameplay. The most damning thing from my point of view is that the game is just too long. It went on for hours, with some individual turns being a few minutes long. I’m told that it flows better with three players than four, but I still think it could use a lot of streamlining. At half the length, the arbitrariness of some events would be easier to overlook.

The chief complaint I hear from other players about this game is the ending: If neither player has finished their secret goal by the end, it it decided by a last-minute battle that feels disconnected from the hours of gameplay that led up to it. At least this time, though, I enjoyed the ending. As one of the three good players, we had a secret quest that we couldn’t mention in front of Sauron. I needed to do the final part to complete it, and I raced around the board to just barely finish on the last turn. Meanwhile, the other two players were engaged in a huge battle in Mordor. It was actually irrelevant to our goals, but by focusing on it, they managed to trick the Sauron player into believing that it was important to them. He focused his energy on that battle, letting me sneak along undisturbed. That sort of coordination about a goal we couldn’t say out loud was a new experience to me, and I had just been saying a couple weeks before that I wished there was a semi-cooperative game that offered an experience like that.

That just ties into my main impression of the game, though: I recommend it for its clever rules, but not to play.

Princes of Florence: The Muse And The Princess (6/10): This very small expansion adds an extra auction step to Princes of Florence, with each player buying one of six special abilities each round. It offered some interesting changes to the game, with money becoming tighter but the players’ accomplishments (and scores) going way up.

This added some nice variety without breaking anything in the game (except that I wish the minimum Work Value required each round would increase to reflect the extra power players have), and I think I’d probably play it about half the time I play Princes of Florence. However, I probably wouldn’t use this expansion with three players again. The game already suffers with fewer than four, but when there are six powerful abilities to assign, there definitely needs to be more tension in those bids. Also, the number of Builder tiles is the same for any number of players. This isn’t a big deal in the standard game, but this expansion’s Princess ability gives major bonuses for a Builder and building-based strategy. The expansion seems to expect Builders to be as scarce a resource as they are in a five-player game.

Prototypes

While I can learn games throughout the year, conventions offer unique opportunities to try ones that haven’t been published yet. Unfortunately, I wasn’t too impressed with either of the ones I tried this year, but it’s always a cool experience.

The business behind prototypes has definitely changed since last year. Both of these were being demoed in the hopes of raising money for Kickstarter campaigns. Though I found both to be only ok, they will definitely have appeal to some people. (The couple I played Venture Forth with was very excited about the game.) I’ve included the Kickstarter links below in case they sound interesting for you.

Dragon Valley (6/10): Each player recruits units and buildings to defend their keep from monsters. The monsters move along a predictable path, and some buildings offer protection in a very simplified Tower Defense manner. The unique part of the game is the way that everything (buildings, cards, heroes and monsters) is distributed: In a “pie-dividing” style that is surprisingly rare in games, one player splits the units into different sets, and then each player picks one. The dividing player takes the last pick, so they need to make sure to make them as equal as possible! (Or, since everything takes on different values to each player, the divider can attempt to handicap their preferred set in a way that only makes it worthwhile to them.)

This division mechanism was very compelling, and I hope to see it used in more games in the future. (The only other one I’ve played is Piece o’ Cake, which manages to be both too short and too long at the same time.) Unfortunately, the battles against monsters are less compelling. The movements each turn feel slow and unexciting, and a few of the random abilities feel like they can do more damage than is fair to the other players. I have to admit that the worrisome cards never did much damage in the game I played, though. Maybe their threat, combined with the auction-like choices that let players account for their power, addresses this problem. I would definitely give this game another chance, though from my first play, I expect that it will probably remain only ok.

(Kickstarter expires on August 15, 2011.)

Venture Forth (5/10): This fantasy game has a great concept: Why should adventuring heroes always get their experience and rewards from killing monsters? Venture Forth gives each character a different life goal. Sometimes they are still battle-based (such as finding an especially weak or strong monster), but many characters simply desire to meet other heroes with specific qualities or in a certain location. Each one accumulates “Will”, and when they meet their goal, that Will can be spent to gain points or level up. Of course, the journeys through life are not always successful, and characters can earn “Despair” as well.

The game mechanics simply don’t do justice to this idea, though. The board is composed of cities connected by paths that can hold cards. Anyone can play a card to one of the paths on a turn, to build towards a set that will either reward their own party or frustrate one of their opponents’. This set-up is hard to predict or control, and feels more luck-based than strategic. Further, the theme doesn’t tie to the gameplay very strongly. While each character has a goal that lets them cash in their accumulated Will, the process of gaining Will and Despair is disconnected from the characters themselves. A player will typical gain it for playing on a certain space or choosing a given path to travel on, and then choose a hero to assign it to.

I’d love to see another game run with the theme of this one, but I’ve tried and failed to think of a way to adapt the current rules into something that will work.

(Kickstarter expires August 15, 2011.)

Other

Beyond the new games, there are always other aspects of the convention worth talking about. Here are three from me:

The Board Room: This is always the heart of the convention for me. Though the convention might not be worth it without the sales, unique events, and new dealers to check out, I spend most of my time in this room. It’s always possible to find other serious board gamers, and the huge CABS library is available to borrow from.

The freebies were way down this year, and for the most part I thought that was a good thing. It had reached the point where half of the people buying entrance to the room were only interested in the free food and game raffles. This year, there were almost as many people available to actually play games with, but it was easier to find table space to do so.

The traditional free games (donated by Rio Grande) were disappointing, though. There were no real winners in this year’s offerings (with the possible exception of Black Friday, which I haven’t played yet), and a lot of people got nothing more than an expansion to Chicago Express. I try not to act entitled about this, since it’s supposed to be a bonus rather than the reason to use the Board Room. However, it was hard to take CABS seriously when they announced “Thank you to Rio Grande for making sure that everyone went home with a game to play!” when quite a few people without Chicago Express were literally not given anything they could play.

The Rio Grande Room: Despite my complaints about the free games, the company itself is great. I’ve long felt that Rio Grande has the nicest and most prepared demo staff at the convention, and this year they finally moved out of the Dealer Hall to a dedicated area that let them set their own hours and bring in food. While there were rumors about some major companies planning to scale back next year, I hope that this is a sign that Rio Grande is still dedicated to Origins.

Diplomacy: This vicious game isn’t one that I can play too often, but it is very fun when I do. I’ve played a few online games over the past decade, but this year I finally decided to play my first in-person game since the late 1990’s!

It was an even more intense experience than I expected. I’m used to plenty of time to examine the board and consider the messages to and from other players, but I suddenly found myself with only 10 minutes to plan everything. It was overwhelming at first to have everyone pulling me aside to insist that my only sensible strategy was to ally with them, when I couldn’t even see the board to figure out if their arguments made sense. I did fairly well, ending the game in a three-way tie for second place despite playing Italy (widely agreed to be the weakest position on the board). I feel like I did well for someone who barely knew what he was doing at the game’s start, and I learned from a few mistakes. I didn’t want to dedicate another evening to play it again right away, but I’ll definitely be back next year! I’ve known this game for too long to review it on this site, but I might be inspired to write about the very different ways the environment can influence it.

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