Tag Archives: Summoner Wars

Escape from Gen Con 2011: How the hunted became the hunter

Oh, Gen Con 2011. Even when you were sending man-eating trolls to devour me, I still had a crazy-glad time playing, testing and sneak-peeking every game on the planet. So successful was I at wringing the life out of every waking moment for four days straight, that in the end it was I who devoured you.

It’s becoming an almost annual event for me, this trip to Indianapolis for the self-proclaimed “Best Four Days in Gaming.” I finally feel like I’m starting to figure out how to “do” this convention, and it begins and ends with meticulous pre-planning. I scoured game-related sites for weeks in advance to suss out what new games were making their debut, where the new hotness would be (all the better for circling it on the two-page convention floor map), and how to schedule my time (and allotment of event tickets) to play every game I could handle.

Here’s the list of What I Very Much Liked at this convention. If you’re not a gamer, or cannot appreciate the thrill of a box full of dice, board-backed maps, plastic Nazis and miniature Martians, I pity you. Still, you would be forced to admit, the visuals to be enjoyed at a fest like this are a fascinating feast for even the least nerdly among us.

Behold, my Post-Mortem Hot List:

1. Eye Candy

Even if you never roll one die, you can still meet your fun quotient at Gen Con by taking in all manner of amazing wares, displays and yes, costumes. For example, the guys at Dwarven Forge always roll out a gorgeous display of modular resin bits for constructing 3D maps for miniatures games:

Their dungeon corridors go on forever, and include whimsical surprises like the white-robed adventurer in the lower right corner of this picture who seems to have gotten lost while picking up some power converters from Tosche Station.

There’s also a blue million expertly painted miniatures on display:

I wish I had taken a photo of one where a sorcerer was reading from a scroll; the scroll itself glowed blue, and it cast a blue glow on the magician’s face and clothes, all the work of a deft paintbrush. This all comes from independent artists competing for prizes and Nerd Immortality.

When you’re through painting your miniatures, why not turn them loose on a medieval Oktoberfest in a village of solid resin buildings?

This beauteous display comes from the righteous craftsmen of the Miniature Building Authority, and as you can see, new housing starts are not cheap in a fantasy world either:

For your money, at least, you get a Gandalf-topped tower whose every floor is a discrete component. All the better for slashing your way to the top one stair at a time.

When you’re bored with the exhibition hall, you can kill some time building a house of cards in the name of charity. It’s Cardhalla, a fund-raising event that lets attendees turn ubiquitous, superfluous Magic the Gathering cards into grand structures:


At the end of the convention, charitable types bid on the opportunity to throw coins at the cardstock city and send it tumbling.

It seemed like the new game Leviathans was everywhere at this convention. I had arrived too late to play my scheduled demo of this flying steampunk battleships game, but I had plenty of time to enjoy the oversized models that, come on, are just too cool, whether or not the game is any good:

Also, giant drow warriors:

This guy is the famous Drizzt, who my son and I are just now discovering as we read the first of R.A. Salvatore’s many, many sword-and-sorcery tales.

There was so much, much more of this kind of visual feasting, it would explode the Internet to try and catalog it all.

2. Bespoke Goods, Tailor-Made on Site

Gen Con put a special emphasis on start-ups this year, and Entrepreneur’s Alley is where I ran across the nerdy stylings of Three Geeks and a Needle. I happened to be looking for an extra large dice bag to do blind drawings of tiles for the game Carcassone. When I explained to one of the titular geeks that I was looking for a bag big enough to draw tiles, she said, “Sort of like Carcassone?” Ah, yes, I should have known, my fellow Geeks would know what I was talking about. They had nothing in stock, however, for the size I wanted, and I nearly left in disappointment, when I was told, “We could make one for you. It could be done by tomorrow.” Indeed, the Geeks had their sewing machine in the booth, and after doing some hands-breadth guesstimating and selecting from their available fabrics, we settled on my custom design. When I arrived the next day, I was just in time to see these final touches being sewn into my brand new tile bag. (The Geeks apologized that it wasn’t quite done, but I insisted that getting to see my product leaving the assembly line was more than worth the slight wait.)

3. Games for the Sitting and the Savoring

This year I figured out how to use the event calendar at the Gen Con site to do more than just look at people playing games. With proper planning, I could be one of them! These game events are more than demos, they are complete play-throughs, and often take two or three hours to complete. They require careful planning if you want to sample them. One highlight was getting to play Defenders of the Realm — the guy running the game turned out to be the designer himself, the industry legend Richard Launius. Defenders is a fun and innovative cooperative game on its own; we players had a particularly great time because we could pick Richard’s brain about why he made certain design decisions. I’ll be buying this game as soon as my little Defenders are a couple of years older and a bit more worthy of the Realm.

Like a dummy I didn’t take a picture of the game in progress or of Richard, but I did manage to squeeze off a quick snap when my handsome, arrow-flinging ranger managed to kill Gorgutt, the dreaded orc general, and became … wait for it … the Orc Slayer!

Later that day, I sampled a new game called Deadwood from Fantasy Flight Games. This seemingly light little game had a surprising amount of depth. Players add buildings to a burgeoning Wild West town, sending in the cowboys from their ranches to sling guns, wreak havoc and jockey for position until the railroad finally arrives.

I enjoyed the ease of getting started and the simplicity of the decisions (which is ideal for my kids) and the longer we played I realized that if you choose to really puzzle through your choices, you could be rewarded by deeper analysis, too. This is perfect for my family demographic, and I brought a copy of this one home.

After a little deliberation, I tried another Fantasy Flight offering, the new Lord of the Rings: The Card Game:

I almost steered clear because the LOTR theme is pretty heavily milked in games, up to and including another Tolkien’d card game just a few years ago. But here’s a crucial difference: That old game was a collectible card game, which is the code word that means you can purchase box after box after box of randomized cards, and still never find the one Ultra-Rare Frodo you really needed to make a killer Hobbit deck, or whatever. I have zero interest in such frustrating money-sinks.

But this version’s a living card game, which means (apparently) when you buy a box, everyone gets the same thing. There are no mega-rares, no coveted card to chase. Plus it is a cooperative-style game that features the capability of solo play, and that suits the temperment of my house.

After our sample game, my review is that I think I like it — and may like it more on future plays — but it is pretty much the opposite of the Deadwood game I played right before it: not easy to pick up and run with, not easy to teach (except to other regular card gamers, it seems), and not easy to make a quick decision. For learning curve reasons alone, I’ll wait to buy this one.

A surprising dud turned out to have a surprising up-side. My final play of my first night was Cosmic Encounter, a classic game that has been printed and reprinted for the better part of 30 years. My favorite games podcast (The Dice Tower hosted by a where-does-he-find-the-time gamer named Tom Vasel) recenty ranked Cosmic Encounter the No. 1 game of its annual All-Time Best list, so I knew I wanted to give it a go.

How did I like it? The game ended before it got to my turn. No kidding. I was playing an alien race called the Observer, and I was the seventh of seven players; the game ended after the fifth player’s turn. Gameplay-wise, I sort of enjoyed it, because even though I never got to my own turn, I had plenty to do on others’ turns; the game is primarily an alliance-building and alliance-shattering exercise as each active player seeks the aid of others to attack or defend various planets. But before this table of newbies knew what it was doing, we had let a guy build an amazing lead that could not be stopped, and that, well, was a bit of a turnoff.

But here’s the up-side. The next day I’m walking the convention floor and who should walk past me but Dice Tower host Tom Vasel. I accost him and he’s generous enough to stop his purposeful stride and greet me. Immediately I put him on the spot about my deflating experience with his No. 1 game. He laughed and put the blame on our game tutor, who failed to show us how to put the brakes on the eventual winner. He implored me to give it another try, and I agreed I would. Nice guy.

Tom also gave me a ribbon to affix to my convention badge that advertised the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund. Tom set up the fund to help gamers in need, and it’s named after his infant son who was born prematurely and died earlier this year. I wore the ribbon proudly, and you can see it in the photo at the bottom of this post.

4. Games for the Breezing By

I also played a lot of walk-up-to-the-table demos of games. These quick-hit demos are sometimes harder to get into because there is no schedule; if you don’t get lucky by walking up to an empty seat, you must either wait 10-15 minutes for the current players to cycle out, or you watch over their shoulders as they get the quick overview.

My absolute favorite of these was this behemoth:

No, not that guy, the box — Fortune and Glory: The Cliffhanger Game — which is stuffed to the gills with plastic miniatures, dice and pretty, pretty cards. The premise is that you and your fellow players are Indiana-Jones-like adventurers in a 1930s pulp movie, scouring the globe in a race to find valuable artifacts. On your turn, as you press your luck to get closer and closer to your reward — the plunder of a hidden jungle city, for example — you find yourself in movie-like entanglements, such as fist-fights with mobsters or collapsing-wall traps. If you fail at overcoming one of these tasks, you are put into a Cliffhanger, and the play passes to the next person. It worked really well with our game demonstrator, pictured above, who spun our unfolding story like he was a cinematic voice-over.

Once when I (that is to say, my character: Jake Zane, Flying Ace) was investigating the Himalayas, I found myself in a boat chase with villains on my tail. (Why a boat chase in the Himalyas? Because games, that’s why!) When I failed the dice-rolling to shake these boat-borne bad guys, my Boat Chase card was flipped over to its “Cliffhanger” side, which read: “Waterfall!” Our demonstrator handled it beautifully: “As Jake Zane watches the bow of his boat plunge over the edge of the waterfall, the camera cuts away to reclusive novelist Alexander Cartwright and his quest deep inside the hidden city…”

Jake Zane eventually died trying to infiltrate a Nazi-filled zeppelin. Yeah, that’s the recipe for a great game. It costs — coughcough — 100 bones, so I’ll have to save up before I can bring this beauty home.

Apparently the game Quarriors was burning up the buzz charts, judging by the throngs of people huddled around the half-dozen-or-so tables to get a demo of this “dice-building” game:

I generally enjoyed the act of rolling fistfuls of dice (and adding to those handfuls by buying increasingly powerful dice from a common pool), but decided its gameplay and theme were not really a match for my house, and sighed in relief as I saved myself 40 bucks.

I’m a BIG FAN of Plaid Hat Games, having discovered them at last year’s Gen Con and going a little coocoo for their game Summoner Wars. This year they were demoing Dungeon Run, a tile-laying dungeon-crawler set in the Summoner Wars universe. I tried to turn up my nose at a common dungeon crawl (I mean how many board games have mined that theme?) but damned if I didn’t fall for this one. Quick, fun play, melded with equal parts cooperation and screwage between players. Dungeon Run will come home to me as soon as it’s released. Oh, and I picked up the Summoner Wars Master Set, which has six new armies for this zippy, clever, all-awesome-all-the-time, two-player card brawl.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Hey, That’s My Fish, the game with the worst name (sounds like it came straight out of a Target game aisle, from next to soulless corporate games with names like Grab That Pickle or Don’t Step in the Doo Doo!). HTMF is actually a brilliant little kid’s game of maneuvering and blocking, and Fantasy Flight had a miniature version for $14. HEY GAME INDUSTRY: If all your best children’s games, beginner games and gateway games were in affordable, portable packages like this, not only could more dads bring back souvenirs for their kids, but we could grow the hobby as a whole to the point where I would not have to drive to the middle of Indiana to meet other people who love games as much as I do. That’s free advice; you can use that.

All in all, Gen Con, you served up a delicious buffet of gaming entrees, and I gobbled it up. If I had a time machine, I’d totally go back and relieve this convention again. Oh, wait a second. I do!:

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Game Night in America: Are you ready for some boardgame?

We fill the long slog of winter nights with games whenever we can. Those damn nights are so dark so early, and even when the light comes back, this is still Chicago, and that means winter lasts until … well, let me put my head out the door. Yep, until about now.

But games, man, games. We love ‘em in this house. They’re fun, they warm the brain, and they give me something to do with kids that doesn’t automatically end in me throttling, yelling or banning desserts from all involved. (Those things might still happen, but games have the potential to delay Daddy’s snap.)

Last Christmas, Santa did his usual augmenting of the game closet, and we’ve had great new games in heavy rotation ever since. Here’s how we spent many a night this past winter, with our clothing-optional game nights before the roaring fire:

To be fair, they put their shirts back on after the resin-rich fatwood burned off. I mean, that stuff is the kindling from HELL.

If you’re at all interested in sharing moments of strategy, tactics, dumb luck and sick laughter with your family (preferably with the preponderance of your clothing on), consider this hit parade:

Pizza Box Football

The official BoardGameGeek entry on this dicefest game says that it’s suited for kids 12 and up, and many reviewers insisted only older kids would enjoy it. But they never met my 8-year-old son. When he daydreams, it’s of all-star baseball match-ups, buzzer-beating jump shots and Hail Mary passes into the end zone.

Pizza Box can intimidate, with pages and pages of laminated charts, and a bag full of dice in many colors and sizes. But once you crack the system, it flows. By the end of our second game, we already memorized some common dice results, and the game blazed by. The defense decides what kind of play it thinks the opponent will choose (run, short pass, or long pass), and chooses one of three colored dice in secret to reflect how it will line up. The offense announces which of those three it will run. Then dice are revealed and rolled. Charts are consulted. Plays unfold.

The charts! They could probably paper a bathroom wall with their pages of contingencies, cross-references and special cases. If I roll poorly on my long pass, I might get a result of “QB Pressure.” Quick, check the QB Pressure chart! Another roll, and you might save the day with a scrambling completion … or just get your sorry ass sacked. Whatever happens, move the down marker and march the peg on the “time clock” another tick closer to the end of the game. Hope you can hold the ball (or wrest it back) with smart decisions and hot dice.

It’s not for everyone, all this rolling and chart-consulting. But my little Butkus and I get a lot of energy from the back and forth slugfest that really does capture the feel of a pigskin brawl. In our second game, with the final “seconds” ticking away on the time track, and the ball on the 13, my son needed a touchdown to win the game. I lined up for the pass, and he surprised me with a run. A bushel load of dice rolled across the table. When all the modifiers were applied and the charts had spoken, he gained 12 yards on the final play of the game. I had stopped him at the 1.

How great is that? We still talk about that game, and how he came back in the rematch to stomp me like a narc at a biker rally. Pizza Box Football is probably a bit dry and abstract to most, but to the sports nut it’s the next best thing to Monday morning quarterbacking.

Enchanted Forest

Usually memory games are a big zippo for me. Who has fun matching pairs of butterflies and hot dogs? But Enchanted Forest makes it fun by adding really nifty plastic trees and wooden pawns that are fun to manipulate. This is the kind of game that my daughter will remember in 30 years, and get all nostalgic and go on eBay and pay too much for it.

This is a simple game. Roll the dice, get to a tree, peek under it, and try to remember the fairy tale image underneath. Meanwhile, there’s a stack of cards over at the king’s castle, and the topmost card informs you which image you’re looking for. Once you peek under the correct tree, you must race over to the castle and declare which tree hides the matching image. There’s some gamesmanship afoot (“Uh-oh, Daddy’s heading for the castle! That last tree he peeked under must be the one!”), and an interesting roll-and-move variant that lets you choose to move backward or forward in any combination of the two dice. Just enough analysis to give little minds something to noodle, and it plays mercifully fast for my waterlogged memory.

Summoner Wars

This smart card game has been in solid rotation since last summer, but Santa saw fit to drop a couple of new decks in Oldest Boy’s stocking. At Christmas, who doesn’t want to find undead hordes lurking by the chimney with care?

The new decks are killer great fun, and they only further my opinion that Summoner Wars is one of the best two-player cards games since Fifty-Two Pickup. Combine miniatures games with “Magic: The Gathering” and throw in the essence of chess, and you’ve got 30 minutes of tense dueling on a table top. What’s so refreshing about this game is that you can get a couple of decks for cheap and enjoy it just fine; and if you want to add some variety, you can stir in a new deck every so often for another 10 bucks. Decks are complete — unlike most collectible card games, there is no “blind buy” or hunt to find a rare amid the common cards  — so the allure of collectibility and customization are there without the expense.

The only problem with this game is that since Christmas morning, I’ve gone 0-8 against the boy. In fact, I played the first 7 games with one of the new decks (a pack of healing humans called “Vanguards”) vowing that I would win with them once before trying a different deck. Then he said, “Dad, I’m gonna play the Vanguards against the army of your choice, and I’m gonna win.” The little snot was right.

This will sting less if Summoner Wars sparks his career as a brilliant military tactician.

Coloretto

Cool and abstract, this set-matching card game came highly recommended from my gaming adviser, BoardGameGeek. Santa thought my daughter would really dig a rainbow-colored pastime — but it was kind of underwhelming to discover that the cards come in an odd palette that included gravel gray, pressboard brown and spray-tan orange. With a stoic chameleon blending into the textured “art school photography class” backgrounds on the cards, “cuddly” and “fun” aren’t words I’d use for this aesthetic.

Gameplay is clever, however. Players draw cards from a deck and lay them down in the set of their choice; over a round everybody will have to claim one of these sets. The idea is to specialize in three colors, while collecting as few extra colors as possible. (These will count against you in the final scoring.) Players have nice, compact little decisions to make about where to put each colored card they draw; they try to put it in sets that either serve themselves, or frustrate their opponents. It isn’t flashy, but with simple mechanics that run just deep enough, this one has been a quiet success.

Zombies!!!

Totally ridiculous and chance-driven, this basically brainless game (yuk yuk — see what I did there?) is still a hoot with the right crowd. And with two boys aged 8 and 11, I always have the right crowd. In Zombies!!!, you’re a guy in a zombie-infested town, and you’ve got to bash your way to the helicopter, one undead obstacle at a time. You’ve got nothing but the bullets in your pocket and the 4s or higher on your six-sided die. It doesn’t get much deeper than that. (Well, maybe it does. Do you dare raid the zombie-filled hardware store to play the coveted “chainsaw” card? If you care about theme, yes, you do.)

Not for every family, as some of the card artwork is pretty gruesome. I just hope my children will tell their therapists some day what an awesome dad I was for screwing them up with fun games like this.

Heroscape: D&D style

My continued admiration for this miniatures wargame continues with this most recent set, a D&D-themed group of sharp-looking trolls, drow elves and shiny sword-bearing heroes. The game has a nice stand-alone feature that replicates the feel of walking through a D&D “dungeon crawl,” but as always, Heroscape is at its most fun when you mix the armies of different sets. If you’ve ever wanted to see Hulk and Spider-Man team up to take down a gnarly black dragon, then Heroscape is your game. The rules are simple enough for my boys to play, but deep enough to warrant some meaningful decision-making each turn.

Lost Pyramid

Note the addition of water glasses to hold down the egdes of the board. It just didn't want to lie flat. A small complaint.

I almost ignored this box at Toys R Us, because it was all alone on a bottom shelf — like a wallflower at a school dance, this game was begging to be treated like a loner. Plus the box artwork was miserably fuzzy. Who produces a boxed board without high-res art?

But the deeply discounted price tag – $7! – made a tempting temptation.

That crazy low price works both ways: Like seeing the box alone on the bottom shelf, a next-to-valueless price seems to project a low self esteem that’s hard to get cozy with. But there was something kind of interesting about the photo of the game board, and heck it was only $7 …

So imagine my surprise when we finally cracked open the game board, and it unfurled like a Robert Sabuda pop-up book. Look at that photo up there — that’s the game board right out of the box. That’s so cool.

The game play is interesting enough that I felt super bad about dismissing this box before I got to know it. It’s a move-around-the-board game, normally a pretty boring concept, but it twists the usual roll-and-move mechanic. Instead of rolling dice, players use cards that have multiple uses – for example, some cards bear both a stated movement value, or instructions for disabling a trap. It’s your choice how you want to use it.

Players must deduce the locations of all the pharaoh’s treasure while avoiding the mummy chasing after them. As they move, they face blocked paths or sliding hallways that can be moved in their favor – or against their enemies – by playing the right card.

Which proves that even though good games can comes in big, beautiful boxes, sometimes the awkward girl in head-wrapping orthodontics and taped up glasses is worth asking to dance.

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More games afoot: My favorite finds from the gaming halls of Gen Con 2010

In my last post, I promised I’d share my favorite finds from the 2010 Gen Con, that classic convention of games, gaming and gamers:

Summoner Wars

I like Magic: The Gathering well enough. Magic is the undisputed heavyweight of the collectible card games; it has a heavy fantasy theme and a high collect-em-all factor. Oldest Son and I will play it from time to time with the cards we’ve scraped together over time, and we generally have fun. But it’s a very daunting game to get going on. There are more cards, card sets, box sets, booster packs and starter kits than the brain can process, and even then you have to build your deck, test your deck, and go buy more cards to fix your deck.

So while I was drawn by the art and gameplay of Summoner Wars, I was not interested in starting another collectible game. So as soon as the volunteer at the Plaid Hat Games booth said, “It’s not a collectible game; you buy two decks and you’re ready to play,” I was in a chair and trying the demo. And loving it.

Summoner Wars borrows the fantasy theme of Magic, but makes the game a tactical chess game with simple rules that get players up and running. It presents the right amount of decision making to churn up your mental output. This is the sweet spot for a gamer dad with young-ish kids; I want them to have ample opportunity to think, but I don’t want to hold their attention all day as I teach them (or go back to consult) rules.

My favorite discovery here is that the cards move around a grid, which gives it a tactile feel, and removes some of the abstractness of “pretend combat with cards.” This places real structure and limits on the kinds of actions you can or can’t do, and that helps beginners get moving fast. (Some game with multiple options can lead to “analysis paralysis,” but Summoner Wars stops juuuust short of being too many decisions at a time.)

Oldest Boy and I were fired up and on the march immediately. Sadly, he got up to speed too fast, and promptly won the first game in a rout:

Here, oldest boy surrounds my dwarves with his goblin horde. Two short races in a very short war.

Plus the cost-to-entry can’t be beat. For $20 I got two decks (Dwarves vs. Goblins). You can add other decks to your set (Orcs, Elves, Undead, etc.) for about $10-15 apiece. When you buy a deck, you know exactly what you’re going to get — there’s no randomness or imbalance between “common” and “rare” cards as there is in Magic.

Plaid Hat Games is a one-man shop, and the founder and chief game designer himself, Colby Dauch, was working his booth at Gen Con and wearing the titular plaid hat. This is the greatest opportunity at a convention like this, to meet a guy who acted on his dream and to chat with him about his creation. This is for sure my best purchase of the con. (You can buy Summon Wars at Amazon, or at the Plaid Hat site.)

Pirate Versus Pirate

I love Out of the Box, the guys who gave us Apples to Apples (the greatest word-association-game-for-large-groups ever). This simple board game from their booth was an instant buy, too. Another chess-like board, but simpler, with plenty of randomnes from dice that make it easy to play with kids, without giving up the value of a planning and forethought.

Roll the bones (the dice really do have skulls and bones on them; see below). Move a pirate. Grab the treasure coins in the middle. Get ‘em back to your boat. Very easy. Along the way you can “capture” other players’ pirates (to use the chess parlance; I prefer to say “kill,” because these are pirates after all).

After playing several games with Younger Son, I came home one day last week to find that he had gotten it out and taught it to his grandfather:

Back then, all pirate bands were color-coded.

Knock Down, Drag Out

Completely silly, but every game closet needs at least a few irreverent fillers. This is is just a quick card game for a crowd of people, each playing a character in a barroom brawl. Players throw cards out quickly (Punch, Kick, Haymaker) and roll a die to see if they connect. If you hit somebody enough, they get knocked out, they you can play a Tossed Out card to get a point for the takedown. Other complications (like chair legs and shots of whiskey) increase your damage (or your health).

Game play was a bit repetitive when I tried it with some family members who weren’t so into it at the time, but I think the addition of the aforementioned whiskey would put a little pep back in the momentum.

This is the kind of game that Gen Con was made for: Little indie company with heart and moxie and a $10 product. Sold.

Mountain of Inferno

I want to love this lightly thematic little card game, but the jury is still out. I tried to play it with the kids, and its subtle complexities were beyond the appetite of the squirrels at the table that evening.

Before we tackle its complexity, note its beauty. The whimsical cartoon characters are based on “Journey to the West,” a classic Chinese novel  about a Buddhist monk traveling from China to receive holy scrolls in India. He’s accompanied by four odd disciples, of whom the most famous is the Monkey King, the Jack Sparrow of Chinese mythology. (That’s Monkey on the cover of the box.) All the cards bear characters from the story, such as Pigsy (under the red token), Sandy and Dragon Horse. Aside from a few graphic symbols in the corners, not a word of text disturbs a single card. It’s graceful to behold on a table.

As you can plainly see, Blue is in the y'all-just-got-pwned position.

It’s the gameplay that’s a puzzler. I just can’t quite crack  the strategy behind executing a winning hand. Mountain of Inferno involves a puzzle-like  manipulation of your token around a field of cards (the “mountain”) until it sits at the intersection of a row and a column made of each of the four character cards in the deck. In the image above, the blue player is in the winning position because it sits at such an intersection: There are one each of Monkey, Sandy, Pigsy and Dragon Horse in each row and column where Blue sits. Lucky Blue.

Since I tried to learn this one with a live audience, I’ve tried a solo test round. I like the elegance of the play, which is a very contemplative sort, a bit like tai chi with cards. Plenty of special cards (like the Buffalo Demon King peeking out in the upper right) permit shoving other tokens and disciple cards around the mountain, but this strategy and every other action requires spatial awareness and zen-like inner calm. It’s an intriguing if aloof addition to our game stash.

D&D Delve

I’ve gradually become aware that Gen Con encompasses floors upon floors, and rooms upon rooms, where games are going on 24 hours a day. That’s right, the event catalog for the convention has hourly listings that continue uninterrupted through the night; the pickings may be slim at wee hours, but there are pickings nonetheless.

Among these copious events you’ll find tournaments for particular games, structured demos of new or popular games, and even “delves,” the D&D version of pick-up basketball. Just show up with a friend or two or none, and the volunteers of the Role Playing Games Association will seat you in groups of six at a table with a volunteer game runner, who has a map, some miniatures, and an hour to try and kill your character.

My pack of gaming compadres and I gave this a whirl for the first time this year, and I found it to be a hoot. For a few dollars in “event tickets,” we got a great hour’s entertainment rolling dice in a Dungeons & Dragons game with the wind at our backs. The RPGA runs several tables, each with a different scenario and set of six pre-generated characters. The volunteer dungeon master greets you, introduces the scenario, sets the clock for an hour, and says, “Roll for initiative.” (In D&D speak, that’s the classic utterance that means: “It’s go time.”)

The first time we tried this, we very nearly got through our two allotted encounters in our hour; the second time, we all died. Our DM told us only one party had survived both encounters all week; and brother, we did nothing to change those stats. Not only did all six of us achieve the vaunted status of TPK — total party kill — but I myself was dead inside the first turn. My burly fighter got mauled by a bear and thrown into a pit before my dice had a chance to warm up.

And you know what? I think that was the most fun encounter of all. Because killing pretend fantasy creatures can be almost as fun as getting killed by them … and being feasted upon before your still-living eyes.

There I am on the left, wondering how I can get my stupid character killed *again.*

Things I’m Watching

These are items that caught my eye, but which I didn’t buy. Limited budgets are such a drag.

The Adventurers and the Temple of Chac (Alderac Entertainment Group). Played a fun demo of this, which is essentially “Indiana Jones: The Board Game.” Players move through a complex Mayan temple hunting for relics, just like Indy. The game has loads of fiddly bits, from compacting walls, trap-laden floor tiles, a rickety bridge and even a rolling ball that advances around the board, threatening to crush rushing explorers. The minis are great, too, and even come in a pre-painted pack (for about $20 extra). Lots of rules for all those components, though, so I opted to wait a few years before springing this one on my young adventure-lovers.

Invasion from Outer Space (Flying Frog Productions). We demo’ed the first-born brother of this game, Last Night on Earth, which is a pretty popular zombie apocalypse game. I enjoyed it, but judged the theme — no matter how comical — to be a bit too raw for my household. We really wanted to try Invasion from Outer Space, which posits a Martian invasion of a, get this, circus. That sounds much more on-the-nose for my family’s appetite. Sadly, that game was packed deep with demo’ers, so I’ll look for it next time.

Playbook Football (Bucephalus Games). Had a great demo from an enthusiastic designer. If I had the scratch I would have brought home this beautiful, old-school wooden game. Next year, Bucephalus, I have you on my short list.

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