Origins 2013: The New Games

To follow up on my general impressions of Origins 2013, here are the specifics about the games I played. I didn’t feel like I got a good handle on which games had “buzz” this year. Maybe it’s because I was running around from game to game so quickly, or maybe it’s because there were so many new, big releases that the board gamer buzz tied closely to what the community already knew to look for. Either way, I don’t think I can sort my games by buzz-level this year like I normally do. Instead, I’m splitting them up by how new they are. So many of them were brand new that if I just separate the Origins debuts from the ones that came out a few months ago, that divides my list pretty neatly in two. So today I’m going to cover the Origins debuts and upcoming games, and in a couple days I’ll look at the “older” titles.

I’m only looking at games’ US availability here. They almost all come out in Europe sooner, but I’m a US gamer, Origins is a US conference, and I think it’s fair to look at them that way. Also, as usual, I don’t want to give “formal” reviews for a game that I played once in a convention atmosphere. Instead of my usual letter grades, I’m using a 1-10 rating.

New Games

Dominion: Guilds boxDominion: Guilds (8/10): It’s the end of an era, with no more Dominion expansions planned now that Guilds is out. I hope to be ready for a full review soon, so I won’t bother saying a lot here. But my initial impression is that this one is not as surprising or game-changing as the best Dominion expansions of the past. However, it rewards strategic play and doesn’t introduce any new complexities or confusing rules, and that’s a plus. All in all, it’s pretty clear that this is a worthwhile buy.

Terra Mystica boxTerra Mystica (9/10): This huge buzz game made its US debut at Origins, and sold well at the Z-Man booth despite a ridiculous price. After trying it, I can say that it’s clearly worth buying once copies make it to the country via a less expensive shipping method.

Terra Mystica is frequently compared to Small World, because each player has different abilities and is trying to spread out over a cramped map. However, there is no battle and no changing of races mid-game. A better comparison would be Hansa Teutonica, as this has the same system where items that you can take off your player board reveal more powers to be used. There are several ways that the fourteen races can differ from each other, and the rules offer a lot to do with little time to do it in.

If I have a complaint, it’s that none of the individual pieces really feel new. The game’s Euro influences are all obvious. However, those elements were all put together perfectly to form a tense, fun, balanced, and thematic brain-burner like nothing else I have seen.

Via Appia boxVia Appia (6/10): Queen Games can be frustrating. They make beautiful, expensive products that almost always end up being light family games which feel like they should cost half of what they do. The good news is that Via Appia has a justification for its cost and production: It’s a game about collecting stones, quarrying them into tiles, and laying the tiles to create a road. The “quarrying” process is done with a three-dimensional structure reminiscent of those gambling games where you drop a token in and hope it pushes more out. Here, you put your raw stone tokens in one side, and any that fall out the other represent the tile that you can create. It’s fun and original, though ultimately pretty random.

The quarry in Via Appia

The quarry in Via Appia

Beyond that mechanic, there’s nothing especially notable, good or bad, about Via Appia. It’s simple and doesn’t have much progression as things go on, but does at least require you to keep up with a few different factors at once. If the rest of the game pushed the envelope like the quarry does, it would be worth looking at more.

Vampire Empire boxVampire Empire (4/10): It feels a little harsh to call Vampire Empire “bad”, but it is completely pointless. Ostensibly, it’s a game of bluffing in which the vampire and human players fight to kill off all enemy characters in the center of the table. The humans outnumber the vampires, but only the vampire player knows everyone’s identities for sure. Either side can play cards to make one character attack another, but the vampire player may try to fake out the human by attacking the wrong person.

The bluffing aspect is pretty uninteresting, though, since the game isn’t long or complex enough to offer real twists. The cards each player has are boring, mostly just providing attack and defense numbers to different categories of players. And there are a limited number of cards available to each side, meaning that the game will likely end before either person has completely killed the opponents. It’s more of a relief to see it end than a frustration to see an incomplete victory, though.

Time 'n' Space boxTime ‘n’ Space (6/10): A clever mechanic in search of a game. This is a real-time space-trading game. To do anything, you must first place a sand timer on the proper space. Once the timer runs out, you can perform the action. And after doing the action, the timer is free to place elsewhere. However, the game is very simple and has almost no interesting decisions to make. Worse, it turns out to be pretty boring to sit there for twenty or twenty-five seconds waiting to be allowed to make a move that you already decided on. The downtime is technically not as long as most games in which people take turns, but it feels worse.

Time 'N' Space playThe basic idea of the trading game is clever, though. You are rewarded for taking goods to other players’ systems to fulfill their published contracts, and penalized for any contracts of your own that never got fulfilled. Every transaction is to the benefit of two players, even though everyone is fighting for the high score. I only played a shortened demo at Origins, and I am vaguely curious as to whether the full game offers enough to make it interesting. My first impression is that it doesn’t, especially since it would still involve sitting around waiting for a sand timer to complete. I might give it a try next year, but I won’t regret it if I never get the chance.

Targi boxTargi (8/10): Targi is a clever two-player twist on worker placement. Each round, players put three markers on cards on the edge of a grid. They then place additional markers on the intersections between them (if you draw lines out along the claimed rows and columns). With the board so tight and the worker positions dependent on other workers, the choices to be made add another dimension to typical worker placement.

Targi playI can’t tell whether this game will stay fun, or if it will feel a little repetitive after playing a few times. And honestly, I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to find out. Longish two-player games are not very common in my gaming circles. This is one that everyone should at least experience, though.

Robinson Crusoe boxRobinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island (6/10): The trend in cooperative games seems to be towards ones with unexpected event cards. It makes sense, since when players are being reactive and can’t predict what will happen next, it’s harder to calculate a perfect strategy. This keeps one person from dominating the game and simply telling everyone else what moves to make. Robinson Crusoe does this very thematically, with cards telling what you what situations an unfriendly island is throwing at your castaways. The most clever mechanic is that you can choose how much effort to put into important actions: Send two of your limited workers, and your focus guarantees success, but reserve one, and you roll dice to determine if it succeeds and whether you’ll pay an extra price.

The actions seemed pretty bland to me, though: Just uncovering land tiles, marking that different items have been built, and so on. It’s difficult to be sure, though. This was one of those awkward convention demos where the teacher (officially working at the Z-Man Games booth) only told us the few rules that he thought we’d need to know, and didn’t know the answers to most of our questions. Then he went away to help other tables, and every time we had a new rules question, we had to wait several minutes to get his attention again. We eventually gave up and went on to find games that the vendor would be willing to teach. Take my initial rating even lighter than normal, because I can’t tell for sure what the game is like. However, I don’t feel inclined to try it again.

Bruges boxBruges (7/10): Of Stefan Feld’s four releases in 2013, Bruges is the first one to make it to the US. It’s one of his lighter action-selection games. Each turn, you play a card and can make any of six actions with it. One action recruits the person on that card, giving you a special ability. The other five just use the color of the card. For example, you could collect two worker pieces matching the card’s color, or build a house by discarding a worker of the card’s color. The specific card draws will give people direction without getting them completely stuck.

Bruges playThere are other classic Feld mechanics. “Threat” tokens must be discarded before disaster strikes, a common roll of some dice determines values for certain items every round, and there are more things to do than any one person can keep up on. All those different paths seem to be balanced, though. In the end, the most important part is the people on the cards, which build up your own abilities in a way similar to Feld’s Macao. But while Macao let people choose people from a common pool, here they are blindly drawn. This keeps the game a lot lighter and more random than Feld’s other recent hits. It’s very well-made and fun, though it doesn’t have anything that will make it a classic like many of his other efforts.

Upcoming Games

I also played a few games that were not released (in the US) yet. The first three of these should be out soon, as they are just waiting for the last steps of shipping or distributor issues. Two Rooms and a Boom is gearing up for a Kickstarter campaign, and I don’t have a timeframe for it.

Hanabi boxHanabi (9/10): This game is a few years old, but it’s just now picking up steam and making it over to the US. It is also a nominee for this year’s Spiel des Jahres. It’s a fascinating choice, because the SdJ is usually for light family games. And yes, this is a simple, appealing game to teach, but it’s best to play with people who can appreciate the depth of communication in bidding a Bridge hand.

Players cooperate to lay down cards in a simple, specific order. But they hold their hands backwards, so they can see everyones’ cards but their own. You can give players hints about their cards, but the things you can say are strictly controlled, and the total number of hints is limited. You can choose to discard a card to replenish a hint, but discarding one that is still needed would be disastrous!

I was surprised by how tense and fascinating this game is, and I know I only scratched the surface of the communication in one play. The strategy of what to say, what to hint at by omission, what to infer about your own hand by the things people chose not to say, and even how to control the flow of the turns so that hints are replenished and used at the right times, all lead to a completely original and very strategic game. I generally don’t like games that rely so much on memory, but I look forward to exploring this one more.

Bora Bora boxBora Bora (10/10): This makes two years in a row that my favorite game at Origins was an upcoming Stefan Feld release. (This year, though, it was a much closer contest, with both Hanbi and Terra Mystica deserving top spots as well.) Bora Bora contrasts with Feld’s Bruges mainly by being much more complicated. That’s not to say that complicated games are automatically better (look at Hanabi’s simplicity, for example), but Feld’s intricately-balanced designs definitely take on more depth as he adds more elements.

Bora Bora playBora Bora is yet another action-selection game with dice. Each player rolls three, and in turn spends each one on an action. Higher numbers make more powerful actions, but you must spend a lower number than anyone else who has chosen that same action during the round. This leads to worker placement-like tension: Which actions do you need to do most urgently, and which ones will you still have a chance to do if you don’t choose them right away? The fact that you have only three actions makes it worse. Everyone has a collection of personal objectives, and they are expected to complete one every round. There is not much room for error.

Bora Bora reminds me most of Trajan, with its many sections of the board that do different, interrelated things. But the action mechanic is completely different, so neither game clearly replaces the other. Bora Bora gives more flexibility to change strategies quickly, and I foresee a lot of watching other players’ boards and blocking them once I understand the basic strategy. Despite the deep strategy and all the options available, though, I didn’t find this too challenging to get into. Those personal goals help to focus you on specific strategies. The different paths to victory points seem well-balanced, so it’s very helpful to have some direction.

Augustus boxAugustus(6.5/10): Bingo is not a game that most Origins attendees take very seriously, but there’s a reason that so many people get addicted to it. Augustus applies the idea of Bingo to a faster, more strategic Euro game. Instead of drawing from a pool of dozens of numbers, there are only a few symbols, and Augustus playeach player is trying to complete multiple small cards. A player will finish one every minute or two, after which they get to select another one from the center of the table. There are multiple ways to score, so there are real decisions to make. Of course, most of the game still involves sitting around waiting to see if your choices will pay off, but the pace is fast enough that there isn’t much downtime even if the Bingo draws don’t interest you.

This is a clever game, though I wouldn’t expect it to hold my interest for very long.

Two Rooms and a Boom boxTwo Rooms and a Boom (7/10): This was an unexpected surprise. Two Rooms and a Boom is the first social game I’ve found that makes an interesting replacement for Werewolf. The players are all given random roles and mixed into two rooms. Each room must elect a leader to send a certain number of people over to the other room after a few minutes. After three rounds of trading people, the goal of the “Blue Team” is to keep their President separate from the Bomber on the “Red Team”, while the Red Team wants to get them together. The game is all about figuring out who has what role, and it’s legal for players to show their cards to each other. It becomes really interesting once other roles are mixed in: Some affect others in ways that encourage or punish information sharing, some add additional requirements before a team can win, and others are on neither team and have their own agendas. Certain combinations are obviously broken, but I see real possibilities in there as well.

Admittedly, the game often comes down to a single blind guess. But serious flaws don’t have to doom a Werewolf-style game. Werewolf itself is seriously flawed, and is fun despite (and in some cases because of) those flaws. Two Rooms and a Boom provides both real information and chances to pick up social clues, and so it succeeds in a way that most games in this genre do not.

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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