Origins Recap: 2008

Last year, I posted a long Origins write-up to my blog. I had actually written these for my friends for a few years before then. I thought it would be interesting to post those for historical comparison. Here is the first of my old reports, with minor editing to make references to friends and current events clearer.

2008 was a significant year for my game-playing hobby. I left Origins most excited about games like Metropolys that found clever new approaches to the classic Euro approach: Just one or two mechanics for people to use in a roundabout way to earn points, and ending in 45 minutes. Little did I know that Agricola was currently blowing up in Europe and would be in the US later that year. Between that and Galaxy Trucker, another game that was long and component-rich for my tastes at the time, I’d finish 2008 with a very different attitude about gaming than I’d had in the middle of the year. (Also, I tried out a prototype of Dominion here. I thought it was clever, of course, but I had no idea how big a deal that game would be.)

My plan for the year was to make a list of all the games I played at Origins and sort them from best to worst. (It’s pretty arbitrary — It’s difficult to rank a game I’ve played repeatedly against a demo of a new game, or ordering a light game played with jerks with a serious game played with slow learners.) I tried to mark things like “not completed”, “demo” (when I didn’t feel that I got the real game experience), and “prototype” where applicable, to help me remember which rankings were especially arbitrary.

— TOP TIER — (Games I will definitely buy, except for the ones I already own)

Metropolys: Use vaguely Ra-like bidding to take control of areas on a beautiful board. Everyone has secret missions that are responsible for most of their points, so different areas can have very different values to everyone. I can’t say how well the secret missions will stay balanced and interesting over time, but I fell in love with it on my first play.

(2012: This continues to be a good game, though four years later, it feels light and doesn’t get frequent play.)

Ilium:  An upcoming Knizia game from Playroom. It has some subtle, hard-to-follow strategy that we all enjoyed. Unfortunately, my group found several problems with the way the rules were written, and it’s too late to change anything in the first edition. I understand the rules now, though, so I’ll enjoy playing it more.

(2012: I played the game once more, and we all found it pretty dry and prone to over-analysis. There are good ideas, but I wasn’t motivated to keep trying it.)

Are You A Werewolf?: I’m not trying to rank the game as a whole, but I had to list it up here because I played an awesome 3-hour session of this late Saturday night. I won (as the sole surviving werewolf) after intense negotiations. I really want to explain it in detail, but I’m sure that that would be as annoying as people who always have to tell you all about their latest RPG campaign.

Condottiere: A cool bidding game. It’s very strategic, but with enough powerful cards that you can’t always tell whether someone’s move shows a weak position, or is threatening to turn the tables on you if you let your guard down.

(2012: I still like this game, but my friends aren’t too impressed. One of them made up his own game that improves on Condottiere significantly, so there hasn’t been much reason to keep playing this one. So even though I haven’t played it much, the purchase was a huge success in a roundabout way.)

Imperial (not completed): An awesome game. Move units and collect taxes on a Diplomacy-like board, but players don’t directly control the countries. Instead, they are investors who profit from a country’s actions. This means that you can have a stake in countries on both sides of a conflict, and the government that you had been majority stakeholder in can be taken away from you halfway through the game. I’d rank this higher, except that it’s long and complex enough that I don’t expect to get many chances to play it.

(2012: Still a great game, and it’s length and complexity isn’t nearly as off-putting as it used to be.)

Venus Needs Men!:  This is one of those American-style games with too many rules, unbalanced positions, and random cards. However, it’s also a lot of fun. I played and enjoyed it last year, but I waited to try it again this year to make sure that it wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t — I enjoyed the game a second time.

(2012: I haven’t played this since.)

Dominion (prototype):  This had the biggest buzz of the show, and for good reason. It’s a really clever twist on constructible deck games. Instead of putting your deck together and then playing, you build a deck from a common pool of cards AS YOU PLAY. At the end of the game, you count up point cards in the deck to find your score. My only problem with this game is that I spent more time shuffling cards than paying attention to other people’s actions. I’m also concerned about how long the cards would last when they get shuffled that often.

(2012: With my first play using the basic cards, I didn’t realize just how much strategy and replayability this would have. Four years later, I wish I’d had the foresight to list this as the biggest deal of the convention.)

— SECOND TIER — (Games I definitely want to play more)

Tzaar: A very strong entry into the Gipf Project. If I had people to play Gipf games with regularly, this would have made it into the “must buy” tier.

Ticket To Ride: Europe: This was my first time playing anything other than standard Ticket To Ride. I think I like this version better: There are no 5-space connections to make (though there are a couple special 6s and 8s), so you can’t just run away with a victory by building random tracks everywhere.

Shazamm!:  This was my copy of the game, but it was only my second play since I bought it used recently. It’s a good bluffing game (of the “each player makes a choice simultaneously, and then we see who wins the round” family) with a variety of attacks and counter-attacks to choose between.

(2012: Still a good game.)

Hive: A cool abstract strategy game. It’s like Chess on a hex board, with the conceit that the board is made up of entirely of the playing pieces, and all of the pieces move in ways designed to get them around other pieces. I’ve heard good things about this game before. After playing one game and watching another, though, I suspect that it doesn’t have very much depth for an abstract strategy game. I did enjoy it, and better players might be able to show me that there’s more depth to it.

(I tried it again the following year, and decided it wouldn’t hold my interest long-term.)

Arkadia: Another one I’ve played before. I chose this because it was a good game, and my opinion didn’t change.

Chopstick Dexterity Mega-Challenge: Players fight each other to take shapes out of a bowl with chopsticks. It’s not just a cute idea, but it’s also a surprisingly fun game for AT LEAST the 5 minutes that I tried it. Technically, this was the game I played the most times this weekend. I considered buying it, but everyone I know is either much better with chopsticks than me, or much worse.

(2012: A silly little game, but I wish I’d bought it. I haven’t seen it since.)

The Hanging Gardens: This game has a unique mechanic for creating a grid of symbols in front of you. When you get enough symbols together, you claim a tile, and get points at the end for gathering sets of tiles. I enjoyed my 2-player game, but wasn’t sure what I’d think of it long-term. I played again a few days later, and was surprised at how different it felt with 3 players. I started enjoying the game more, but one day later I find myself unsure again about this game’s staying power.

(2012: A perfect example of the light Euro era that ended for me after Origins 2008.)

Yetisburg: When you see a 20-minute card game about Yetis drafted into the Civil War, you expect something random, unbalanced, and possibly broken. It was a pleasant surprise to find that it’s merely random. There are definitely some strategic choices you can make, but they’re overshadowed by the random tile draw that you make to see what direction units shoot in.

(2012: I’ve never bothered to try this a second time.)

Stone Age:  This is a good game, with nice production values, but it didn’t live up to the hype for me. I expect to play it quite a bit more, but I don’t think I’ll want to buy it. Anyway, you develop your prehistoric tribes with a Pillars of the Earth mechanic. It definitely improves over Pillars.

(2012: Ha ha. Not having seen Agricola or Caylus yet, I described worker placement as “a Pillars of the Earth mechanic”. This game still has fans, but it doesn’t work for me. It feels long and repetitive, with your end-game position being similar to your starting one.)

Freya’s Folly: An under-the-radar indie game that at a glance looks like it came from Rio Grande or Mayfair. You send dwarves into mines to collect gems, with the moving mechanics (you can jump over spaces that already have dwarves) adding most of the strategy to the race. I won, but the end game was sudden and felt arbitrary (had the ending been triggered at any other point, I would have been third or fourth). I think that if we played again, we would understand the risk posed by those endgame-triggering actions, though.

(2012: I played once more a few years later, and was underwhelmed.)

Tikal (not completed): A fairly well-known game that I hadn’t tried before. It turned surprisingly slow and analysis-prone as the board started developing, and we ran out of time before I had to leave for a scheduled event. I think I’d need to play a couple games to decide what I think of this, so I’m really not sure what to say about it after playing half a game.

(2012: I’ve played this once since. It’s a fun game that I’d be happy to play more, but I don’t feel any urgency to seek it out.)

Ra: I feel weird ranking this right in the middle, since it’s one of my favorite games. However, I guess that the reason it’s one of my favorites is that even after all this time, it’s still a game that I’ll reliably like as much as trying out new, exciting ones. So this is probably an accurate ranking for the game I played at Origins.

— THIRD TIER — (I liked these games)

Key Harvest: I played this once before, and wasn’t sure what to think. This second time, I enjoyed it more. There’s some real strategy mixed with extremely random events. I think that the first time, you are so confused by figuring out the strategy that the random events are too much to take. Now that I had an idea of what I was doing, the randomness seemed appropriate. On the other hand, the other player who had tried it before said that he liked it less with each play. Maybe it’s just me.

(2012: I’m still curious about trying this again.)

Attribute: A friend described this as “Apples To Apples done right”. I agree — a more thorough description would be that Apples To Apples isn’t really a game. It’s a system for social interaction. Attribute IS an actual game.  So which one you prefer probably depends on what you’re looking for.

(2012: Cute, but it doesn’t have a lot of staying power.)

WEGS (demo): The “Wickedly Errant Game System” is for people who just want to roll up characters in a few minutes, spend an evening throwing them against monsters, and then throw the character away at the end. Despite my initial cynicism, I think that this system does meet that goal: I enjoyed this 15-minute demo a lot more than the 15-minute D&D dungeon delve I tried last year. I don’t think that I’m the target audience for it, since I don’t feel like I’m looking for quick hack-and-slash fests. I would probably give it a chance if I knew people who wanted to play this somewhat regularly. The only weird thing is that they insist that this system uses “Vegas-like” gambling mechanics, just because it uses dice (like most RPGs) and your character has a stack of poker chips to represent its pool of magic/power-moves (but you don’t gamble them, you just spend them).

(2012: I tried it again the following year, and decided it wasn’t for me.)

Fairy Tale: Played before. I’m sure I’ll play it again, too.

Cutthroat Caverns: I’ve wanted to play this game for over a year. Now that I finally have, I’m disappointed. The basic idea is great (your dungeon-crawlers will all die if you don’t work together, but you still want to hold yourself back or trip up other players at the right times, because the player who lands the killing blow on a monster gets all the glory), but the gameplay was way too chaotic. It didn’t help that we had to figure out conflicting cards every few minutes, and even the experienced player at the table couldn’t figure out some of those situations. (Unfortunately, the person running the actual demo was NOT the experienced one, and she couldn’t understand even a lot of the sensible cards. We also had someone at the table who mainly thought it was fun to betray everyone. I think that my current ranking would hold steady if I played it again, though.)

Oh My God There’s An Axe In My Head!  The Game of International Diplomacy (prototype): This mix of diplomacy and chaos worked surprisingly well, and everyone at the table had a good time. (Another game was going on at the next table — they played very differently than us, and also had a good time.) However, it was very long for a game in which you can get screwed over by bad luck at the very beginning. Also, I think that a lot of the fun came from the creator, who narrated the game for us and pre-emptively explained situations before we had a chance to get confused by unclear cards or rules. If someone wanted to try this at another convention, I’d recommend it. If you were considering buying the game, though, I’d probably discourage you.

Kali (demo):  This is an abstract strategy game with simple rules played on a complex board. I really can’t tell what it would be like to play, because the demo-er just kept showing me ridiculous situations that I don’t believe would come up in a real game. (All of them would depend on players passing up capture opportunities until it was time for one person to win the game in one set of moves.)

That’s Life:  A roll-and-move game that’s actually not horrible. It’s not good, either — it was tough to decide whether this game would go above or below the “I liked it” line. But I’d play it again, if only to try to figure out the very strange artwork. You have a few pieces to move, and the timing for your move matters. It’s simple and fairly interesting.

— FOURTH TIER — (I didn’t like these games)

Ming Dynasty (not completed):  A very complex game of area control and set-making. Eventually, the table voted to stop playing it. (This was partly because they weren’t enjoying the game, but it also had a lot to do with people at the table having to leave and come back a couple times, and one friend who wasn’t playing it waiting for the game to end). I would try it again, and I think that my rating would be more likely to go up than down. However, my main problem with it is that the game demands complicated strategy, but relies on you to guess about card draws or other player’s moves that could invalidate your plans. The mix of luck and heavy strategy didn’t work.

Rue Morgue: Mystery Rummy: It’s Rummy… with spooky pictures! Actually, I’m being unfair. There are some interesting ideas in it. If I wanted to play Rummy, I’d care more.

Nepal (demo, not finished): This was by a company that makes light but beautiful games in laser-etched wood. Nepal was their attempt at a Euro-like train game. It is simple and doesn’t seem bad at a glance. However, the mechanic for taking over areas from other players seems to guarantee that people who are paying attention will never let anyone else finish a route. Since it didn’t seem like the other players fully understood that, I can’t tell for sure.

Mimic (demo): A simple-looking game of playing matching cards, but the company claims that there is some serious depth to the way you have to play your matches in a constrained board. I had thought that the game looked pointless before, but the demo convinced me that there might be something to it. Now I’d be willing to try a real game of it someday, but I’ll just keep assuming that I don’t like it in the meantime.

Dogfight (prototype): This looked like a fairly serious fighting game on a hex board. It turned out that it was just a mediocre company’s attempt to make a game that would “look good on an executive’s shelf”. I don’t think that they expect executives to have good taste in games.

— FIFTH TIER — (These games were awful)

Rorschach: It seems to be going for the Apple To Apples market, but with pictures of ink blots. I just feel that ink blots are a lot less evocative for this sort of thing than words are, though, and the scoring rules made it so that it finished in three rounds (and we knew for sure that one person was out of the running after round 1).

Dragonriders: A Formula De-like game in which you choose your dragon’s speed, use a measuring stick to move it that far ahead, and try to be the first around a race track. You have to worry about crashing, of course, and there are also magic cards. But the rules were unclear, the pieces were way too flimsy for a game in which being accidentally moved a millimeter could change everything. There’s a catch-up mechanism that can attack players who are a little bit ahead, but once a player gets very far behind, there is no way to catch up other than hoping that everyone else crashes.

Shakespeare: The Bard Game:  Yes, it’s the “Bard” game. This is a roll-and-move game in which you try to collect actors, props, and patrons to put on plays. I think it’s intended for Shakespeare fans who assume that all board games are like Monopoly or Life.

RISING: The Board Game (early prototype): RISING is a zombie LARP system. (Though calling it a “system” probably makes it sound a lot more complex than it really is — you apparently just hit zombie NPCs with boffers.) The new board game is as simple as the LARP, but removes the experience of actually being there. What you’re left with is a game where you roll the dice, move your character, and then draw a card to see how many zombies you find on the space. If you walk far enough to enter a room, then you use a random room card instead of a random encounter card to learn how many zombies you find. We drew the hardest zombie card in the deck on our first move. Every now and then, you find a survivor instead of a zombie. But the best strategy seems to be to hang out outside right by the helicopter pad, since you’ll find just as many survivors that way, and you get to stay right by the helicopter pad and room-of-infinite-weapons. I stayed around for a while to give the designer suggestions, but I can’t imagine a way that this game could actually become GOOD.

Battlestations: This hybrid RPG/board game has some interesting ways to model space combat, but I don’t care about that any more. I’ll never be able to give the game a fair chance, because this event was such a miserable experience. Imagine trying to play a new RPG, and the other people know that you don’t know the rules yet (and encourage you to play anyway), but then just start things off by asking you “ok, so what’s your first action?” Seriously, they would NOT explain anything about the rules without being forced. It was like summoning a genie who was bound to tell you the truth, but in the most limited and least helpful way possible. Add to that the long down-time between my actions (in the 4-hour game, about 18 rounds worth of time elapsed. And usually, my action was something simple like “I’m preparing to fire, so I can have a bonus if I get the chance next round.”) Plus, I missed Rio Grande’s birthday party because this game ran so late.

(2012: Still no desire to play this again. I should mention that a year later, I ran into someone who had been in this same game as me. He remembered it as a great experience.)

I also did the following things, but I can’t really rank them as games:

Terrorwerks:  If you leave the part of the convention where all the buzz was about Dominion, you’d find that everyone was talking about Terrorwerks. Imagine going to a Haunted House at Halloween, but instead of just being scared by the actors who jump out at you, you are given a toy gun to shoot back with! That’s basically what this is like. The story is an Alien-inspired Space Marines vs. Zombies, the props and setup are well-done, and the weapons are nice AirSoft (pellet-firing) guns. It’s a great time, but it cost $18 for a 45-minute experience (about 15 minutes of preparation, and 30 minutes of fighting). I understand why they need to charge that much, but it still feels expensive. While I was laying in bed unable to sleep that night, though, I decided that I should probably do it again next year.

(2012: I still haven’t gotten around to playing this again. Maybe I should try this year.)

Killer Bunnies: I don’t like this game. Also, I don’t actually know the rules. I just played whatever cards seemed good, and ended up placing somewhere in the middle of the group when the game ended. I don’t rank this with the games, because I just play it to hang out with Jeff Bellinger and his friends. They’re really fun people. Next year, maybe I’ll just watch and talk to them as they play.

(2012: Jeff Bellinger, the creator of Killer Bunnies, hasn’t come to Origins since, and neither have our mutual friends that led us to hang out. I may not share Jeff’s taste in games, but he’s one of the most fun guys in the industry.)

Call of Cthulhu: In the Name of the Mother: This was my first tabletop RPG session at a con. Though it sounded really interesting on paper, I learned that I can find better players, better DMs, and better scenarios at home. The set-up took over half of the game, and instead of having a scary payoff, an NPC just came up to us and said “you’d better run away, because those people will want to sacrifice you”. So we ran from people with guns (they were the main danger, as we hardly saw anything supernatural at all), and most people escaped through a huge plot hole that the DM hadn’t anticipated. (I died due to a series of bad dice rolls, but I was disappointed with the game long before then.)

That’s 40 games and events (not counting conversation, the dealer hall, etc.) It was a good time.

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