Origins Recap: 2009

Continuing my catch-up of old Origins recaps, here is 2009’s. This was my third time at the show, and the first one where I started to run into people I knew regularly. Also, I noted afterwards that finding games felt very different. In other years, I discovered a lot of new exciting games that I hadn’t heard of before. In 2009, I mainly knew about the games already. This was probably just because I was paying more attention to game news, rather than a big shift in the industry.

As with the 2008 recap, I tried to sort the games in order from best to worst, even though a lot of them are difficult to compare directly.  And it can be hard to decide for sure what I thought after one play (especially when I learn halfway through that we were taught wrong…)  But this is roughly in order.

Warning: I try to make most of my game reviews fairly accessible to people new to the hobby. But this is from an email I sent to serious gaming friends, and I was just getting experienced enough with board games to compare everything to each other. So this summary assumes that you are familiar with the other popular games that were out there in 2009.

TIER 1: THE BEST GAMES:

Dominion: Intrigue: This was the clear winner of the convention, both for me and the board gaming crowd in general. (It definitely helped that Jay from Rio Grande was in the Board Room on Wednesday evening to hand-sell copies to an excited crowd. More than once, I heard people say that Rio Grande always wins the publicity war at Origins thanks to the way they court the Board Room.) After playing this game, the original Dominion feels like it was just the tutorial for the REAL game.

(2012: This is all true, but even so I had no idea just how much farther Dominion would go.)

Bombay: A lot of the games I saw this year felt like a comfortable mix of familiar Euro mechanics. Of all the ones from that category, Bombay stood out as the most interesting. It was pretty, too (and cheap! Asmodee had the best discounts in the dealer hall). There was one big problem, though: The guy who taught me said you needed to be careful about where you place your Temples, as the other players can get money by passing through them.  It turned out to be the opposite: You get money when people go through your temples. I’ve played this twice since then, and both games seemed to be decided by who raced to get the best temple placement at the beginning. I’m hoping that this doesn’t overwhelm the game. For now, at least, it’s a winner.

(2012: This became one of those games that everyone was fairly positive about, but I never got to try much more. It does seem that the strategy isn’t very deep, but I still haven’t played it enough to say for sure.)

Jet Set: This is a railroad game, but re-themed for airplane routes. I found it to be a good intermediate step between Ticket to Ride and the Age of Steam family: You need to claim specific routes, but each build costs you money. The money management can wipe you out if you’re not careful (I learned that the hard way): To gain more, you have to spend a turn earning income from your completed routes. So you need to balance the short routes (easy money) with the long ones (more points), all while setting yourself up for your secret end-game route.

It’s actually quite different than other railroad games, because you can pay money to use other people’s links. This means that the optimal route is always available, which is something I’m not used to in the railroad genre. I’m worried that this will make it seem repetitive after a few plays, but for now it’s still new and intriguing. Also, the bits and graphic design could use some improvement. Still, I felt like I’d stumbled across a hidden gem when I found this game (it’s from Wattsalpoag Games, a small company no one has heard of), and I didn’t get that feeling very often this year.

(2012: This still feels relatively unknown for its quality. I play the game once or twice a year, and it’s fun. There isn’t enough variety to the gameplay to try it more often than that, though.)

Small World: Along with Dominion: Intrigue, this was the big hit of Origins. I’d already gotten to play it a couple weeks before, so it wasn’t new to me, but it had still been on my list to play and buy during the convention. I played it twice more while I was there, and my opinion actually went down each time. This is really more of an American-style game than a Euro, with its confusing mix of special rules for every race. (But it’s fairly balanced, and ends after a set number of rounds, so no one seems to notice.) This became obvious the last time I played it: The first two had been played with one teacher and everyone else being new to it. The last time, every player had been taught the game previously from a separate source. We learned that we all had different ideas about the rules, and everyone was wrong about something. (And sometimes had trouble resolving our issues even when we looked up the rules). Then I got home, looked on Board Game Geek, and learned that I had a bunch of other rules wrong.

The game is still fun, and I did try to buy it. Too bad Days of Wonder didn’t have a booth at the convention this year!  I have no idea why they didn’t come, but it was annoying.  I’m not sure if I’ll bother buying a copy or not.

(2012: Looking back at this, I’m surprised by how accurate I was. Small World is fun but not worth the hype, and I didn’t remember noticing that so quickly.)

(I notice that in 3 of my top 4 games, I sound worried that I’ll like the game less in the future. I hope that’s not a bad sign. Of course, in many of the games below, I say that I might like them more after future plays. So I guess it all works out.)

TIER 2: THE GOOD GAMES:

Steam: This Age of Steam remake had a little buzz, though not nearly as much as Dominion and Small World. I liked it. There are two major changes, both apparently aimed at making the game “friendlier”: Your debt is now tracked on a secondary scoring track, giving you a way to get out of it, and also new goods are added to cities in a way that gives players a lot of choice (instead of a die roll). My first impression was that the debt track is a big improvement over Age of Steam (I thought that the choice between gaining points or improving your financial situation was very interesting). As I think about it more, though, I suspect that the way new goods are added may be worse than the original. (True, it gives players choices instead of relying on a die roll. On the other hand, it gives this very powerful choice to ONE player at a time.) Since I’ve only played Age of Steam twice before, I guess I can’t judge.

No Thanks!: Is it fair for me to put this game on here? It wasn’t the only game I played at Origins that I already knew, but it is the only one that I already knew well.  I didn’t get to know the game better or anything this time. (On the other hand, I did win it, which is a new experience for me.) Still, this is a good game, so I’m putting it at the appropriate position on the chart.

A Castle for All Seasons: This new Rio Grande game was very interesting, though a single play-through isn’t enough to really appreciate it. We still felt like we were figuring it out at the end, so this could turn out to be much better or worse after I play it more. Still, when everything new from Rio (other than the Dominion expansion) felt aimed at a lighter audience, this was a welcome exception. In short, the players simultaneously choose from their set of Role cards to determine how they will be gathering resources or building castle components. If you play the right Role, you might be able to take advantage of the character your opponent played… or at least win the race to claiming a vital castle part. You also put out meeples to claim positions that will give you points at the end of the game (for example, 3 points for each castle component still unbuilt, or 4 points for each time the “bank” was used). That’s the part I’m most unsure about after one play: I don’t know whether this scoring will turn out to be highly strategic, or if these positions have more or less the same value every time.

(2012: Three years later, I still really want to play this again.)

Sherwood Forest: This was the other interesting Rio Grande game that I can’t fully grasp after one play. You are outlaws preparing to rob passing caravans. However, you have very limited resources, so it is hard to get equipment, gather information about what caravans will be coming along, and be the first one to grab the right position for your raiding party.  And then you need to have enough Merry Men left to match the strength of your victims. In order to make it work, you will usually (but not always!) need to team up with other players. This created a negotiation game that felt different than any other one that I’d ever seen. I’d need to play again to tell if it works… and I imagine that it all depends on how the “advanced” rules work.

(2012: Like A Castle for All Seasons, I haven’t played this since. Unlike it, though, this game hasn’t aged well in my mind. I remember it being a bit random and determined by other people’s arbitrary decisions towards you.)

Batavia: A nicely packaged (of course) game from Queen that hasn’t been too popular. After playing it, my impression was that it was a very good idea, but with a lot of bit fiddling for what should be a 30-minute game. Also, it’s very expensive (being from Queen) for what it is. However, I did like the idea, and I want to play it more to see if that wins out over the fiddliness.

Aquaretto: I got to play this once before, about a year ago. I’m happy to say that my first impressions were right: This is a “gamer’s version” of Zooloretto, with actual interesting choices to make.

After the Flood: This was how I spent my Thursday afternoon: About 45 minutes to learn the rules, 45 minutes to find a third player (and teach him the rules), and 2+ hours of playing. It was an interesting Martin Wallace empire-builder game (the conceit being that each of the 5 rounds takes place hundreds of years apart from the others, so you may keep some infrastructure from round to round, but the empires that give you the big points need to be re-built every time). We all agreed that this was worth trying out more, but that since it was a 2-hour game, requiring exactly 3 players, and with a small, sold-out print run aimed at Martin Wallace fans, it probably wouldn’t be worth the effort.

Nefertiti: There was a point when I actually had trouble finding new games to try! I spent part of Thursday evening learning some classics that I’d never gotten around to trying before. Nefertiti is a bidding game with some clever mechanics: The money you bid eventually cycles around in a closed economy, and you bid by placing markers at specific places on the board. “Gaming” the system can be more important than the auction amounts themselves: You may actually want to bid a lower amount than the current leader, since the positions on the board are what trigger the ending of an auction, and sometimes your consolation for taking 2nd, 3rd, or 4th place is more important than making the winning bid. It was the sort of game that I’d enjoy playing again, but wouldn’t miss if I didn’t.

Thurn and Taxis: Another classic I’d never played before, from the same session as Nefertiti. My overall impression was similar (I’d enjoy it, but wouldn’t miss it if I don’t get around to it again). After one night, I think I liked Nefertiti a little better: Thurn and Taxis is a little drier, and besides, I really enjoy auctions. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if Thurn and Taxis turned out to have more depth after future plays, and I know that it’s not the game’s fault that the teacher kept revealing new rules throughout the entire session. So you can pretend I agree with you whichever game you like better.

The 3 Commandments: Imagine a game where everyone takes a turn as “the high priestess”, making up secret rules that will add or subtract other players’ points. Sounds like a silly party game, right? Now imagine that some of those rules can be actual physical actions (sing, get out of your chair during your turn, etc.) I was pretty strongly against this game when we started reading the rules, but a friend chided me (“Nevin, fun games can be fun“), and I gave it a chance. Damn it, it turned out that fun games can be fun! The rules that players have to follow (both the physical actions and actually moving pieces around the game board) are set on cards, so there’s some balance and sense to them. It turned out to be a really interesting experiment in behavioral psychology. Seriously, I could see this game used in college Psych classes. Since the players have no information other than whether they’ve seen the other players rewarded or punished, they try to mimic what the most successful ones have done. This meant that we’d often go around the table copying completely ridiculous things to be like someone who earned points, and then it turned out that half of the things were doing were unrelated to what was actually giving us points! And the part of the game that sounded like Truth or Dare turned out to be manageable: Since we didn’t know what action we were supposed to do, and each person only has a few turns until a new player makes new rules, no one felt forced to do anything too ridiculous.

I would have rated this higher in the list, but I think that the game has a few big liabilities: Once players learn the different rules printed on the cards, the feeling of experimentation would change. Also, in most rounds almost everyone got the same number of points: After one player discovered something that seemed to give them positive points, everyone else just tried to copy them as closely as possible.

Hive: This is a quick 2-player abstract strategy game. I got to play it once last year, and I’ve spent the time since then wondering how much re-playability the game has. So I played a few more times this year. It was enjoyable, but I now feel like I’ve scratched that itch. I guess that means it doesn’t have that much re-playability after all. Still good, though.

TIER 3: OK GAMES:

Finca: I’ve already mentioned that a lot of new games felt like competent but unoriginal mixes of existing Euro games, and also that most of Rio Grande’s new games felt like they were aimed at a lighter audience. Finca is an example of both of those things. It was fairly popular, with a good mix of game elements and an attractive, colorful board. Everyone has a few meeples that they move around a rondel to collect fruit. The way your piece moves depends on how many other pieces share its original space, and the amount of fruit it collects depends on the number of pieces on the destination space. Choosing what fruit combinations to cash in, and when to use your special once-a-game powers was interesting. Now that I’m back home, I’m regretting not getting this game for my girlfriend: I think it would have been one of her favorites from this list. Also, we learned halfway through that we were playing with the wrong number of pieces on the rondel (totally changing the way the game progressed), so it deserves another chance to impress me.

(2012: This is a big change in attitude in the course of one year. In 2008, those “light Euros” were about all I knew! Still, I did eventually get this game for my girlfriend – now wife – and I’m glad I did. It holds up better than I expected from the first impression.)

Giants: This game also deserves another chance, since the person demoing it (at the Asmodee both) did a horrible job teaching the rules. The point of the game is to set up routes to move Easter Island statues around. You have a limited number of workers per round, so you may need to move them a little bit at a time. We only had time to play half a game, and at that point I had only just learned about the major factors of the game: In one turn, you can try to set up multiple statues so that they can all take advantage of the same worker placement. Alternately, can you get other players to use the workers you put out, so that you share in their score. The components were very nice, but in this case I think that works against the game: It retailed at $60 or $70, so I’ll probably never get another chance to try it out.

(2012: I never gave this game its second chance, but that no longer worries me.)

Zombiegeddon: I was really curious about what sorts of games Knizia sold to Twilight Creations (aka the publishers of the world’s worst games), so I tried this one. It turned out to be an interesting resource-collection and pathmaking game. Basically, it’s like Hey! That’s My Fish if your pieces could only move one space at a time. You try to gather as many supplies and weapons as possible (the zombie spaces give big points, but you need to pick up weapons first), and then get your pieces to the shelter spaces while cutting others off. My initial impression is that the mechanics are superior to Hey! That’s My Fish, but that Twilight Creations did their best to ruin it. All the pieces are filled with busy artwork (and different pieces with the same meaning can have very different pictures on them), so it can be really hard to see what options are available to you.

As a side note, I don’t recommend trying games at the Twilight Creations booth. The people there seemed to treat games as things that you can never fully understand. (My teacher kept asking for help with the game, and several times ended up trading facts with other workers. Things like “Hey, did you know that this game has a rule that says _____?” They didn’t seem to think it it was unusual that none of them fully understood a game’s rules, or that all of them knew different subsets of those rules.)

PitchCar: This was my first time playing this cute little dexterity game. It’s just a little racing track for model cars, and everyone takes turns flicking theirs forward with their fingers. It’s a nice game, but the price of all those materials is more than it is worth to me. Also, I turned out to be pretty bad at it.

Maori: Another light Rio Grande game. You try to form a group of islands with Carcassonne-style tile placement, except that your tiles are placed on an Alhambra-like board (that is, everyone has their own board, and their are rules for moving tiles around which require so much effort that no good player would ever bother with it), and chosen like Guatamalan Café (a small set of tiles is laid out in a square — you move a marker clockwise around it to gain your piece, but the distance you move it affects what opportunities will be available to the next player). For the first half of the game, it felt like a way to introduce new players to Carcassonne or Alhambra, if for some reason they couldn’t handle the real thing. Then as we got later in the game, the luck of the draw became way too important (we’d selected all the good tiles that were available, so the single new one that was dealt out at the end of each turn would be hugely important to the next player). I don’t need to play it again.

WEGS: This is the “Wickedly Errant Game System”: a quick way to set up a hack-n-slash tabletop adventure. I demoed it last year, and it did feel quicker and cleaner than all the other one-shots or dungeon delves that I had done at conventions before. Creating a character is quick, you can come to terms with their stats without trouble, and pace of the game moves fast. So even though I don’t normally have much interest in RPG-lite systems, I wanted to try this again. I was more disappointed this time. It is still a clever system for someone looking to roll up a quick battle with their friends, but it’s definitely not for me. And this time, it became more obvious that the demo was skipping over a lot of the complexities of the system. Once you add in those complexities, the system’s advantage over D&D is probably gone.

TIER 4: Disappointing Games

Bonnie and Clyde: I ranked this as the “best” of the disappointing games as an acknowledgement that this really wasn’t aimed at me. It’s basically just re-themed Gin Rummy, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy this game if you are looking to spend money to spice up your Rummy nights.

I was surprised to learn that this is the 7th game in the “Mystery Rummy” series! I’d only seen one Mystery Rummy game before (Rue Morgue), and it never occurred to me that someone would make more of that. But I do think that this is much more playable than Rue Morgue was. That game added a lot of chaos, while this one is basically normal Rummy with a couple special cards and a chance at getting a bonus for uncovering one of the outlaws.

Ice Flow: This is a fairly abstract game from FRED. Players move ice pieces up and down a river to create (or destroy) paths, and then try to walk their explorers across them. It has too much chaos to be a serious strategy game, but lends itself to too much over-analysis for a casual audience to enjoy.

Lost Cities: The Boardgame: Why is everyone talking about this game? Yes, I know that Lost Cities is a great card game. It’s great mainly because every turn is so tense! Almost every turn, you either make a move that skips over potential plays that you wish you could wait for, or you discard a card that may be giving your opponent what he wants. This new game completely removes that tension. Now there are multiple copies of each card in the deck, you can choose to play cards in a given suit in either ascending or descending order, and every now and then you get a free move to apply to any of your routes! That means that it’s a lot harder to get stuck, and even if you do, you’ll still get enough free moves to make a route possible! They sucked all the purpose out of this game.

Top Ten: The Bill of Rights: I tried this at the “play-testing” area… too bad that the game is already being published. I guess that “play-testing” is a good gimmick to get people to come try it out? It’s too bad for the publisher, too, because we found a way to seriously break the game.

It sounded cool at the beginning (despite coming from Bucephalus Games): Everyone votes on amendments to a new constitution, and you get points if the symbols on the winning amendments match your secret agenda. It’s a funny, original theme that sounds like it should lend itself to good negotiation, right? Well, it turns out that the points you get for proposing or supporting the winner turn out to be more important than the points that you get for matching your agenda, so all that gets lost. Then each amendment has a chaotic special effect when it gets passed — thanks to that, several of us spent the last half of the game with a hand of ZERO cards, so every turn we had no choice about what card to propose as a new amendment. (The way we broke the game had to do with how votes were counted if more than one person introduced the same bill. It’s boring to describe, but we came up with several ways that it could be fixed… if the game hadn’t been printed already.) There was also a lot of stuff to keep track of: Every turn, each player put their voting chips all around the table.  Then we had to count up votes, assign points based on where the different voting chips ended up, and re-sort them.  (The final tally of points to see how your agendas worked out also took a long time.) Oh yeah, and I almost forgot: There were four different decks of cards, which looked identical on the back, and almost identical on the front. I’m glad I wasn’t the one who had to sort them at the start.

Highland Clans (aka Mac Robber): This wins the award for the most pasted-on theme I’ve EVER seen. I’m used to games where a cube of a certain color stands for a resource. But in this game, a different number of cubes in that color might stand for another resource! The components were pretty bad (I’m not sure why, as this was published by Queen), and our very experienced group spent about an hour figuring out the rules. (It didn’t help that the reference cards used very tiny print so that they could fit 5 different languages on them… even though the main rules had only been printed in English. Or that the reference cards used different terms than the rule book.) Eventually, we figured out the basic gameplay: Draw a bunch of cubes from a bag, choose two resources from it (remember, a resource could be one of several combinations of colored cubes, depending on what they are and where you put them on your board), and then optionally spend cubes to attack another player. (The attacking then uses really random cards, and some rules we had to guess at.) After every time around the table, we stop for scoring. 2/3 of the way through the game, we were still going back to the rules and realizing that we had fundamental scoring rules wrong.

We didn’t make it all the way through the game. I suspect that if we had, and had then gone on to play it a 2nd or 3rd time, we would have found a light game with some clever scoring. However, the random cube draws and frequent attacks still wouldn’t fit in well with the dry, abstract rules.

Easy Come, Easy Go: This is a clever idea for a dice game: Roll like Yahtzee, but you’re trying to get one of 7 specific combinations. If you get it, you claim the card with that combination listed on it. If someone else gets it later, they take the card from you. If you hold 3 cards, and the next 2 players fail to take any from you, then you win! I don’t normally hate random, light games — I wouldn’t put them at the top of my list, but it takes something really special to make me put it this low on the list. How did Easy Come, Easy Go manage to be so bad? Simple: It’s really easy to win a card, which means that someone will have gathered 3 cards in less than 5 minutes. But then it’s also really easy for someone else to take one of those cards away, so the person who got all 3 cards won’t win. It takes about 20 more minutes before someone actually gets lucky enough to win. It’s really painful to play through an endgame that takes 4 times as long as the mid-game. And while randomness can be fun, there is no point if all players randomly undo each other’s accomplishments for almost half an hour before someone hits that 2% chance of actually winning. I won a copy of this game after accidentally winning an Easy Come, Easy Go tournament, and may have insulted the company over Twitter.

(2012: Because I won a copy, I played this once more. Unlike the two games at Origins, someone did manage to win the later game quickly. That didn’t make the game any more satisfying, though.)

Are You the Traitor?:  I was pretty excited when I heard that Looney Labs had a new game based on Are You a Werewolf. If anyone has played that game enough times to come up with creative twists, it’s them. Instead, I found a game that so horribly missed the point of Werewolf that it has no reason to exist, and nothing that could be salvaged for a decent game. (Except maybe the theme, but I can’t imagine how good rules could be applied to it.) For that reason, I declare this the worst game of the convention!

The theme: A group of guards is escorting a “keyholder” safely to a wizard. When they get there, they find 2 wizards, each one insisting that he is good, but the other wizard is evil. So the guards choose not to reveal which one among them actually has the key until they can determine which wizard to trust. Unfortunately, one of the guards is actually a traitor, who would like to turn the keyholder over to the evil wizard…

So every player has a card with a role, and each role is associated with a “good” or “evil” team. Each person is looking for a specific other person (the keyholder wants to identify the good wizard, the evil wizard wants to find the keyholder, the good wizard and guards are both trying to kill the traitor. The traitor can’t directly find anyone, but has to send signals to the evil wizard.)

It’s an interesting set-up, especially since different players have different information: The wizards reveal themselves (but not their affiliation) to everyone, and then the wizards “go to sleep” so the keyholder can reveal himself to the guards (and traitor) without the wizards knowing.

But then what happens? No one has any other clue about the good/bad guys, and there is no way to send messages to other players without everyone seeing. Eventually, someone just arbitrarily accuses another player of being the person that they are looking for. Whether they are right or wrong causes either “good” or “evil” to win. Then everyone on the winning side gets a treasure card worth 0-5 points, and a new round starts. Roles are re-dealt, and the first person to 10 points wins.

Yes, that’s right. Roles change every time. So you know how, in Werewolf, you might gather information based on how people acted from round to round? Not this time. Every round is like you’re re-playing that awkward first day of Werewolf. You know how the votes in Werewolf might give you clues to someone else’s loyalty? Not here, as there is no voting. Do you like the tension in Werewolf? Sorry, this game has none: since no one ever gets eliminated from the game, and the bad guys don’t ever actually do anything that feels evil, there’s no reason to get nervous or expect “tells” from someone else. Do you wish Werewolf was a little less arbitrary sometimes? Well, it feels pretty fair in comparison to this game, in which someone who sits around doing nothing might gain a 5-point treasure just because a teammate made a lucky guess. (Do that twice in a row, and you win!)

We played 2 games, and had no luck in figuring out any strategy or any way to communicate. We asked a Looney Labs worker for advice… all he said was that he’s learned that “the traitors are important”… but he couldn’t tell us how the traitor could actually pass information to the evil wizard, since he has no better chance of picking out the evil wizard than the keyholder has of guessing at the good wizard! (Plus, the traitor would have to pass information without any guards noticing.)

Congratulations, Looney Labs. You’ve created a game that is more pointless than Fluxx.

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