Origins Recap: 2010

Here are my notes from the 2010 Origins. I’m now all caught up on these recaps, since I posted 2011’s immediately after it finished last year.

This was the year that I finally stopped talking about games I already knew, and also talked more about themes of the convention. It definitely reads a lot better than the earlier years’ wrap-ups.

Origins was a lot of fun this year! I learned 24 new games (out of 32 total logged plays), and I’m looking forward to trying out a few more that I bought. I think that these were the big themes this year:

1) Lots of Buzz-Worthy Games

Last year, Origins was dominated of Dominion: Intrigue. It debuted at the con, and everything else was in its shadow. I’d have a hard time coming up with any other games that generated a lot of buzz. (Some people were excited about Steam and Automobile, but it never spread beyond the existing Martin Wallace fans.  There was definite potential for Small World, but no one was selling it and Days Of Wonder didn’t even have a booth, so it wasn’t able to take off. And apparently Toad & Troll sold a ton of copies of Space Alert, but I only saw a couple people playing it there.)

In contrast, this year people were excited about so many games that I had a hard time keeping up. It was good to see, and it makes me really optimistic about what’s coming out for the rest of the year.

2) Rio Grande is Awesome

Not only did Rio Grande continue to provide prize support for the Board Room, but they paid for lunch and dinner for the people there every day! (I generally skipped it, because the line was huge and they didn’t have much vegetarian stuff. But I appreciated the gesture.) They were also demoing a lot of great games in the dealer hall, which was a big relief after last year. (In 2009, it seemed like they were going along with the opinion that nothing mattered but Dominion Intrigue.)

3) I Didn’t Play Any Horrible Games

I like to try a lot of variety at Origins, which means that once or twice per year I’ll find myself stuck in a demo with someone who refuses to teach the rules, or made by someone who tried to translate their LAR P to a board game without changing anything, or even a round of “Are You the Traitor?” It’s painful at the time, but it’s fun to tell the story later. This year, everything I tried was at least tolerable. That’s not necessarily a reflection on the convention as a whole; It probably just means that I’m getting a better idea of what I’ll like and dislike. I wonder if I should try to randomize what I play next year…

Here is a list of the games I learned or heard a lot about. In past years, I organized them by how much I liked them, but going along with the themes I listed above, I decided to list them by how much buzz they had. I’m sure that other people have different impressions of what was being talked about this most, but I think I’ve made good guesses. My personal ratings are based on one play, so they’re not firm enough for BGG yet. (My average rating is 6, meaning that I’ll be happy to play it with friends from time to time, but I generally wouldn’t suggest it.)

THE MOST BUZZ

Defenders of the Realm (6/10): This is a new cooperative game by Richard Launier (Arkham Horror). It mixes Runebound’s atmosphere with Pandemic’s mechanics surprisingly seamlessly: Monsters take the place of diseases, so if too many appear in one place, they “taint” the land and expand out to nearby areas. If there’s too much taint, or you ever don’t have enough units for one monster type, they overrun the land and you lose. The game loses both Pandemic’s excellent infection deck and the horrible win conditions. Making connections is de-emphasized, but the difficulty of finding places on the map remains. It adds a simple dice-fighting mechanism, quest cards that give you bonuses for completing goals, and the threat of “boss” monsters advancing on your capital city (defeating them is definitely a better win condition than turning in flushes of cards).

Unfortunately, the game keeps Pandemic’s main problem: The losing conditions (and sometimes the winning ones) can seem sudden and arbitrary. This becomes a little more of a problem for a 2+ hour, $75 game. I enjoyed it at first, but by the end I felt like I’d gotten my fill.

(Oh, and if you’re wondering, it’s a little weird to play a game where people talk about “taint” the whole time.)

Fresco (5/10): Queen’s latest game is very beautiful, and restoring an old painting is definitely a new theme. Apparently, that’s all it takes to generate buzz. There was nothing very interesting going on in this one. I can see that it would make an appealing gateway game, but it doesn’t seem like it would hold up over time.

I’m told that the optional rules make it into a meatier game. I can see the potential, but Queen’s demo-ers refused to teach me the rules when I asked.  So I went off to find new games.

Innovation (Huh?/10): This debuted with a small print run at Origins (though it had had an open beta already). It provides a bunch of cards, each one with a unique power, in one of five colors, and with a few symbols (out of 6 possible). Only your most recent card of each color counts, and to fully use the power, you need more of a given symbol than everyone else. So the game balance constantly shifts as everyone replaces their cards with new ones, changing the powers available as well as their count of each symbol.

I bought it, and I have high hopes for this game, but one play wasn’t enough to feel like I understood it. So many cards are out, and they change so quickly, that I felt in over my head. But that just means that I have a new system to figure out!

(Update: I’ve since reviewed this game.)

Wok Star (No rating yet): It’s kind of cool to see 2 independent games (this and Innovation) debut at Origins to such a high level of excitement. It’s also interesting to see that 2 of my 4 big-buzz games are cooperative. I haven’t played this yet, so I can’t say many specific things about it. But a ton of people were playing it, and they eventually overcame my skepticism about the game and convinced me to buy it. (It’s a real-time game in which you have to prepare restaurant dishes by spending the required ingredients, and then finding the time and resources needed to replenish the resources that are running out. It sounded a little simplistic to me, but apparently the real game is in planning upgrades between rounds. To earn enough money to win, you need to figure out how many new customers you can commit to without running out of supplies.)

(Update: This game is interesting, but never really grew on me. The progression wasn’t very fun, as one bad mistake could set you too far back to catch up, but playing without mistakes was boring.)

MODERATE BUZZ

Claustrophobia (8/10): Another dice-heavy dungeon crawl. I ignored this at first, but I heard enough good things that I went to check it out on Sunday afternoon. It ended up being a very tense and strategic game: One player controls the humans trying to find their way out of underground tunnels, while the other player controls the demons who are trying to hunt them down. Each round, the human player rolls dice and allocates one to each player to decide their stats: High numbers mean higher defense, while low ones mean higher attack power, so rolling all 1’s isn’t automatically bad. The demon player allocates their dice to different abilities (mainly raising the “threat value” that lets them spawn more bad guys). It definitely depends on the luck of the roll sometimes, and each player has cards that can be a little chaotic, but overall it had a lot of strategy and beautiful components. I definitely felt more invested in the ending of this game than any other one I played!

(Also, it’s worth noting that Asmodee is the only company that discounts the games at their booths. That’s gotten me to buy some games that I was on the fence about. I wish the bigger companies would try this strategy.)

(Update: I’ve since reviewed this game.)

Egizia (9/10): This was the surprise hit of the convention for me. It’s a worker-placement game, focused on building the great works of ancient Egypt. About half the actions are the same each round, while the others come from cards (in decks that change as the game goes on). The trick is that all the actions are in a line (the “Nile River”), and you can never place workers “upstream” from other ones that you’ve already placed. That leads to some tough choices: Instead of racing to take all the best actions at the beginning, players need to decide if it’s worth skipping over the decent actions to get to the great ones.

Even friends who usually say they’ve gotten tired of worker placement were really excited by this game.

(Update: I’ve since reviewed this game.)

Founding Fathers (5/10): This is the new game by the creator of 1960 and Twilight Struggle. You play cards to influence votes on the articles that will go into the US Constitution. Like 1960, each card can be played either to sway the vote of one of the 13 colonies, or for a special power that is unique to the card. I was disappointed to learn that, despite the historical explanations printed on every card in the game, an individual’s historical goals mean very little. You gain points for winning votes and debates regardless of which way your character actually leaned. 1960 did the historical connection better. However, Founding Fathers does do most other things better: It supports multiple players, the game is composed of several small votes instead of one big one (therefore, crazy cards affect one scoring round instead of the whole game), and the length and pacing felt better.

However, I am disappointed in this game for the same reason that I didn’t like 1960. The game is determined by cards that are way to chaotic for the strategic rules and placement options.  I suspect that I’d like this more than 1960, but I’ll probably never find out.  I’m definitely in the minority with this opinion, though, so fans of those other games should check this out.

Tammany Hall (6.5/10): I don’t think many people had heard of this game last week, but there sure was a lot of excitement about it by the weekend.  The theme is dirty politics in New York, and the game itself is pure area control. Either place bosses to give you 1 vote in a district, or place “immigrant cubes” (in 4 different colors) to earn favors with that nationality. Favors are spent in a blind bid to earn more votes in a district, provided some of that nationality are present there. You want to win control of districts, as well as get bonuses for presiding over the most people in each nationality. Winning the most districts each election makes you the mayor (with bonus points), but the mayor must assign special offices to each opponent. The opponents will spend the next 4 years using their new powers to tear down the current mayor.

It’s a tight game that is vicious enough for its theme without feeling chaotic. Personally, I enjoyed it, but felt that what it offered was fairly standard area control. I’d play it more, but I’m not ready to buy it. Fortunately, a lot of other people loved this game, so I’ll probably get chances to try it again soon.

A LITTLE BUZZ

Alea Iacta Est (7/10): This is the latest Euro-Yahtzee game. Take turns rolling the dice in your pool and allocating some to one of 4 regions. When your turn comes back around, re-roll your remaining dice. You’re directly competing against the other players in each region, and also racing to completely allocate your dice pool first. The dice are scored different ways in each region, and you gain re-rolls if you ever lose completely in a region, so bad luck is minimized. Dice games keep improving, and I thought this was another solid step forward. It’s not a great game, but it’s the right length (or maybe even slightly too short) for what it is.

(Update: As you can see in my later review, this didn’t hold up.)

Railways of the World The Card Game (6.5/10): I only heard a few people talking about this, but I’m attributing buzz to this game because it sold out at the con. Draw cards (Ticket To Ride-style) to gain track, cities, and locomotive upgrades. Play them in order to add track and cities on the board. Once they are down, you put your color marker on the track, goods tokens on the cities, and you can deliver them Age of Steam-style. I was cynical about this game at first, but it turned out to be a good 30-minute game with the Steam/Railroad Tycoon feeling. There are definitely some differences (most notably in that cities get added throughout the game, so you aren’t planning routes from the start, and you can’t add extra connections to cities already on the table, because it would be difficult to figure out exactly how much distance is between existing cards), but the scoring is tweaked to make it work.

Samarkand (5-6.5/10): The high-level description sounds like Chicago Express: Buy into families, and then build paths out of their starting city. It changes from there: Only two people can invest in each family. You get some points for bringing those paths into one of 30 special numbered hexes, and more points if you can make two families meet. The big points come from having cards that match the right one of those 30 numbered hexes: Ideally, you want to have a meeting between two of your families there, but any activity is good.

The game went so quickly that I wasn’t sure what to make of it (hence the range in ratings). It made Chicago Express seem long! I played last in a 6-player game, and the family that would turn out to be the most powerful had been bought out even before my first turn. From there, it was an exercise in groupthink as the owners of that family increased it, and everyone else tried to join in where they could. I’d like to try this again, but with fewer players.

NO BUZZ

Ad Astra (7/10): This wins the award for “Favorite game I didn’t buy”, which is surprising given that what little I’d heard about this game was a dismissive “It’s just Settlers in Space”. It turned out to be very different. You are collecting resources in order to build new things, usually in order to increase your resource production. But instead of rolling for resources, you choose your actions from cards, and everyone gets to perform the action you chose. (It’s reminiscent of Race for the Galaxy’s mechanic, except everyone is choosing 3 cards and placing them on a common track, and then they are revealed and performed one by one. So one round might have several people all producing resources, while another might have a lot of traveling, trading, or building.) Without dice, the new randomness comes from not knowing what resource a planet will offer until your spaceship lands there. But there is a lot of production, and trading with the bank is easier, so getting stuck with lots of one resource isn’t too bad. (In fact, that happened to me, and I won by focusing on the VPs that come from trading in multiples of one resource.)

Points are also clever in this game. There are 6 ways to score, spread across 3 action cards. Points are allocated only when someone chooses it as their action, and the person who played it selects which of the 2 items on the card will be scored. You don’t get your score cards back until you’ve played all 3, so if you focus too much on one thing, you’ll have to give other people too many points in order to get your good scoring card back.

There are a variety of paths you can take in the game, and I didn’t feel like it was possible to get stuck in this game. (In fact, your engine ramps up incredibly fast!) This is a huge distinction from Settlers, in which at least one player is going to get boxed in and stuck if you’re playing it right.

(Update: I recently bought this, and plan to review it soon. Short story: I really like it, but I realize that we were taught many rules wrong at Origins. For example, you can look at all planets around a star before choosing one to land on, so my note above about that randomness is wrong.)

Albion (6/10): Move your settlers and pay resources to build or upgrade buildings in a region. The upgrade will give you more movement, more resources, more defense (allowing you to build in tougher regions), or let you achieve the victory conditions. There was nothing wrong with this game, but there wasn’t too much that was right, either. With little interaction and even less luck, the game is just a matter of doing some calculations to find the most efficient path to the end.

Assyria (7/10): A solid game in the Ystari style. A bunch of existing mechanisms are mixed together for something that is good, but not mind-blowing. Basically, you’re placing figures around the Mesopotamian area, and then playing food cards to keep them all alive. There’s no way to get enough food to keep them all, and getting more than a little food will force you to go last in turn order. Depending on where you played, you get points in a couple different ways, or you get actions to allocate towards other things that let you compete for points and other advantages.

I liked this. There were quite a few things going on at once, so I was always struggling to do a little better. I’m still in the stage where I’m figuring out the game, so it’s hard to say how it would feel once I had a handle on the different things I needed to balance.

The friend I played with felt that the game wasn’t interactive enough. He might be right (I was mainly focused on figuring out my own engine on the first play), but I don’t think so: Space is tight on the board, and some of the biggest points come from allocating your power to a track where you battle for influence. Turn order changes depending on how much food you take, and going first will make a difference if two of you are competing for the same thing.

Asteroyds (5/10): Players race spaceships through an asteroid field, similar to Robo Rally. It’s more forgiving than Robo Rally in most ways (players can’t crash into each other, you stop after the first crash instead of continuing to go even further astray, and all actions are available to you every turn instead of hoping for lucky cards), but there is a harsh time limit that makes it easy to make mistakes while planning. When you program in your actions, you see the information telling you where the asteroids will be moving this turn, but you don’t actually move them until you’re done programming. That means that you have to keep track of where the clear path will be while you’re planning, and you don’t have much time to re-calculate it.

While I was playing, I was a little curious about what the advanced rules would offer (without them, there’s no player interaction at all). I realized an hour later that I wasn’t THAT curious, though. I play Robo Rally about once a year, and I don’t need anything more in this category.

Cyclades (7.5/10): Build up empires on a stretch of Greek mythology-themed islands. A description of the moves makes this sound like a battle-heavy game, but the reality is very different. The real game is focused on an auction every turn to decide who has the favor of which god. Each god gives you one action (so only the one with Ares’ favor even has the option to attack, and then only if they used Poseidon’s favor on a prior turn to set up a convoy of ships between islands. The other 3 gods don’t set up attack or defense at all.)

So really, this was a very competitive engine-building and auction game. There are battles with dice, but you know what threats are out there at auction time, so that is really where they are decided. I was a little worried about a runaway leader problem (I built up a big income at the beginning, and seemed to dominate for a while), but it didn’t turn out to be an issue. It also seemed like some of the mythological creature cards you can buy might be overpowered, but only one big move came up all game. Besides, if a big one is out, that just means that you have to bid for the god who’s first in turn order. It all worked with a strong theme.

(Update: I’ve since reviewed this game.)

Hagoth: Builder of Ships (5/10): Draw and play cards to put together ship blueprints, build completed blueprints, or sail your finished ship forwards. 3-6 completed ships (depending on the size) are needed to gain enough VPs to win. This is a fairly basic game without much going on – just hope for the cards that give you the actions you currently need, and it is possible to get stuck doing nothing but drawing for several turns in a row.  However, you get to be working on a few different tracks at once, and it plays in 20 minutes, so it was pretty good for that style of game.

Leaping Lemmings (4/10): A cute game, but based mainly on luck and making the same decisions turn after turn.

Piece o’ Cake (6/10): A game based on the technique that children use when they share a piece of cake: I cut it, but you choose the first piece. Of course, in this game, the pieces of pie are worth different points to different players, so it’s a little more complex than just dividing it down the middle. It’s an enjoyable mechanic, but I was surprised at how few rounds there were. I think that it would feel more satisfying if it were increased from a 10-minute filler to a 15-minute filler. Whether I’m right or wrong about that, though, it definitely needs to be changed from a $30 cardboard game to a $15 card game.

Priests of Ra (9/10): Ra is one of my favorite games of all time, so I was excited to try this new version. The tile-drawing and bidding mechanics are the same, but the tiles themselves are completely new. There are still several different elements to be scored (both at the end of rounds, or for big scores at the end of the game), and it still seems like any path can win a game. The round-by-round scoring is based more on competing against other players for the majorities in each of 4 colors. Since tiles are double-sided, with the current player choosing which color will be played, this isn’t as simplified as it might sound to a Ra player. I suspect that the big end-game points might feel a little more arbitrary (in Ra, one more tile is never more than a 5-point swing, but in Priests, a tile that completes a combination might be +10 points), but I’ll have to play it more to find out. And after playing Ra for years, trying this variant was a lot of fun.

(Update: I’ve since reviewed this game. On later plays, it was definitely not as interesting as Ra.)

PROTOTYPES I PLAYED:

Merchant’s Quest (6.5/10): Made by my friend Chuck and his daughter. This is a solid game of playing cards to move over different terrains, with the goal of picking up resources and taking them to like-colored cities. It’s pretty simple, aimed more at families than gamers. I can see potential for a meatier game in this, though. (More easily than I see that potential in Fresco, to be honest.)

Superhero Smackdown (5.5/10): This is a dice battle made by Richard Launius (Arkham Horror). He doesn’t have any plans to publish this (the licensing would be tricky, and the gameplay probably isn’t complex enough for the price point it would end up at), but I played with friends of his who all love it. I won’t go into details, since there’s not much chance of it getting picked up anywhere. I’ll just say that the basic premise is fun for a dice-fest (players take turns allocating fight and defense dice to different superheroes, and because everyone has multiple bets on the fights, alliances are tricky things). However, the pacing was all wrong: The heroes go through a tournament bracket, which means that only the first round has enough battles to really be interesting, and there aren’t enough sources of points to let losing players catch up at the end. I talked with him about this, and he seemed interested in my suggestions. Whether he was taking them to heart, or just being polite because he was demoing Defenders of the Realm to me, I don’t know for sure.

NOT-NEW GAMES THAT I LEARNED

Cable Car (5.5/10): A simple tile-laying game with a good mechanic. However, you need to keep track of several routes that are growing at once, and the paths are nearly impossible to follow on the tiles! I’m told that this was more clear in Metro (the previous version of the game), but in this form, it’s a good game that’s practically unplayable.

El Grande (9/10): I’ve heard of this game, of course, but somehow I’d never learned it before. It’s excellent! I won’t bother with a long description, because you either already know it or just need to track it down.

Fruit Fair (4.5/10): Everyone simultaneously chooses what resources (fruit) they’re going after, then decides whether to trade them in for points, and then bonuses for the next round are allocated based on who has the most of each fruit remaining. It sounds a little interesting, because people later in the turn order may not have any of their fruits left. However, the winning strategy is just to collect a lot of fruit and NOT turn it in for VPs. Then you have majority in everything, so you get all the bonuses (including 1st-player position), and you can keep taking all the fruits. When your stash is ridiculously big, THEN you start turning it in for points.

That’s all! (Not counting the 8 games I played that I already knew, of course.) It may not sound impressive when most things in my list are ranked around 6/10, but it’s always fun to learn new games. Even the ones ranked below 5 were interesting part of the time. And among those 24 games are several excellent ones that I look forward to playing a lot more.

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