So I’ve been a busy bee. Two gaming conventions in a little more than a month!

I went to Origins Game Fest in Columbus, Ohio for the first time in June with my wife. It was not a long-planned thing, but I had an offer from a publisher to come up and look at one of my prototypes, so I jumped at the opportunity. I’m going to be curt about that; just keep your fingers crossed for me.

The show itself was good. I’ve been to GenCon twice and it reminded me of a smaller GenCon. We spent much of the time in the exhibitor hall getting demos (because they were free there, but cost money anywhere else) and searching nearby for food. Columbus has great food. I’m a big fan of Polish food and there were a number of choice spots near the convention center. Columbus also has a free bus service that took us from the convention center to within two blocks of our AirBnB. So while the con itself was just okay, the atmosphere was pleasant enough to make up for it.

The highlight of the con from the play perspective perhaps was meeting YouTuber Lance “UndeadViking” Myxter and having him demo Yokohama. He’s a stand-up guy. I’m not generally very approachable and he must have said “hi” to me like six times after we played as we passed randomly throughout the con. I was already planning on backing this beautiful Euro game, but the demo put me well over the edge. It’s busy-looking, but ultimately fairly straightforward after a few turns. Think of a more spatially-oriented Le Havre. The density of decisions in this game is intense. There is still a little bit of time left to back this on Kickstarter, so go do it.

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But enough about Origins. The best con of the year is annually in Orlando: Dice Tower Con! My wife and I were lucky enough to get tickets in the nine minute window between them going on sale and selling out. Why is it my favorite con?

  • It is an inexpensive ticket and everything con-related is included. You never have to buy event tickets. Not only does this make it cheaper, which is important, but the lack of a ticket economy like at Origins and GenCon means games feel like casual pickup endeavors, not economic transactions with all the worries about what you are allowed and not allowed to do. Save that part of your brain for the game itself.
  • The Dice Tower crew is super-visible which gives the con a kind of secret club feel, even as it has grown 400% in the past five years. All of the events feel personal. I go to the charity auction every year and while this year was the first year I won anything, we always have a blast. Certain things have become (sometimes hilarious traditions): Robert Burke buying and returning his own games, Rob Oren being a superstar painting donation machine, people sharing in raising money to help each other in need. It’s great. I worry about it becoming larger, but you can’t fight demand.
  • The gaming library is large and the gaming space ample, which we use to do a kind of rapid-fire rental of all the games we’ve been interested in but missed in the past year. More details on the results of that below.
  • There are plenty of opportunities to buy stuff: Cool Stuff Ding and Dent sales, the aforementioned Chairty Auction, the Flea Market, etc. but it doesn’t feel like commerce is the focus.
  • Obviously, this one is only relevant for some of us, but it is local enough to drive for us. We can funnel what would be airfare and hotel money into gaaaaames.

So let’s talk about what we got to try. I’ll give some short mini-reviews below. Most of the pictures are from my lovely wife’s Instagram account.

Codenames: Pictures is the sequel (?) to odds-on Spiel des Jahres favorite Codenames. Anyone who knows that game will find little trouble here. There are two teams and each team is trying to get their teammates to choose the correct cards on the table using the fewest number of one-word clues. Instead of the single words in the original, this version has weird illustrations on the cards. I don’t feel like it adds much to the formula. An odd usability quirk is that some folks may have trouble parsing twenty-five pictures that are upside-down. This isn’t a problem in the original because the words are printed in both directions. I think I still prefer the original, but both are great.

Imhotep is the next Spiel des Jahres nominee. It is literally a cube-pusher as you ship cubes to various locations and each location scores in a different way. We played with the “A” sides of the locations (which I suppose is the lighter family version) because that is how it was set up for us. I enjoyed it as the decisions of when to ship boats that other people are counting on is meaty enough to hold some interest. However, when we were done, I checked out the “B” sides of the locations and those seemed like they added another layer of decision-making. I never got to try the B-sides, but when this gets back into distribution and I can pick it up cheaply, I probably will. It is a simple game to teach. The only part non-gamers might hang up on is the scoring, but otherwise it seems like a great gateway game.

We tried out World’s Fair 1893 as the designer diary on BoardGameGeek had me put it on the to-try list. It is a gorgeous set collection game with an area control aspect. We played it with two players which was probably not ideal. While it was pretty and worked well, it wasn’t that memorable.

Next, I had to set up for my flea market meeting (which was an absolute cluster to no one’s fault; I have no idea how this is going to be run with 2x the folks) so we grabbed a copy of last year’s Kennerspiel winner Broom Service while we waited. I’d passed on it before because it didn’t look like it would do anything for me, but after playing the designer’s Mombasa, Isle of Skye and Port Royal this year, I had to check this out. While we played this 2-player and it likely would be more successful with the full player compliment, it was very enjoyable. The main mechanic is a role selection not too dissimilar from Glass Road. However, in this, you must guess if any other player has selected one of the roles you have selected. If you guess incorrectly, you may get a weak effect or not effect at all. It’s a nice system and you get to say ludicrous things like “NO! I am the brave weather fairy!” This probably won’t crack into my top 50, but I don’t know if I’d turn down a game.

Another gorgeous game that I’d heard good things about was Tasty Minstrel’s Gold West. I love the prospecting theme and the components are very nice. In it, you use a mancala system to collect goods and use those goods to prospect out more resources to try to gain area majorities and contiguous spaces. There’s a point salad aspect to it and it is very short. Gloriana seemed to really like it, but I ended up feeling it was kind of bland. The resource mancala was great, but everything else felt pretty low-stakes. Perhaps I just need to try it some more to tease out its depth.

After numerous times checking the library, I finally walked by when a copy of Grand Austria Hotel was peeking out at me. This is one that I was interested in checking out at Essen but never had the time for. With Mayday’s online price-fixing, it is an expensive game, so I wanted to be sure I liked it before blindly buying it. Grand Austria Hotel is a dice-drafting game where the actions drafted become stronger the more their associated dice number is rolled. You have to juggle serving guests, preparing rooms, pleasing the emperor (for some reason),  and ordering things in a way that gain you bonuses. There’s a fiddlyness to it and I’m growing less interested in Klemens Franz’s artwork (not his fault, he’s just everywhere with the same style), but the theme and the mechanics work so well that it left me intrigued. I certainly want to play it more.

Next we tried Quadropolis. Days of Wonder haven’t steered me wrong in their last few releases. I had recently purchased Small City and quite enjoy it. I was worried that this would be a too light version of that. While it is certainly lighter, it is also quite a different beast. The scoring is not very straightforward, but it is still a tight interesting puzzle, good for when you don’t feel like setting up something massive like Small City.

After Quadropolis, we had really crossed off everything in our within-the-last-year list. So next, I pulled out a worker placement from a couple years back with a boring sounding name: Russian Railroads. Why hadn’t anyone told me about this before?! It has a number of your standard worker placement tropes, but the interesting bit is that it isn’t just exchanging goods for victory points. The railroad you build isn’t really spatially organized like in every other train game. It is more of a track in the “points track” sense than it is in the “railroad track” sense. You are constantly unlocking new abilities and it feels very tight and interesting every turn without the artificial constraints of feeding or paying money every turn like in so many other similar games (the emperor track in Grand Austria Hotel above suffers from this similar mechanic where something feels put in just to have a clock to worry about). With what I’ve read about the German Railroads expansion, I will certainly be picking this up. I let the theme scare me off for too long!

The wife and I are into Onitama so we figured we would try out another spatial abstract duel game. She didn’t gel with this one so easily. In Tash-Kalar, you attempt to make shapes with your pawn tokens in order to create effects on the board. Additionally, unlike other duel games, your goal is not to obliterate the other player, but instead to meet random goal cards dealt out at the start. It’s a bit odd and there was a bit too much hidden information for my tastes. There were a lot of game modes in the rules, so perhaps we would need to find one that works better for us.

Sometime on Twitter this year, someone mentioned Via Appia, a Queen-published game from a couple years back that slipped through the cracks. It has a very unique component that made me write this one down for my curious list. I didn’t even have it on my “Try at Dice Tower Con” list, but I saw it peeking out at the library and remembered I wanted to try it.

In Via Appia, you play as builders who are building a road from Rome. In order to do so, you have to get the stone from a quarry, make the stone into tiles, and place the tiles. All of this is pretty standard Euro stuff, except for the way that you make the tiles. You take stones you have mined from the quarry and place them on a platform, pushing other stones down the platform and hopefully off a ledge, much like the “coin pusher” games you can find at Dave and Busters. Stones that fall off the edge are converted into tiles which can be placed on the road for points.

I love pushing as a mechanism. It is in a lot of my game designs. I love the mechanic here. Unfortunately, the game that surrounds it just isn’t that interesting. The rules have ambiguities and are generally atrocious. I think something better can be done with this mechanism and its components.

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A coworker of mine invited me and the wife to their annual game of Dune. That is, the rework of Dune into Rex reskinned back into Dune. This is not normally my type of game, but it seemed like a good one to try in the con format and the print-and-play reskin looked great. I was the Bene Gesserit and hence had to predict who I thought would win the game and when. I blindly picked the Guild to win on the final turn. After eight bloody turns over three hours, I was poised to win. The board was bloodied, but our Bene Gesserit-Harkonnen-Guild triple alliance was doing just fine. We just had to make sure the filthy Fremen didn’t rise up and seize their two sietches on the last turn, but how could they with all of our forces? The answer is: with a combination of appropriately timed cards and an advantageous turn order causing the battles to end up bloodying everyone but the Fremen. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but man what a game! I wouldn’t want to play it too often, but as a special occasion, it was really neat.

The next morning we had to find something to fit between our somewhat late arrival, lunch, and the upcoming PitchCar World Championship. Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Something Something fit the bill, although I think Family Tree Magnate would be a appropriate title as well. In this, you collect cards that you use to marry off members of your family in order to increase the family’s wealth or prestige. Even with the tiny cards, it takes up a lot more table space than we budgeted for. I didn’t feel much tension in the game as there was a lot to do and each decision didn’t seem to build much on the previous. There’s a good deal of luck-of-the-draw in having the cards come out at the right time. It was fine, but nothing I really need to seek out and play again. Plus I don’t think the wife appreciated that you could have children die in childbirth.

I thought I took a picture of Legacy but I didn’t! Woops!

We participated in the 1st annual PitchCar World Championship last year and had a blast, so we decided to again this year. Unfortunately, we were a few spots too deep into the waiting list and was forced to spectate. There are a couple PitchCar sharks out there! I think I was something like 11th of 20 last year and probably would have been worse this year.

This event highlighted a concern for me of the con overall as it grows. Because the con doubled in size last year, Tom split this event into a kids race and an adults race. However, what is he going to do when the attendance doubles again next year? He stays busy the entire con; I doubt he wants to run two more tournaments. It’s a double-edged sword: you either limit participation which makes people feel left out or you are forced to scale with attendance when you may not have the resources.

Glo has a great picture of the PitchCar tournament, but it’s on her phone and she’s at work, so I’ll replace this text here if I remember.

I saw that Passport was doing a contest where you could win a deluxe version of Tokaido if you demoed it at their booth. Tokaido was a game that I always admired for its art from a distance but never played, so I thought I’d give it a try. Honestly, I was a bit surprised at how little I liked it. The only non-obvious decision making in the game is how many spaces to travel in a turn. Usually, though, you want to travel as few spaces as possible to limit the other players from having free bonus turns. So everyone just leapfrogs each other and the game plays out in a very scripted way. Maybe the expansions help, but I was very underwhelmed. I didn’t win the deluxe version, which is probably for the best. I didn’t take a picture either.

Another contest we were interested in was that Stronghold Games was doing a photo scavenger hunt. My wife is a photographer and loves photo scavenger hunts. One of the few times in my life where I have ever won a contest was a photo scavenger hunt in Brooklyn with the wife where her eye and effort won us a first generation iPad when they were the new, hot thing. Anyway, one of the elements of the photo scavenger hunt was to take a picture of someone playing My Village. Since we didn’t see anyone playing it at the time, we checked it out from the library.

I was not a fan of the original Village, having played it at a previous Dice Tower Con, so Village: The Dice Game wasn’t exactly on my radar. However, I think the title really does a disservice to the game as it plays vastly different than the original. My Village is a dice-drafting game where you attempt to build the resources that will give you the best town. Much like in the original Village, time is a resource and spending it can cause your villagers to die. In fact, you need to have your villagers die as doing so is one of the ways to receive points. Black dice that you draft may have the right combination of pips that you need, but also advance your time. It’s an interesting system.

My Village has a clever points-banking system. For many actions, you get victory points. However, those victory points aren’t yours until you bank them by taking them into your City Hall. If you leave too many points in the Story Tree, a rat plague caused by too many deaths can destroy your un-banked points. We didn’t finish the game because I had to get to the second virtual flea market meetup, but it went from completely off-my-radar to something I’d consider.

When we went to Essen, I hemmed and hawed on The Gallerist. Vital Lacerda was there signing copies and the game is undeniably beautiful. However, it is also physically heavy and we were very conscious about our luggage space, so I put it off. On a trip past the Eagle-Gryphon booth, I saw that their demo copy was open, so I asked the representative to show us the game. He gave us the run-through and we are off. I have never played a Lacerda game (I have a shrink-wrapped copy of Kanban I just received from the flea market), so I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into. After a few turns, the iconography was becoming familiar and the excellent player aids helped a ton. However, there were many corner cases that we were unsure of and the person manning the booth was very distracted. He eventually left and his replacement didn’t really know the game at all. We ended up quitting early because he couldn’t find the answer to one of our questions in the rules. I’m still interested in the game (someone yanked it from Tom Vasel’s table at the flea market as I was reaching for it), but the demo experience was sub par. I can wait. Plenty of other heavy games still unplayed on my shelf. Probably none as visually appealing though. Also: if you are not calling the white, brown, and pink meeples vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, then I don’t know what to do with you.

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As we waited for the raffle results at the end of the con, we sat down at the Celestia demo table to play a few rounds. Some others joined us and I taught the game. This is one we picked up at Essen with the special figurines and personalized art on the inside of the box. I’m stoked that a company has brought it to America as it is certainly the second best press-your-luck filler game out there (next to Can’t Stop). In it, you take turns helming a ship as it travels from cloud city to cloud city. At each possible stop players decide if they want to get off. If they do, then they take the resources which scale up in value the farther you go.If they don’t and the captain does not have the required resources to reach the next city, then the ship crashes and everyone on it receives no points. I saw tons of folks with copies, which is great! Fantastic game for all weight preferences.

So, that’s it. I wish we had played more with other folks instead of using most of the con as our own personal 2-player Netflix of games, but that will have to wait until next year. That’s my resolution for next year. There are a lot of Orlando gamers. Where do you all play?