Origins 2012 Wrap-Up

Another Origins Game Fair has come and gone. For me, it will be remembered as the first one I didn’t get to attend completely. Due to various issues back home (over two hours away), I left, came back, and then left early again. I only got to spend two and a half days at the convention, instead of my usual four and a half. Really, though, that made me realize what a big deal this is for me. Like a holiday, I had to make it back for that partial Saturday, not due to considerations of whether it would be fun enough, but because I simply had to have a complete event. Origins punctuates my gaming year.

It’s too bad I was gone, because in some ways the times I was there were my best ever. It never once took me more than a few minutes to find a game to play. The crowds at the Board Room are open and friendly, the people in the Rio Grande room proactively suggest things to me, and even my trips through the Dealer Hall ended up with more demos than normal.

Maybe this is because Origins happened a month early this year. I don’t know whether the attendance was really as low as it seems – every time, people compare their memories of last year’s busy Saturday to this year’s quiet Thursday – but I’m sure it was down. It’s too bad, because this is the first time in my six years of attending that Origins didn’t have to share downtown Columbus with another large event. It was great not to have rush hour traffic at 2:00 AM for once.

However, I definitely noticed a lack of exciting new games. There are plenty of exciting Summer and Fall releases lined up, but apparently the earlier schedule made Origins miss out on them. I’m not sure whether to blame the convention organizers for shifting the schedule, or the game publishers for not planning around something that had a full year’s notice. Either way, though, the only game with real buzz was Mage Wars, an upcoming constructible deck game that had the largest promotional push I’ve ever seen at Origins. I saw several groups discovering Lords of Waterdeep for the first time (which I’d played a few weeks before), and several more talking about Sentinels of the Multiverse (which I never got around to trying), but most years I’d end up putting those two in the “light buzz” category. This year, I have to abandon my pattern of sorting games by the buzz-factor, because there just wasn’t any.

Seriously, on Saturday afternoon I asked several people flat out “What should I buy?” I was leaving early, I still had a few hundred dollars in my pockets that I’d expected to spend on great new games, and I wanted to find something cool. But after asking almost ten people I trust, with a wide variety of tastes, no one could suggest anything. It’s not that there aren’t good games out there, but there really wasn’t anything new and exciting.

Instead, the buzz mostly centered around special guests Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day. Origins has celebrity guests every year, but this is the first time I’ve heard people truly excited about them, and also the first time that it sounded like the guests stayed to enjoy the convention instead of just cashing their check. My Twitter feed was filled with people talking to and about them, and it sounds like they hung out to try lots of games and actually visit people. The celebrities aren’t why I go to Origins, but I think this is an encouraging sign. Next year, it will be back to its more popular late-June date, and the organizers now know a new trick.

So with all that said, it’s time to look at the new games I learned. They are ordered from the best to the worst, at least as well as I can do for first impressions of such a variety of games.

THE BEST GAMES

Trajan

Definitely the standout of Origins for me, Trajan is another hit from Stefan Feld (of Notre Dame, Macao, and In the Year of the Dragon, among many others). In fact, the way I described it to others was “Do you like to play Stefan Feld games? Well, how about playing four at once?” There were six types of actions to take, each one offering a range of choices. There were many ways to score, all of which were affected by different combinations of those six main actions. In fact, I had to completely ignore significant parts of the game in order to advance far enough in the categories I was focusing on. (That wasn’t just a failing of mine. Other players ignored some of the areas that I was working on.)

While those different actions and scoring choices were just standard game design on steroids, the method by which you chose your action was what made the game unique. Each player has a personal board that looks a little like Mancala, in which you take markers from one cup and spread them to others clockwise. The space you end in will be your action. It’s surprisingly complicated to decide on the order you’ll take moves in order to make your plans work, especially since the pieces are different colors, and you can get bonuses for getting certain combinations of colors together. This system forces you to plan ahead multiple moves for efficiency, but there are times when you’ll need to shift gears in order to react to an opportunity another player opened up.

Trajan is complex, looks a little dry, and will be overwhelming for the first half of your first game. It’s also great.

Friday

It may be cheating to include this on the list, as I played it at home after leaving the convention early. But I bought it at Origins, and played it during a time that I normally would have been there, so it counts. And really, there was no reason not to play this after I got home: It’s a solitaire game.

Though deck-building games have become commonplace, Friday is the first one Rio Grande has published since Dominion. Apparently they have high standards for this mechanic, because Friday is the first one I’ve seen that doesn’t feel like a Dominion knock-off in any way. You’re trying to build a deck to represent Robinson Crusoe’s improving skills (per the game’s name, you’re his man Friday): Each turn, you choose a challenge from an encounter deck. If you can beat it, then you gain the card, which has new skills for Crusoe when rotated 180 degrees. If you lose the challenge, then Crusoe learns from the experience, represented by the chance to trash bad cards. Losing also costs health points, though, which can eventually kill him. The goal is to survive three times through the encounter deck (using a higher difficulty number on the cards each time) and then fight off two pirates.

This isn’t going to be the next Dominion. You play with almost all the cards every time, so games will stay fairly similar. However, the different pirates available at the end reward slightly different deck make-ups, and you know from the start of the game which ones to prepare for. Also, there are four levels of difficulty to keep it interesting as you learn the strategy. Besides, it’s unfair to compare any game’s replayability to Dominion’s. In short, if you are interested in buying a solitaire card game, this one is a must-have.

Hawaii

This is part of the new wave of light worker placement games, though it’s definitely heavier than its colorful, cartoony board implies. The point of the game is to create your own villages by gathering tiles that will give you either points or abilities. The idea is that you have a single person walking around to do each action, so you must manage the distance between actions (paid for with feet symbols) as well as the cost of the action itself. The purchase costs are randomized with each round, and the relative positions of each action are different from game to game. Also, your base income actually drops from turn to turn, so even with the new abilities you gain, resources will become tight.

Like Trajan (but less so), there are many paths to victory available, and you will not be able to do everything in one game. I have some long-term concerns about whether they different options are balanced (the people who got early boating abilities earned a lot of points from that), but I did see people who made different choices stay competitive at the end of the game. Hawaii was good enough that it’s worth finding out how it will work in the future.

Yomi

I didn’t expect to like this game much at all: A character-based deck fighting game that gets comparisons to both Street Fighter (it’s by one of the designers of that) and Rock, Paper, Scissors, it sounded like a silly, chaotic thing. The mechanics actually worked well, though. The decks have the standard playing card symbols on them along with custom pictures and information. The custom information includes the type of move your fighter plans to make against the opponent; Each player chooses secretly and reveals them, and that Rock, Paper, Scissors mechanism determines who lands a blow. After that, though, the victor might be able to play additional cards in a Street Fighter-style “combo” for more damage. The basic playing card symbols come into play in many combos, as well as special abilities that let you discard pairs or other card combinations.

I think the game fooled me into seeing more depth than there is. Despite the hand management aspects, your attempts to draw matching cards is more chance-based than strategic, and the Rock, Paper, Scissors aspect is probably a coin flip. (Though there is some strategy in trying to guess whether a player is more interested in defense or special attacks.) However, everything came together very nicely, and it seems that the ten different character decks offer a lot of variety. I was pretty eager to buy this until I saw the price: Those ten decks (plus two player mats) cost $100. Starter packs with two decks each cost $25. Remember, these are basically decks of playing cards. Sure, each one has custom artwork and is in a much more limited run than your standard Hoyle deck, but I still can’t see myself paying more than $5 per deck. It’s too bad, because I really did enjoy this. The moment when I saw the price tag was one of the big disappointments of the convention.

Homesteaders

This auction game has been around for a couple years now, but I’ve never played it. People keep telling me it’s good, though no one is ever eager to buy it or bring it over to me. Now that I’ve played it, I can understand that. Homesteaders is a very solid game, but doesn’t do anything to make it a must-own.

The game lasts ten rounds, and each one involves one auction. All players but one will win the right to do something, usually build a new building of a specific type. The last player gets a much weaker consolation prize, but saves up money for the next round. The buildings are used to create the wide array of resources that are needed by later buildings, and often give points at the end of the game. You’ll get an economic engine going, especially once the more powerful buildings come out in the fifth and ninth rounds.

The selection of available buildings was interesting for a first game, but it seems a little restrictive for future games. I also had a conversation with someone who felt that it was difficult to catch up if you fall behind in building income over the initial turns. (I don’t think this is true – the debt system is harsh, but paying interest to buy big improvements seems worthwhile.) Auction games aren’t very common any more, though, and this one implements the rules and the variety of choices very well.

THE ALMOST-THERE GAMES

These are all games that I’d play again if someone requested, but that I wouldn’t miss if I never saw them again. (Of course, they’re still ordered from best to worse within the category.)

Vikings

This game has two failings for me: First, with no fighting possible, the Viking theme feels pretty arbitrary. Second, I didn’t discover it when it was released back in 2007. Game design has progressed significantly since then, and this lightweight game has a little too much randomness to stick out today. Had I been playing it five years ago, though, I think it really would have charmed me.

Player turns involve buying land tiles and meeples with various roles, then placing them in your tableau. Sometimes you receive raiding ships instead of land, which will give you a benefit if blocked or deactivate your workers if not. The unique aspect of the game is the “pricing wheel” that shows all the available items each round. Twelve sets (each with one tile and one meeple) are available and sorted by certain rules, and as the cheaper items are bought, the prices on the more expensive ones will drop.

I enjoyed it for the 45-minute filler that it was, but it’s difficult to predict whether the pieces that you want will come out next round at an affordable price. Without that control, it’s just a competent game that does nothing to stand out from the crowd.

Zong Shi

This reminded me of Vikings in the way that it felt competent but unremarkable. It’s a little more polished, being a new release, but I also expect more from it for the same reason.

The object is to become the most acclaimed artist in a Chinese village, as determined by score. Each round, people get two actions: One with their master and a restricted one with an apprentice. The actions gather materials, give you the ability to swap certain art supplies (colored tiles) for others, and so on. Most actions can be performed by either of your figures, but the master will gain more from them. However, only the master can start an art project once the materials are collected, and this will take the master figure out of play for some number of turns.

The feel of the game is frenetic, with actions going by fast and many things to do. One of the main sources of interaction is the market, where players divide up resources each round. Sometimes, you don’t need to go there yourself, but may be tempted to just to keep another player from getting everything. As the game progresses, players will gain a lot of special abilities: One action gives you the permanent ability to swap tiles of two colors with each other, and all the “minor” artworks give other abilities. There isn’t time to gain everything, so player positions feel slightly different. However, it did seem that certain combinations of powers (especially with the special cards you could draw) were just too powerful. That’s my only complaint about the system; Otherwise, this was just a good game that didn’t have enough to distinguish it from the crowd.

Flash Duel

David Sirlin, the man behind both this and Yomi, definitely has a knack for putting a video game’s fighting action in a tabletop game. While Yomi let you follow up with devastating combos after landing a hit, Flash Duel captures the sensation of putting an opponent on the defensive. Cards numbered one through five are used to approach or attack along a linear board, and the opponent who’s attacked must either play a card matching the attack or step backwards to retreat. But after retreating, their next move will just be to draw cards back, giving the attacker a chance to press that advantage. A single hit is enough to win the round, so it only takes about ten minutes to play to the best of five.

There’s one major caveat, though: Though this mechanic seems natural for Sirlin’s fighting-game style, it’s taken directly from the old Knizia game En Garde. There has been some controversy about whether it’s fair to call this a new game, with the argument for Flash Duel being that it adds characters with unique special abilities, along with additional gameplay modes. Not having played En Garde before, it’s difficult for me to weigh in directly on this. However, I will say that the people at Origins did not help Sirlin’s case when they decided that the simplest way to demo Flash Duel was to take the characters out and teach straight-up En Garde! I did try it with the characters, and I have to say that Knizia’s original mechanics appear more important to the gameplay than Sirlin’s additions. However, the main flaw with En Garde seems to be that it gets repetitive quickly, and I could easily believe that Flash Duel stays fresh for a lot longer. From a brief glance at the rules, I really couldn’t tell how his other variants (multiple people versus a dragon, one person against the deck, etc) will work.

So, this was fun, but I’m undecided about it’s long-term replayability or the question of whether it counts as an original game. If I were to play this more in the future, my opinion could change significantly in either direction.

Divinare

This is a simple filler in which you try to guess the number of cards of each color that have been dealt out. Players pass cards around at certain points, so between that and the hints that others’ predictions offer, you can make educated guesses. Every time you play a card, you must change your guess for that color to a number that no one else is currently guessing, so there are opportunities for bluffing as well as strategy to ensure that you get to make guesses at the right time.

Divinare’s mechanics have been thought out well, and are an example of how even light games are designed with a lot more care than they were a few years ago. I don’t see myself staying interested in it for the length of even a single four-round game, but this has grown a little more intriguing as I spent a couple days thinking back on it. Maybe it has some hidden depths.

Last Will

Last Will is a game about racing to burn through your inheritance. You can claim and play cards that either involve one-time costs, give you recurring payments, or that combine with other cards to make them more expensive. Each round starts with a choice of how many cards and actions you will receive, with the better options going later in turn order. For me, this choice was the meat of the game, as everyone gets one or two worker placement actions in that turn order. Playing the cards afterwards is pretty much a solitaire experience.

We found some of the symbols on the cards counterintuitive, and I thought that the real estate portion of the game was frustrating. I spent a couple turns setting up properties to lose money, but then I only got a couple more turns to use them. You need to sell back any property before you go bankrupt, so after doing that, I had money again and no good way to lose it. That made the ending very anti-climactic for an engine-building game. However, the different types of abilities you can choose from different cards are interesting, and I like the way the elements were put together: There are multiple decks with different purposes to choose from when you draw cards, and also the cards that can be chosen as worker placement actions evolve in later turns. Basically, this is great design applied to a mechanic and theme that just didn’t interest me.

Upon a Salty Ocean

The opposite of Last Will, Upon a Salty Ocean is a game with a great system but a lousy implementation. The main mechanic is that players take turns choosing actions from one of four categories. The action costs one coin for each time it had been previously chosen that round. As they get more expensive, players will eventually pass, and the costs will be reset to zero for the next round. The actions revolve around either sending ships to sea in order to catch and sell fish, or placing markers in different buildings around town to gain coins or abilities. In addition to paying for actions, coins also determine the winner.

I love the way the cost of actions increases. There is a tension in balancing the action you want with the action that’s cheaper, along with worker placement-type considerations about which actions should be done before other people make them more expensive. It also adds a natural pacing to the game, as people can keep playing as long as they want, but will eventually choose to pass.

However, the game fell apart for me with the town actions. The board is busy and confusing, and it was easy to overlook specific buildings. Even at the end of our game, we were frequently referring to the rules to remember what certain buildings did, and none of us felt like we kept enough information in our minds to make optimal decisions. I’m sure this would get less confusing with future plays, but it’s rare for me to have so much trouble over the course of a game. This was also a little too long, and we had some concerns about the economic system. The price of items would drop when they were sold, but not rise when they’re bought, and moved randomly between rounds. This seemed designed to make things too cheap by the end of the game, and occasionally the price of salt would jump up so high that one player could get a windfall by selling it rather than using it to preserve fish. I can see arguments for why the economy was designed that way, but it felt unsatisfying.

I think that redesigning the board and tweaking a few gameplay elements might be enough to make this a winner. In its current form, it’s not worth playing.

Carnival

There are five suits of cards with four ranks each. Your job is to gather complete sets of four suits and play them on the table. Each turn, you gain cards by rolling three dice and choosing two for their actions. These actions include drawing from the deck, the discard pile, or stealing from your opponent.

Like Divinare, Carnival is an example of strong game design applied to something that sounds like a pointless casual game. However, this one is still fundamentally about rolling dice to draw cards, and it doesn’t offer any really interesting strategy. I’m surprised to see this published as Dice Hate Me’s first game, as their blog is such an interesting source of discussion on strategic games. They used their knowledge to avoid picking a bad game, but it won’t offer anything at all to the blog’s audience.

THE DISAPPOINTING GAMES

I didn’t play any horrible games this year, but these are the ones that I would strongly prefer not to play a second time.

The Manhattan Project

Another shorter worker placement game, this one’s main distinction is that players don’t all reclaim their workers at the end of a round. Instead, you take a turn to withdraw them all when you need them back. In theory, this opens up new strategies in planning for spaces to become available. In practice, though, this is the least interactive worker placement game I’ve seen.

In addition to the center actions shared by all, players will also buy buildings which give them personal actions. Each turn, a player can place as many workers on their own buildings as they want, in addition to the single one in the center. This means that after the initial rush to add new workers to your supply (which is surprisingly easy – expect to go from your starting four to the full twelve by mid-game), there won’t be much competition for center board spaces. All of the board’s commonly used action types are quickly made obsolete by buildings. (Except for the action that lets you buy new buildings, but that is open to an unlimited number of workers.) Since players will place workers on their personal buildings so quickly, they’ll need to withdraw every two or three turns, so no center action stays blocked for long.

There are some interesting ideas here. There are three flavors of workers, with Engineers and Scientists having access to abilities that basic workers can’t do. Additionally, the “espionage” action that lets you use buildings owned by other people adds a little bit of timing and blocking to the otherwise-solo play areas. However, it isn’t enough to save the game, especially with its anticlimactic conclusion. After racing to gather the plans and resources necessary to build atomic bombs (the game’s theme), one player will just announce that they have enough to build fifty points’ worth. Piece limits make it difficult to get all fifty points at a single time, but it can easily be done in as few as two turns.

Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer

This wasn’t strictly new to me, but last year I only played a short demo version of the game. Some people convinced me to give the full game a chance this time. My opinion didn’t change, though: Ascension misunderstands the things that make Dominion great, and doesn’t add anything new to make it worthwhile as a different game.

There is strategy to it. I made a small, efficient deck that I could completely play every turn, and stayed neck-and-neck with someone going a more “Big Money” route. However, there’s a lot less strategy since the same set of cards is available in every game. There’s no way to predict which ones will be drawn from the large deck, so the best strategy will not be apparent until it’s too late to change course. With unlimited buys and actions available, it’s much less important to consider how your cards will interact with each other. Sure, there are some synergies that help, but a good card will be good for anyone, unlike in Dominion. And also because there is no restriction on buys or actions, turns become longer and harder to follow.

Although people who are a fan of games like Ascension and Thunderstone complain that Dominion is not interactive enough, Ascension’s attacks are actually rarer and less interesting than Dominion’s. (And since you can’t predict which ones will appear when, they make much less of a difference to the feel of the game compared to Dominion, where “a Pirate Ship game with Secret Chamber” is completely different from “a Witch game with no trashing”.)

Usually, when a new game is so innovative, a few years later it just doesn’t seem very interesting compared to the others that built on its ideas. In this case, though, Dominion is a classic, and I don’t think any of the later deck-builders (until Friday this year) would even be liked today if they weren’t basking in the reflected light of Dominion.

Small World Underground

Small World is a simple conquest game without much strategic depth, but its different creatures really do keep it interesting. (Each race you use has two special abilities chosen by randomly drawing a power tile to go with the main race token. Between a system that makes a race more valuable every time players pass it over, and rules that encourage you to switch to new ones every few turns, it has a lot to offer.) Small World Underground is a re-themed version of that, with new races and a board representing a subterranean world.

It’s common for new versions of board games improve upon the one that came before. Instead, Underground seems like a poorly balanced, much more random version of its predecessor. We had a lot of rules questions go unanswered (which, to be fair, is a problem the first edition of Small World had as well), and many of the creatures were less interesting versions of the first game’s. For example, Small World’s Sorcerers could add units to the board, so the game provided enough pieces to use for them. In Underground, that power now comes from a “Vampiric” ability, which can be applied to any race. Since almost none of the races have extra unit tokens, it’s a pretty useless ability. And of course, Small World didn’t really come into its own until the expansions added enough variety to make every game feel different. With Underground, you’re buying a complete new base set and returning to the simple selection of the original game.

The Underground board adds a river that takes some effort to cross, which is a decent but unspectacular new idea. It also adds special tokens that you can gain when you conquer the neutral creatures that start out on the board. These tokens were another big source of rule confusion, and they were also very unbalancing. Different combinations of race and power tokens are sometimes more powerful than others, but the game’s selection mechanism balances that out. When a third power is added to the mix, sometimes the combos are ridiculous.

With Small World out there,  I just can’t see any reason to play its sequel.

Mage Wars

Yes, the heavily-hyped Mage Wars made the bottom of my list. This may be unfair, as it still wasn’t horrible and I know some people will enjoy it, but I can’t think of any other game from this year that I’d rather have at the bottom. Like the other games I’m ranking down here, it doesn’t seem to offer anything that other games can’t already do better.

This is a deck-building game like Magic: The Gathering, though it comes in complete sets with regular expansions instead of random trading cards. The difference is that instead of shuffling and drawing from the deck, you put all your mage’s cards in a “spell book” (basically, making binder storage solution part of the game). Each turn, players simultaneously choose two cards from the spell book to prepare. You can cast them both, though if you are low on mana or choose to move or attack instead, unused ones go back to your book for later usage.

I’m a big fan of games with simultaneous selection. When you know what the other player is threatening to do, the feeling of bluffing and outguessing each other is a lot of fun. Here, though, you don’t know what the other player has available, since they put together a custom deck. And most spells aren’t a big surprise. You can summon monsters (which will take at least one turn to attack, so everyone has time to prepare after they appear) or modify someone’s abilities with equipment, charms, and curses.

The main part of the game isn’t the card selection, but the two-by-three board that cards in play go on. They can move around and attack each other with dice rolls. In short, you’re moving a few pieces around a small board and hoping the dice come out in your favor. If more than a few pieces end up there, you’ll have a hard time keeping their different modifier cards straight.

I’m trying not to judge specific powers and rules issues, since this is not yet published and our teacher mentioned that it was still being tweaked. (It’s already missed its planned release date for the year, though, and the cards have a 2007 copyright on them…) I will say that there are strategic choices to be made, but I didn’t find any interesting ones. The depth and interesting combos of a game like Magic aren’t there, and would have to be weakened anyway to make up for fact that every card is available from the beginning. The game does offer a combination of elements not quite like other collectible card games I know of, and I don’t see any major flaws to it. With the major promotional push, that might be enough to build a community around the game. I won’t be paying attention, though.


Box images are from Board Game Geek, while other photographs were taken by me. Follow the links on the box images for details and photographer credits.
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