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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.