Post release comedown: dealing with bad press

Statler and waldorfSo you’ve made something – a song, a poem, a short story, a board game, whatever. You’ve spent blood, sweat and tears (OK, time and effort) making it the best you could and you’re proud of it. So much so, you put it out there for others to look at.

Then someone, somewhere, agreed – they thought it was good enough to publish. Maybe on their website, in a magazine or anthology, through their publishing company. That thing you made in your bedroom, that your friends and now this company like, will be exposed to the world. Which will be AWESOME… right up until the world gets its hands on it.

A few home truths. Some…

  1. People are mean: It’s true. Trust me, I’m one of them. I was a music reviewer for years and had some truly hilarious emails/letters from friends/relatives of bands I thought were awful – doing everything from threatening me, to questioning everything from my brain power to my birth right. I know, I was part of the problem – but at least it helps me brush it off today now the shoe is on the other foot.
  2. People are invisible: In my defence, while I was sometimes critical of albums, gigs etc, I always did it with my real name and so with a right to reply. Now it is easier than ever to criticise anonymously and, so, with no fear of reprisals. This lack of responsibility can inevitably lead to all kinds of unfounded and false statements that, however ridiculous, can still lead to lasting opinions from others.
  3. People are hasty: The advent of the internet – and even more so social media – has given the world a way to spout drivel at an unprecedented rate and to an ever-growing audience. It has practically no checks and balances, often has no takey-backsies, and it’s FREE. You can post things on the bus on the way home from the pub and not even remember the next day – or ever – that you’ve done it.
  4. People are stupid: They don’t do any research. They make moronic comparisons. They claim rumours, guesses and opinions as ‘facts’. They quote a single source as gospel truth without looking into it further (if they did they’d probably find it was posted by a mean, invisible, hasty or other stupid person). And often they haven’t fully (or sometimes even partially) read, listened, played whatever they’re criticising.
  5. People don’t start every critical sentence with ‘in my opinion’: Although that’s probably what they mean a lot of the time. Well, at least some of the time. Probably.

So what are you going to do about it?

Nothing. For several reasons.

  1. It won’t help: In the words of Shakespeare, haters gonna hate – and trollers gonna troll. You have no idea why they said what they said, and if it’s really dumb – or just plain wrong – why do you think the truth will out? Unless something is written in a very well-reasoned way, it’s probably best to leave it be – and even then, you may want to hold off, largely because…
  2. The cavalry is probably on its way: The fact there are several people on the internet will, inevitably, work in your favour – because every bad penny has a flip side to the coin. They may equally bad, mean, stupid, hasty and uncritical but more importantly than any of that they can be forgiven because they’re ON YOUR SIDE. If you let someone else fight your battles for you, you get to keep your dignity – and your sanity – intact.
  3. Because even if you the cavalry doesn’t arrive, getting involved will very rarely make you feel better: Most likely, one of two things will happen. One, you’ll feed the troll and start a childish spat you’re probably not going to ‘win’. Or two, your reply will be met with silence and you’ll never, ever know if the original poster even read it. Think about how much that might eat you up. And while you’re thinking about that, imagine what the percentage is of cases that end in the original poster replying, “Wow, you’re totally right! I didn’t see it like that. Thanks for correcting me”.

Sure it’s hard. But think back to the opening points – the people posting those comments are probably mean, stupid, unresearched and lazy when it comes to sentence construction. There’s no need to fuel a fire and hey, be pragmatic – they didn’t like it. No biggy. You always knew there would be people who didn’t (although of course you’d hope they’d keep their mouths shut). Nothing is for everyone – and at least it’s out there, right? You’ve made your mark on the world and you should revel in that.

But what if they had a point…

The best thing about anything creative is that there’s always a lesson to be learnt, always a way to improve and always another mountain to climb. If they were right, learn from it and move on. Because that next creative project is going to be even better – which means the cavalry charge against the stoopids will be even more vociferous and unstoppable…

Celestia – A Little Help: expansion review

Celestia* is a remake of the 1999 light family card game Cloud 9, which benefited from a beautiful new art direction when re-released in 2014 (and fully reviewed by me here).

In a nutshell, it is a push-your-luck card game in which players are travellers in a fantastical airship, where they take it in turns to pilot the ship between a series of increasingly tricky to reach floating islands.

Unless you’re the current pilot you always have the opportunity to get off the ship and collect a reward from the current island – but if you take a risk and stay on board, better rewards await at the next island.

But the problem is, you don’t know if your current captain has the right cards in hand to complete the next leg of the trip…

What does Celestia: A Little Help bring to the party?

Celestia: A Little Help essentially adds four mini modules to the game. You can add any number of them to any game you play, adding a bit of flexibility and meaning that if one doesn’t take your fancy (or you think it’s a little advanced for some players) you can just leave it out.

The module that lends its name to the expansion is made up of 14 ‘A Little Help’ cards. These have the usual icons on for the four types of hazard, but also have a hand symbol on them. These cards cannot be used by the captain to beat hazards – but if a captain says he cannot beat a hazard, friendly passengers can pitch one (or more) of these cards in to avert disaster.

There are also eight ‘upgrade’ cards – two in each of the hazard colours. Each of these simply has two symbols of a kind on instead of one, meaning you can beat two dice of the same hazard type with a single card (and as with single equipment cards, you have to play them if you have them – even if thee’s only one dice needing to be beaten and you have no single cards).

Next come two new power cards (two of each): The Bandit and The Mooring Line. Both can be played by any player (so passengers, captains or those who have already jumped ship) and make life harder for those trying to get to the next island – so will generally be played by those who have gotten off earlier.

You play The Bandit before the captain roles the dice – and it makes them have to role an extra one. The Mooring Line is played after the captain reveals a successful hand and means that, instead of moving forward, the airship stays where it is and must try to reach the next island again.

Finally, you’ll find six ‘character cards’ that match the player colours in the base game. As well as giving a male and female side for each colour (a small omission from the original game), these give each player a unique ability they may use once during the game.

These largely give a chance of escaping an imminent crash, while one lets you make a trip easier by rolling two fewer dice than usual – while the only nasty one lets you force someone to stay in the aircraft.

How much does it change the game?

The 14 ‘A Little Help’ cards add an interesting extra element to play when you have them and are a great addition to the game. It can be annoying if you draw quite a lot of them at once if they’re never any use, but generally they’re great tactically.

They also largely redress the difference in the amount of each type of hazard card in the base game: so where there six less black cannon cards than blue compass cards in the original, there are five black little help cards to just two blue ones.

Both The Bandit and Mooring Line power cards do exactly what they should do: elicit moans and groans when played from both the passengers and captain. They’re exactly the kind of card that makes the game better and both work well. It’s a pity that, if you’re near the final island and someone plays The Bandit, you’ll have to re-throw one of the dice again (as they don’t provide an extra one in the expansion); but this is a small niggle.

The ‘upgrade’ cards can make a difference, but are rarely needed: in a game where you’re usually rolling two dice, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll need a double symbol of the same type. That said, they can lead to a cheer if you get by in an unlikely situation and they certainly don’t do any harm – as well as helping to keep the ratio of equipment to power cards about right if you’re throwing in the other expansions.

Unfortunately I think they really missed a trick with the character cards, for several reasons. Firstly, most of the powers are very circumstantial and you may never get to use them – and they’re pretty boring, so we often found players forgot they had them. This is made worse by the fact the purple player’s power – forcing someone to stay on the airship – is super fun, putting the dullness of the other ones into sharp perspective.

I would much rather have seen a positive and a negative effect on each card, letting the player who had it use one or the other before discarding. This would’ve balanced them, as well as making each more likely to be useful.

In addition, it seems an odd (read: terrible) idea to tie these powers to specific colours – why would you do that? I always like to play green – why make me have the same boring power every time? It would have been just as easy to deal these out at the start, or draft them for negative points at the start, which would be far more interesting.

Is Celestia: A Little Help value for money?

Even at less than £10, you may think this is a little steep for 33 cards – but as always, you have to remember that art is the most expensive part of game production and you have a whole host of beautiful new illustrations on display here. And this is a price we’re used to playing for small expansions.

But more importantly for me the ‘upgrade’, ‘helping hand’ and new power cards immediately became a permanent part of my Celestia draw deck – a sure sign that they add fun to the mix. And I’ve seen each of them have a genuine impact during games we’ve played with them. Whether that makes it value for money, of course, is up to you – but I think it does what any expansion worth its salt sets out to do: it makes it a bit more fun without changing the base game you already love.

Is A Little Help essential?

Absolutely not. Nothing here changes the base game enough to convert someone who didn’t like the original, and while the subtle alterations are fun they certainly don’t revolutionise the game.

That said, if this is a game you have played to death and it is starting to hit the table less, I think the ideas in here will do just enough to encourage it off the shelf a little more: so if that sounds like you – or if it gets regular play and more is only going to be a good thing – it is probably worth the investment.

… and does it fit in the original Celestia box?

Yes – just about! I wouldn’t want to try and get too much else in there though. The Celestia insert was never the best, but the extra cards don’t make the card deck too big to fit in one quarter so you’ll have no problems keeping the airship in one piece too.

* Thank you to Blackrock Games for providing a copy of A Little Help for review.

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Bruno Cathala

Bruno Cathala is a celebrated French board game designer with almost 15 years experience and well over 50 games behind him. He now works in the hobby full-time, both on his own projects and with corporate clients.

Highlights of his design career include Five Tribes, Shadows Over Camelot (with Serge Laget), Mr Jack (with Ludovic Maublanc), Cyclades (with Ludovic Maublanc) and 7 Wonders Duel (with Antoine Bauza).

This is the fifth in a series of Q&As with published board game designers. The idea is to ask them all the same set of questions, so people can compare the answers and build an insight into what makes designers tick – alongside a stock of answers to questions all new designers will end up facing themselves.


1. If not games design, what pays the bills? Do you do anything else creative outside of games design, paid or unpaid?
I’m lucky enough to get all my income from games. Royalties form games you know, but I’m also creating specific games for private customers; for example for advertising reasons. For the creative unpaid part, I’m a (bad) musician so, I also like to write (bad) songs for myself.

When I was 20 I dreamt of becoming a comic strip writer/artist. Today I do it in a very modest way: each month I try to write a small story in three images for Plato, a French magazine dedicated to games.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
For me it would be Richard Garfield and Claude Leroy.

I have to say thank you to Richard, because Magic: The Gathering really changed my comprehension of game design. It opened my eyes. I still love MTG and think it’s one of the few games which had a major influence on all modern games.

Claude Leroy is the designer of Gyges, an abstract two-player game. I love abstract two-player games (I could also speak about the incredible work of Kris Burm with the GIPF project). But Gyges is THE game. Incredibly clever, simple to learn, but so deep. It’s a pity that this game is not more popular.

3. What drew you to game design?
I discovered there was a life after Monopoly when I was 20 because of a French magazine dedicated to board games. I bought my first one and was so impressed that I decided that, one day, I would create my own game – but I had absolutely no ideas at this time. So, during the years I just fed myself with games, games, games; all kinds of games. Then, when I was 36, I suddenly decided now was the time for me to make this game – and I began to work on my first prototype, Lawless, which was published in 2003.

4. When you design, what tends to come first – theme or mechanisms? And why? Do you design with a specific type of person in mind?
You forget one other thing – components! Because components can also initiate something special. But story, mechanisms, components are only tools you use to create a specific game experience between players. And it’s that game experience I try to create which excites me.

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
The best aspect is that you are completely free to do what you want! You are the king of your world, without any limit. The worst is that you have to find a publisher! And that you need as much energy for that. And it can be a long road, strewn with a lot of disappointment.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
Games for young children (my head seems to be too complicated) and party games (it’s not common for me to have a starting idea in this category).

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
Spend as little time as possible creating the first prototype, because you will definitely trash it and build something new just after the first playtesting session.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
I was pitching Mow to a publisher I really wanted to work with and I knew this very simple card game would fit in his line.

I began my speech, but he stopped me in the middle of my first sentence saying, “Definitively not for me – too mathematical”.

But there was nothing complicated in that game; it was just that at that time I was known for more brainy games; he couldn’t see me as someone able to create a simple game. I was so upset, and disappointed, but luckily I found another publisher (Hurrican) and, at this time, Mow has sold more than 100,000 copies.

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
Probably the creation of Five Tribes. All the ideas came at the same time, like if it was an emergency, and the game was built in two days. It took me much more time to fine tune it, but the creation was so easy and fast!

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
Two-player games! For example, I have fallen in love with Santorini – it’s just… perfect! The game is easy to learn but deep, while also having very high production values. And it also has ways to balance the chances of winning between players who are not at the same level of experience.

I also have fun playing some addictive games such as Hearthstone and Star Realms. And I’m a big, big fan of Flamme Rouge, which was released at the last Essen (October 2016).

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
More women! To be honest I can see that there are now more and more women at game conventions, but we also need more women as game designers.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
I’m a fan of… mushrooms! I really enjoy spending time walking in my mountain woods to find them – and then cooking and eating them!

Ulm: A four-sided game review

Ulm* is a family level gateway game (so a step up from Ticket to Ride or Catan) for two to four players that plays in about an hour. It is fun at all player counts and the 10+ age restriction seems about right.

Set in the German city of Ulm in medieval times, it would be easy to dismiss the game as just another themeless euro – but the game and rulebooks do at least do a great job of integrating the city’s rich history into the game’s components.

In terms of gameplay, Ulm is an action selection game with a clever mechanic for choosing those actions. In addition there are elements of area control (but not competitively/aggressively) and set collection and while there is quite a lot of luck involved, there are ways to mitigate it – and the game is short enough that the luck doesn’t feel out of place (but those who want perfect information should definitely look elsewhere).

The artwork and presentation is fantastic throughout, from the mechanically pointless yet aesthetically lovely cardboard cathedral to the board art and iconography. In the box you’ll find the board, almost 150 cardboard pieces, more than 50 wooden bits, 33 cards, a cloth bag and two rulebooks (more on that later) – solid value for your £30 (or less).

Teaching

Ulm’s basic game concepts are simple to explain to even a new gamer, but there are hidden depths that push it up a complexity notch – and these can’t simply be ignored for a simple path to potential victory.

The central mechanism revolves around a three-by-three grid which is always populated with nine action tiles. On their turn, players simply take a new action tile from the bag and push it into the grid, sliding one tile out the other side. Whichever three tiles are left in the row they pushed into (so including the one they drew from the bag) are the three actions they get to take that round.

There are five different actions on these tiles, so you could do anything from one action three times to three different ones. The simplest sees you take a coin, while another lets you move your boat along the river which runs across the bottom of the game board. Your progress along the river will affect end game scoring (giving anywhere from -11 to 11), but has the dual purpose of opening up different areas you can visit on the map.

The seal action costs you two coins, then lets you place a seal (you start with 12) into one of the city quarters you’re adjacent to along the river. These areas give you a variety of stronger extra action the tiles, but of course you’ve had to spend two coins as well as an action to use them – so choose wisely.

Another tile lets you draw or play cards by spending tiles, while the last allows you to pick up the tiles that have been pushed out of the three-by-three grid (allowing you to buy/use those cards). Each card has a choice of either an immediate benefit or end game scoring opportunity, and in most turns you’re only allowed to play one card (hence card actions allowing you to play additional cards instead of drawing, if you’ve built up a surplus).

The complexity arises largely from the resource management required. Both coins and tiles can be scarce, and sometimes simply unavailable, so making sure you have enough of them in hand to do the actions you want to do can be genuinely tricky for any gamer.

Each round a new section is placed into the cathedral – and after 10 of these have been placed the game ends. Players then add their river position points and any end game scoring cards to their score, as well as a few points for resources, and the winner – you guessed it – is the player with the most victory points.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: It’s easy to pull a tile from the bag you don’t want, but one of the game’s currencies – sparrows – let you change the one you draw from one of five face-up tiles in an area called the docks. This too, of course, can fill with things you don’t need but does usually at least alleviate the issue a little. It’s a clever yet simple way to reduce luck that typifies the thought that’s been put into the game’s design; you need to work to get those sparrows, but the payoff can certainly be worth the effort required.
  • The thinker: I expected the game to be too light for me, but what’s so impressive is how fast you can get to a strategy from a standing start – and how differently things play out each time depending on how the tiles come out of the bag. Additionally, one city quarter (the Oath House), for example, has four of the game’s eight ‘descendant’ tiles placed in it each game. These, if taken, can also shape your strategy – as can the cards you’ll draw throughout the game. These cards can be a more problematic in terms of their randomness – but for such a short and enjoyable game I’m willing to overlook it on this occasion.
  • The trasher: While Ulm isn’t really my kind of game, it’s fast with snappy turns while having a small amount of indirect interaction. Two city quarters allow you to take control of other areas, letting you gain victory points when players use it – so you can speculate on player strategies and profit from them a little. Controlling quarters is also the only way to earn sparrows, as each area of the grid tiles are pushed from corresponds to one of them – and if you control it when a tile is pushed that way, you gain a sparrow. But pushing a tile in from the opposite direction blocks this move, making it more difficult to get them. Small things, but they show an extra element to the game that at least gives a not to player interaction.
  • The dabbler: The game is pretty and the basic rules are simple, but you need to be really switched on to play well – this is not an ‘end of the night’ game! I don’t like the tower tiles (just another thing to think about and they don’t add any fun) and the game could do with some cheat sheets: it’s easy to forget what pays for what and the little help section on the game board gets lost behind the 3D cathedral! I like it, it’s clever, but I really need to be in the right mood and it’s pretty much at my high end in terms of complexity. It’s also low on table talk, as there’s a lot of thinking required and the theme is far from inspiring.

Key observations

Ulm has randomness coming out the wazoo – be it input, output, or something in between. If you can’t handle a game that may give your opponent the perfect card/tile one minute and you a useless one the next, it’s time to walk away.

Not all the luck can be mitigated either. You may take a descendent in turn 2 that gives you a bonus to coin collection and see barely any coin tokens drawn all game – while someone else takes one that aids river movement, only to see a plethora of boat tiles come along whenever they need them. Or you may draw a card that will give you three points, only to see the next player draw one that earns them double that.

But for me the game’s challenging complexities, and short play length, more than make up for this. Resource management is always tricky, decisions can be agonising and there’s a real sense of achievement when you pull off a great set of actions in a big turn.

Elsewhere, sadly publisher Huch decided to go down the rarely wise ‘two rulebook’ path in spectacularly poor fashion. I never know where to look and it drives me mad – which is a real shame, as the rules themselves are comprehensive and easy to follow, when you can find what you’re looking for.

Another bone of contention for me are the tower tiles. In the simple game these tiles are blank and simply count off the 10 game rounds, but you can opt for a more complex version of the game where these tiles each carry an effect (some good, some bad) that will stay in effect for just that round. However, you can also see the one that will be coming next so that you can plan accordingly.

Personally I find this tiles to be an unnecessary step too far in terms of fiddliness. Sure, they add another level of complexity to the decision making but that isn’t always a good thing – especially here, where it’s also adding yet another level of randomness. I’d play with them if someone was desperate to, but I find them a pointless irritation and for me they actually make the game less fun. It has enough without them.

Conclusion

I think Ulm is a fantastic game. The action selection mechanism is clever, simple and original; it packs tonnes of tough choices into a quick game, and it has an acceptable (just) amount of luck for a game of its length.

It’s a definite keeper for me, and it’s great to see a quality publisher such as Huch delving deeper into the strategy game market.

Having played a lot of games in recent times that fell just a little short by being under developed, I feel it’s an area where the big, experienced publishers can really show their expertise and remind consumers why they should be continuing to pick up their games, rather than the mini-laden promise breakers we so often get from their less experienced crowd-funded counterparts. I just hope they’ve learnt their lesson on the rulebook front…

* I would like to thank Huch! & Friends for providing a copy of the game for review.

Con report: SorCon 2017, Basildon

After having a great time at last year’s SorCon, it was great to be able to head back to Basildon for SorCon 10. The event is held in a Holiday Inn from Friday lunchtime until the last stragglers head off early on Sunday evening, with a nominal entry fee presumably covering the cost of the conference facilities.

Most of the gaming is done in a large, well lit room with good-sized tables and very comfy chairs (there’s an over-spill room too, if you want to get away from the hubbub). There’s an average of just over 100 attendees per day, making it a comfortable size, while the food and drink is pretty good as well as reasonably priced (but as it’s a hotel, don’t expect any cask ales).

But more importantly, it has a great atmosphere. The organisers are friendly, while I’ve not been to a con where people seem as comfortable asking if there’s space in a game than they do here. It would probably benefit from some ’empty slots’ cones, or similar, but it’s nice that people feel everyone is approachable enough anyway.

There’s not much going on beyond open gaming though. That certainly doesn’t bother me, but people wanting variety may struggle. That said there is the gamer oriented Saturday night quiz-a-hunt, a bring-and-buy table and a local board game retailer on hand – as well as loads of chain restaurants and a cinema on the doorstep.

A quick shout-out to old friends Keef and Claire for driving me to the con and humouring me throughout. And it was great to have Sarah with me for the first night (her first con and a successful one), as well as seeing old friends such as Matt (Creaking Shelves), John (LoB) and the rest – sorry I didn’t get to play with many of you!

Will I be going back? Absolutely – the date will go straight in my diary when it’s announced. Behind LoBsterCon this is my favourite UK event of the year – and one I’d suggest any gamer should check out if looking for a small, friendly con with a good variety of games – from party to the epics (I saw full games of both Colony and Mega Civ played).

Gaming highlights

  • The Oracle of Delphi: This was comfortably my game of the weekend. I’d been needing to get it to the table to review it, but was lucky to be expertly taught it here (thanks Phil!). Expect the review in the next month or so – but it’s a classic Feld that removes point salad for a race mechanism. There may be a little too much luck for some, but it’s also relatively short. And the play was super tense at the end, with me losing to Claire on the second tie-breaker (Keef and Phil were a turn behind us).
  • Castles of Burgundy: Another Feld, another highlight. This old favourite is always fun, but all the more so with experienced players. Claire, Keef and me are all fans and as always the game ebbed and flowed. As we neared the end it looked for a while that I’d run away with it – but once again Claire came back and just pipped me on end-game bonuses, taking the win on 206 to my 204.
  • Celestia: We closed Saturday night out with this great, and beautiful, little filler – and it was well received by everyone. It’s so simple to teach and immediately gets people chatting around the table, which is perfect when people are a little oiled. We ended up playing back-to-back games – the second with the recent expansion – with wins for Claire and SorCon buddy Craig. The expansion adds individual player abilities, which were a bit underwhelming, and a bunch of new cards that were great fun. Expect a review of the expansion soon.

The other ‘new to me’ games

  • Glass Road: I’d managed to miss this Uwe offering somehow, so was happy to give it a go. I liked the resource wheel mechanism in Le Havre: Inland Port, while not enjoying the game, and it turns out it is used to much better effect here. This is classic mid-weight Rosenberg – you have no idea what the hell to do at first, faced with a plethora of similarly weighted options, but after a few rounds it starts to make sense. But unlike games such as (proper) Le Havre it is pretty quick and the choices never become overwhelming once you’ve got the basics down. A good game that I’d play again, but not one I’ll be seeking out to buy.
  • Railroad Revolution: This was another game on my review shelf I’d brought along in the hope of being taught it – and once again Phil (with help from Keef) came to the rescue. While I quite enjoyed my play – and ended up winning – it was a little underwhelming overall; basically some of the scoring sections didn’t seem very fair for what you had to do to get the points. I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve played it a few more times (again, review incoming), but it seems a common complaint from those who’ve played it a few times. On the plus side, mechanically it was very enjoyable – lots of interesting decisions and very tricky resource management.
  • Steampunk Rally: Our last game of the con, this seemed a good choice for our frazzled brains – but was actually thinkier than I’d thought it would be (thanks to Paul for teaching). It’s a clever puzzle of a game, with a solid mix of dice, drafting and racing – but with the real key being engine building. I kind of missed this, building a sleek machine that got over the line – but only in joint last place. The game was OK, but definitely had that slightly shonky Kickstarter sheen – and was sadly lacking in player interaction (there are some screwage cards, but not many).
  • Ticket to Ride – Rails and Sails: I’d heard bad things about the most recent Ticket to ride offering and my fears were sadly borne out. As the title suggests this version adds boats to the mix – but only really adds fiddliness via an extra set of cards. This just proved to be a painful lesson in irritating admin rather than an interesting innovation on a system I love – and I wouldn’t seek it out again (but would play if someone really wanted to. Seemed particularly irksome with five players.

Games I’d played before

  • Can’t Stop: Always a winner, as two more highly entertaining four-player games (jumping variant) proved once again. Sarah grabbed her second win in her second play of the game, while Keef took the win the following evening.
  • Ulm: It was nice to play this four-player, and find it stands up nicely to all player counts. We played with the roof tiles face-up, which is meant to be the more ‘gamer’ version, but I just found it added a level of extra information that didn’t really add to the game – if anything it made it more cumbersome without really adding much to the experience. That said, I still really enjoyed the play – expect a full review of Ulm on the blog next week.
  • Voyages of Marco Polo: My second ‘real life’ play of this, more than a year after the first, saw me teaching it from the rules to Keef and Claire. Despite one cock up I must’ve explained them reasonably well, as they wiped the floor with me! I still think this is an OK game, but don’t really see what all the fuss is all about – overall, it’s very average. While I like the amount of variety in setup, the things you’re doing just aren’t interesting enough to make it fun over time regardless of this.
  • Castles of Mad King Ludwig: My third play of Ludwig, and my third comfortable win. No, I have no idea why I keep winning either – and I still don’t really like it. The castle building part is right up my street, but the bit where you have to set the values of the rooms is absolutely horrible (for me anyway). We played with the moats/swans expansion, which I enjoyed as an extra set of challenges/options – just give me a different option for choosing values each turn and I’d be converted.

Overall, I had a fantastic time throughout the convention (even the sausages at breakfast were good, and the Guinness reasonable). And I enjoyed every play of the weekend, even if I wasn’t sold on the game, and I didn’t play anything below average – or with anyone other than really nice gamers. Bring on SorCon 11!

Snowblind: A four-sided game review

Snowblind* is a push-your-luck dice game with a strong racing element. It will take one to four players less than an hour to play, and does a great job of integrating its rather chilly theme.

The box suggests ages 10+ and that’s probably about right, although you could definitely go a little lower with brighter kids. It’s a pretty simple game, although a stupid move can leave you out for good. But as it’s quite a short game, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue (and they’ll soon learn!).

As with all of Pleasant Company’s games, Snowblind benefits from the artistic touch of Rob van Zyl. I’m a big fan of his style, although I’m aware it’s not to everyone’s tastes. But it does a great job of conveying the bleak theme, which is further backed by the risk management elements of the game play.

The high quality continues with the components. In the medium-sized (about A5) box you’ll find two game boards, about 20 cards, 14 dice, 20 or so cardboard tokens and more than 100 wooden pieces. Everything is high quality, although the dice could’ve done with having a more easily readable font. That said, elsewhere the graphic design is clear.

Teaching

The gameplay in Snowblind is family level fayre: carry out a simple action, then roll a die to see if something unfortunate happens to you: rinse and repeat. But don’t be put off – it’s a lot more fun, and tactical, than this simple mechanism might suggest.

The only hidden information is in the weather cards (more on those later), which affect everyone, so teaching/reminding as you go is definitely an option. There are definitely some good and bad decisions to be made depending on your situation, and it may take a few turns to fully grasp them, so a good teacher should flag up any outrageously stupid moves as/before they happen – you don’t want someone dying on turn one (more on this possibility later).

Play occurs in rounds (5-7 in all), which are broken down into turns, with the start player moving clockwise each round. At the start of your turn, you choose to either take a dice from those available or pass (if you pass, your rounds is over – you can’t come back in).

If you take a dice, you immediately take the appropriate action associated with it. These are simple to explain (with easy to understand icons) and involve a combination of: moving explorers/crates, gaining food/victory points and setting up camps. The aim is to move your captain to the pole, then back to the ship, before the rounds run out – using as little equipment (and losing as few colleagues!) as possible.

What messes this up are the dice. Actions will either see you taking a six or eight-sided dice. After your action, you roll – with a 4+ possibly ending in weather damaging you/your equipment. So, taking six-sided dice is best as you have less chance of disaster – but these actions tend to be weaker, and there are less available.

Once everyone has had a turn, you get to go again – taking one of the remaining dice, or passing. If you take a dice again, you do the action as normal – but the twist is you now have to roll both your new dice and any you’d already collected, and all failures affect the area you just did your last action in. So the more dice you take in a turn, the riskier it gets. Failures first remove a cube (crates and food); if you have none in the area affected, you must then lay down one of your explorers. If there’s no explorers to lay down, you must remove one from the game (they may be some time…). And if that happens to your captain, your expedition is over.

Once everyone has passed, the round is over – but the risk isn’t over yet. You now flip the top weather card – you start with six, which act as the game timer: the ‘pack ice card’ is shuffled into the bottom two cards and if drawn signals there’s just one round to go. But the weather cards also have a number on them – which acts the same way as a die roll, but affects all players. It is applied to the area nearest the poll you have an explorer – so ending your round with your captain in a risky spot can really be deadly.

When the game ends, you’ll get points for all the crates you have on the board, your explorers in the ship, plus a variety of possible bonuses – or you score nothing if your captain perishes out on the ice. Most victory points wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: I can’t decide whether Snowblind could win over push-your-luck detractors, but those who love this mechanic should definitely try it. But this really is a push-your-luck game – all but one action will give, at best, a 50/50 chance of taking some kind of damage. If you don’t like luck, you’re not going to be won over – but if you like theme, and can manage short games that may screw you, it’s well worth a look.
  • The thinker: While I wouldn’t say there is zero strategy here, there certainly isn’t much – and as with all good push-your-luck games, you’ll need to change your thinking both on your own rolls of the dice and how your opponents are doing. But for the game length, it makes for a fun opener or closer – especially as set up time is also relatively short.
  • The trasher: It may look as if Snowblind has nothing to offer the more aggressive player, but there’s certainly fun to be had with it – largely in the meta game. More cautious players can soon get behind the curve in terms of progress, which is where you can start to ramp up the table talk. And pushing it with extra dice can be a real laugh: I’d rather crash and burn than be boring – especially in a 30-minute game! If it all goes wrong, I can chat until the next game; no biggy.
  • The dabbler: I really like the art style and while its largely just wooden bits, I really find it evokes the theme well. It’s a shame the equipment you can collect (taking the eight-sided yellow scientist dice) has different little pics in it, but they don’t actually do anything. I guess this is put in to give scope for an expansion, but I wish they had done more with it. That said it’s nice that the ships have real names and each player has a national flag for their crew, as this can encourage a bit of fun role-play from the dafter members of the group!

Key observations

The key point of contention for me is that, like it or not, Snowblind can be a little fragile. If you get easy weather cards and the pack ice comes out as the last weather card, it’s likely you’ll all be home and hosed without too much stress.

Oddly there is no reward for reaching the pole first, and only a two-point bonus for getting home first. This means a slowly-slowly approach can win you the game; odd in a race game. One mitigation against this is that if someone gets completely home early each other player has to roll an additional dice from then on: but that seems scant reward for essentially having nothing to do while you wait for others to complete the game.

On the flip of this, the game has no player interaction – but possibly player elimination: not exactly what you expect to hear in modern board games. In fairness, player elimination is very rare (I’ve seen it once in five games, across all player counts) and while there is no interaction it does feel like a multiplayer game due to the banter on the dice rolls and the short, snappy turns.

I wouldn’t recommend the game for solo play: the randomness falls a bit flat if you have a lack of competition with friends. That said, it was nice to be able to learn the game fully by using this mode – and it plays well with two, three or four. And finally, why isn’t designer Simon McGregor’s name printed on the front of the box? It’s very rare not to see this nowadays, and it must feel like a bit of a slap in the face.

Conclusion

I like Snowblind a lot. Despite clearly being a very abstracted game it really does tell a story and build tension, beautifully tying in the thematic element – but like all good games with theme, this can lead to occasionally disappointing games.

However, I’m much more willing to accept the occasional slightly ‘meh’ game when the whole thing plays out in 20-30 minutes, unlike some of the tedious Ameritrash games (I’m looking at you, Dead of Winter) that take that long to setup and can give a dreadful play experience over an extra couple of hours. A definite keeper for me.

* I’d like to thank Pleasant Company Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

Nuremberg Toy Fair versus Essen: Spielwarenmesse for game designers

I’ve wanted to go to the Nuremberg Toy Fair since I started down the game design rabbit hole and finally made it happen this year – so thought I’d pass on a few thoughts on my experiences in case any other fledgling designers were considering making the trip.

For the uninitiated, the fair (official snappy title: Spielwarenmesse) is massive: almost 3,000 exhibitors showing a million products to almost 75,000 trade visitors.

While the board game halls are just about two of the 20 or so on offer, the list of publishers in attendance is impressive: alongside all the key German players (Kosmos, Huch, Haba, Pegasus, Queen, Alea, Amigo, Schmidt etc) you’ll find many of the world’s finest on hand – from Asmodee and Granna to Blackrock and Mayfair, and many more in between.

Below I’m going to compare my Nuremberg experience, in as much as I can, to going to Essen – as both a game designer and a game fan/blogger. The two are very different experiences and both have their advantages (or perhaps disadvantages, depending on your point of view!).

Nuremberg versus Essen

1. The great unwashed: One of the great joys of Nuremberg is that it isn’t open to the general public. This means that, in terms of crowding, it is far more relaxed – especially because the board gaming areas aren’t the most heavily trafficked (that’s reserved for Lego and the like).

This also translates to the public transport to and from the show (the price of which is handily included in your show ticket), which is far less packed, while it’s easy to find short food queues once you find some of the more hidden away cafe areas (no, I’m not telling!).

2. The atmosphere inside: After the lower numbers in the halls, the next thing you notice in comparison to Essen is the subsequent volume level. This is a huge boon in terms of trying to have meetings as you don’t have to shout over the crowd the whole time; and the lack of crowding gamers means it’s easier to get from one meeting to the next – not to mention almost all the publishers you’ll need to see being in two adjacent halls.

3. Relaxed meetings: As stands aren’t all hands to the pumps, it means games developers can concentrate purely on taking meetings. And better still, they don’t need to fill said stands with tonnes of games to sell – meaning the stands are much more geared towards meeting spaces with tables and chairs. Having seen games pitched at Essen anywhere from a window ledge to the floor, it’s a welcome change!

Also, as the show lasts a full week, there are usually plenty of time slots to be had (mileage may vary here though). This means you can go for less time, but still squeeze a lot in – we managed to take a dozen meetings in two days, while still having time to eat and wander around the halls a bit – and it never felt as if we were having to rush a pitch.

4. More time for your games: Better still is the logistics of the European game release year. Most hobby publishers will release a lot more games at Essen than at Nuremberg – and the gap from Nuremberg to Essen is longer, meaning that publishers are feeling the pressure is off a little at this time of year (February/March).

This means they have more time to play prototypes – and yours will be fresh in their minds if you show here, rather than Essen. You can also improve on ideas between the two, or work towards ideas they may have hinted at back in October. And publishers will generally be more patient as you bumble through!

5. Outside the fair: Comparing the cities culturally is a total mismatch: Nuremberg has a fantastic medieval castle and district, a great train museum, art of all kinds and German history museum – as well as a bustling shopping centre and some decent restaurants and bars. Essen has something of the latter. However Nuremberg has an accommodation market well used to Spielwarenmesse being in town, so staying during the show is eye-wateringly expensive. That said, as there are way less publishers than at Essen – who have more time slots – you can stay for a shorter break.

So which is better: Nuremberg Spielwarenmesse or Essen Spieltage?

I don’t think it’s possible to say one is better than the other, as every visiting designer will be different. But what I can say for sure is that the two complement each other beautifully: I’ll try to continue to do both, but think Essen will remain the priority.

I fell for Nuremberg as a city and would love to head back for a touristy visit (when it’s less expensive!). I had some great publisher meetings, met some great people and – money permitting – will return next year (perhaps commuting from a nearby city).

But, despite any perceived slights, for my money you just can’t beat Essen. Every publisher worth their onions is there, a thousand new games are released, its organised chaos and something always goes wrong – but it’s the most exciting and exhilarating gaming weekend of the year.

It’s like the difference between a folk festival and a rock festival. One is better organised, has better toilets, you’ll be able to see, things will run on time, and you’ll come away from it with most things you took with you. But the other – once you submit to its rakish charms – will give you the memories you’ll treasure for a lifetime.

Dragonwood: A four-sided children’s game review

This guest review was written by David Thompson, dedicated family man and co-designer of Armageddon.

Dragonwood* is a light family adventure game with a fantasy theme from Gamewright Games, designed by Darren Kisgen.

In the game, players collect a variety of adventurers – warriors, elves, wizards and more – in order to gather magical treasures and capture fantastical creatures.

The game is for 2 – 4 players and plays equally well with any player count. Games take anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes. Though the box lists this as a game for ages 8+, my five year old loves it (with the occasional probability challenge, more on that below).

While the theme would be considered thin by experienced gamers, my girls gobble it up, carefully poring over the name and art of each creature. The component quality is good, and the art is of very high quality – good value for the sub £20 price tag.

It is also easily portable, so great for holidays and trips. But as the game has just 108 cards and six dice, you may want to decant it into a smaller box when travelling (we can only hope more cards are released for the game later to help fill the box up!).

Teaching

Dragonwood is a very simple game to teach. On your turn you have two choices: take a card or try to ‘capture’ an enhancement (magical item) or creature. Capturing enhancement gives you bonuses later in the game. Capturing creatures earns you victory points.

The game is first and foremost about set collection. There are five different colours of adventurers, each numbered 1 – 12. Through the course of the game, you can use combinations of cards of the same colour to ‘scream’ at an enhancement or creature; cards of the same number to ‘stomp’ an enhancement or creature, and cards in a sequence to ‘strike’ an enhancement or creature. Each enhancement and creature has a different minimum value for their scream, strike, and stomp defences.

During the course of the game, there will always be a landscape of five Dragonwood cards. This landscape includes the enhancement and creature cards that players attempt to capture. Players must declare which card they are trying to capture before any attempt. When you use cards on your turn to try to capture an enhancement or creature, you roll one die per card used.

The dice rolling aspect of the game might be the trickiest part for younger players. Although the dice are six-sided, the faces are not the typical 1-6 distribution. Instead, they use a 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4 range.

This is great for reducing randomness. However, my 5 year old, and even my 7 year old to a lesser extent, occasionally had difficulty with the probabilities for determining how many cards they needed to use (and thus dice to roll) for some capture attempts.

For example, when the Unicorn enhancement comes up (a favourite in my family!), my girls were so eager to attempt a capture attempt that they were willing to make extremely low chance rolls. While this doesn’t break the game, it can slow it down a bit and result in frustration. As long as an adult is nearby to occasionally offer a coaching tip, this isn’t really much of an issue.

One final element of the game is the event cards. Event cards are also in the Dragonwood deck. There are very few of these cards, but when revealed they have an immediate effect on all players. Typically the effect is something like all players drawing new cards or discarding cards in their hand.

When, at the beginning of the game, the deck of Dragonwood cards is shuffled it includes all of the events, enhancements and creatures. But you shuffle the two most powerful creatures – a blue and orange dragon – into the bottom of the deck. When those dragons are captured, the game ends – and the player with the most victory points from captured creatures wins.

The four sides

These are me, my wife, and my two daughters.

  • The dad (serious gamer, prefers Euros and light wargames with the occasional Ameritrash thrown in for good measure): Once kids have learned the core rules of the game (within one play, even for young children), the only obstacle to them being competitive with an adult is their understanding of probabilities, as mentioned above. Once they are comfortable making those basic decisions, children can compete with adults with no problem, especially due to the randomness introduced by the dice. While there isn’t nearly enough skill and strategic options in the game to keep a group of experienced gamers interested, parents will find themselves entertained and engaged throughout.
  • The mum (casual gamer, prefers party games and gateway games with no direct competition): Dragonwood is one of my favourite games in the girls’ collection. This is because I can actually play with the girls competitively without having to teach or coach the game. I like that it’s a quick game; we can usually get a game in within 15 minutes. It’s also stealthily educational, as the girls love reading the card names and abilities as well as counting up the results of their dice rolls and the bonuses from their enhancements.
  • The older daughter (7, more interested in theme, shorter attention span): I love the characters in the game. I especially like some of the enhancements like the Unicorn! My favourite adventurers are the blue and orange coloured girls. Rolling the dice and trying to capture the enhancements is my favourite part of the game.
  • The younger daughter (5, more competitive, better at building strategies): “My favourite part of the game is getting the most points.” (That’s a quote, seriously). I like collecting a lot of cards. I collect as many as I can (the hand limit is 9), capturing enhancements that help me, and then going for the most powerful creatures.

Key Observations

This game provides a great blend of options for tactics due to the set collection nature and the variety of range in enhancement and creature defences.

If there is one minor drawback, it is that I think many kids might tend towards collecting cards of the same colour disproportionately over collecting in a sequence or of the same number, which could lead to some suboptimal attempts to “scream” for capture attempts when other attempt types would be easier. However, this is a very minor point that doesn’t significantly detract from the game or basic strategies.

There are some minor probability challenges with challenge attempts as described above, but these challenges are minor and likely won’t affect players of age 7 or 8 and above. The Dragonwood deck offers enough variety in enhancements, creatures, and events that each game will feel different, with good replay value.

Conclusion

Dragonwood is one of the rare breed of family games that strikes the sweet spot where adults and kids can both genuinely enjoy the game without extensive assistance from an adult.

This is the rare game – along with a few others like Animal Upon Animal and Outfoxed – that our entire family can agree on and happily play.

The girls love the theme of the game, the set collection, the art, and the dice rolling. For parents, there is enough strategy to stay engaged throughout. The key element, though, is that the game design allows parents and children alike to play competitively and enjoy the game together.

* I would like to thank Coiledspring Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Brett J Gilbert

Brett J Gilbert is both a board game designer and board game consultant, who has consulted for international clients such as Lego and Twitter.

His first published board game, Divinare, was recommended by the 2013 Spiel des Jahres award jury. Elysium, published in 2015 by Space Cowboys, was nominated for the prestigious Kennerspiel des Jahres.

This is the fourth in a series of Q&As with published board game designers. The idea is to ask them all the same set of questions, so people can compare the answers and build an insight into what makes designers tick – alongside a stock of answers to questions all new designers will end up facing themselves.


1. If not games design, what pays the bills? Do you do anything else creative outside of games design, paid or unpaid?
Although academically a mathematician and scientist, I have otherwise worked in publishing and design (at least when I had a proper job) so creation and creativity has always a big part of what I’ve done. [Which , before anyone says any different, is not to say that I believe that science isn’t essentially a creative endeavour but I assume you mean ‘creative’ in the ‘make pretty things’ sense, not the ‘critical thinking’ one.]

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
My terrible secret is that I am not much of a “gamer” and certainly no fanboi of any particular designer’s work. The big beasts of the industry will therefore have to achieve their success without either my patronage or my adoration. [I think they’ll cope.]

But one has to genuinely admire the consistency, determination and, let’s face it, sheer quantity of work done by the likes of Knizia, Rosenberg, Feld, Vaccarino, Bauza and Cathala (to name a few obvious examples). Hats off to them!

3. What drew you to game design?
This is probably a serious and deep question, to which a serious and deep answer would reach far into the psyche and uncover all sorts of private motivations. Why does the painter paint? Why does the long-distance runner long-distance run? Let us not dwell upon such unspeakable things.

4. When you design, what tends to come first – theme or mechanisms? And why? Do you design with a specific type of person in mind?
[Hold up! Isn’t this the Designer’s Dozen? This question appears to be (at least) two!] But to address the first, I am often inspired by the physical or the visual; two aspects that are neither strictly thematic nor mechanical. And I’d say there’s a problem approaching a new design with specific labels already in place. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Theme and mechanics are answers, not questions. They are the where and the how; they are not the why. As for who [see what I did there to link to the second question?] that’s easy: for me. I genuinely don’t know how a designer could design anything worthwhile for anyone else.

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
The best moments are the ones of discovery; of realising that within an idea, hiding in plain sight, is more than you thought there was. This is, after all, something you made, so looking again and finding something else is kind of miraculous. Of course, you only have to flip this scenario to understand the worst moments: the moments of revelation, no less profound, when you discover that there was nothing there in the first place.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Which is to say: no game design is easy. Doing it properly is always going to hard.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
“Make do and mend” would seem sound advice. Don’t be prissy about prototypes, and certainly don’t spend any real money.

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
One of the memorably terrible meetings Matt Dunstan and I endured was with the employee of a very well-known publisher who, it turned out, didn’t have a clue who we were. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant; I mean we had met with this individual before, they had been reviewing one of our games at length and the meeting had been booked to discuss it – and he still didn’t know who we were. After leading us through the Essen crowds for five minutes to find a quiet spot in the business lounge he began to unpack a prototype on the table in front of us. Matt and I exchanged puzzled looks. This was not our prototype (ours was back on the stand on the other side of the Hall). Awkward.

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
Hopefully the best is yet to come, but attending the 2015 Spiel des Jahres ceremony in Berlin after Elysium was nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres ain’t bad, is it?

Matt and I had a whole heap of fun, met lots of lovely people, ate a few lovely meals and were generally very well looked after. Elysium didn’t win, but to date only 18 games have ever even been nominated for the Kennerspiel; Elysium is a permanent part of that history.

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
I have come recently to the realisation that I never want to play games that are – or think they are – smarter than I am. Suffice it to say this elegantly rules out a vast swathe of the modern board game catalogue. What’s left? Although I don’t play it nearly as often as I used to, I have always loved Carcassonne as a two-player game. Examples of newer games that I have enjoyed are Codenames, which deserves every bit of its effortless soar-away success, and Deep Sea Adventure, a game which carries its fiendish cleverness very lightly indeed.

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
This is another serious question, so I must resist the impulse to be flippant. But I think it’s looking pretty good, isn’t it? Thriving, inclusive and growing its reach. Speaking entirely selfishly, I’d love to see more UK-based publishers and an ever-greater awareness on the UK High Street of modern games in all their many colours. But I’m not sure there’s a problem to be solved here, and even if there were you can’t impose popularity or mandate what form popularity will take. It has to come – and I think it is! – from the ground up, from people rediscovering games and gaming as a rewarding, social and essential pastime.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
I feel a connection to Question 3 – or at least to its ungiven answer. Some creators don’t shut up about themselves, but isn’t it more sincere to let what you make speak for you? Isn’t that why you are driven to make it? Artists, photographers, playwrights, game designers… makers of all kinds stand out of view. If I wanted you to notice me, I’d wear a bow tie.

The best of 2016, part 2: My top board gaming experiences

My 5 best gaming experiences of 2016

With a few small exceptions, 2016 felt like a year of consolidation and keeping the wheels turning while my life started to settle into some kind of new normal. Overall plays were down, as old patterns fell apart and new ones failed to find a solid footing (I blame Thatcher). But there was still a lot of great gaming to be had:

  • SorConThis was the first ‘gaming in a hotel’ style con I’d been to outside of LoBsterCon, and I only knew two people who were going – but it turned out to be a lovely weekend of gaming in Essex. I played with lots of lovely folk, played lots of great games, and look forward to attending again next month. And all this despite getting the worst hammering of my gaming life in my first (and probably last) play of Food Chain Magnate.
  • Essen: The release of Armageddon at the show was thoroughly nerve-wracking, and overall the fair was even more exhausting than usual – but I had a brilliant time. From catching up with old friends/publishers and making/meeting new ones, to gaming and drinking into the small hours, it was a total blast. I didn’t manage to get any games signed this time, but there are still some irons in the fire… and I grabbed a record haul of games to review.
  • Eastbourne: This year’s two trips to the seaside for gaming goodness were notable for being held in a new hotel. I’d liked the old one, but (breakfast sausages aside) the experience in the new one beat it hand’s down. We took it over completely, so you knew that everywhere you looked you’d find fellow gamers. As usual I spent as much time socialising as I did gaming, but that’s just testament to what a nice bunch the LoB crowd is. I’m missing the next one, but will back in November for sure!
  • Games at work: I managed to convince my boss to give me a board game budget for work, and picked up about eight games with it from Board Game Guru. We’ve only had a couple of after work sessions so far but have had really fun games of Can’t Stop, Cash n Guns, Love Letter and more. Hopefully I can make it a more regular event in 2017, as well as introducing some slightly more complex games for those who want to step things up a little.

My top individual game plays of 2016

My favourite gaming moments, month by month:

  • January: While this was a far from vintage month, I had some very enjoyable plays of two review titles – New York 1901 and Zombie Tower 3D. Top play will have to go to our first play of Zombie Tower, as it was such an unknown that looked as if it might be totally awful. In fact it turned out to be a clever gimmick that really worked, making for a tense co-op experience with no chance of an alpha player problem.
  • February: Playing Ticket to Ride: Team Asia with my non-gamer friends Nik, Kath and Megan was great fun, with the boys just pipping the girls. But the gaming highlight was a game of Deus with Keef and Claire at SorCon that saw all of us all finish within two points of each other. Claire won it – as she did in a super close game of Concordia the next morning, pipping me by six or seven points.
  • March: I really enjoyed a super close two-player game of Snowdonia with Karl. A long run of sunny weather near the end totally changed the game, as it is want to do, meaning Karl managed to finish a track-laying bonus card that had looked almost impossible a few turns earlier, taking it 154-143. And also a mention for my first play of In the Year of the Dragon – a fantastic old school euro that, if I was adding games to my collection right now, I’d probably be on the hunt for.
  • April: Our biannual trip to Eastbourne saw some debut plays of some great new games – most notably Blood Rage and Star Wars: Rebellion (both of which I managed to win). Blood Rage was particularly pleasing, as I managed to win b y turtling in the most attack-minded game I’ve played in ages. But it was also a month of enjoying great games of old favourites, including Bora Bora, Divinare, Blueprints, Thebes and Yspahan – five games that don’t hit the table nearly often enough.
  • May: The end of Eastbourne saw standout fun plays of both Imperial and Eldritch Horror, but they were pipped by two trips to Rocky’s house in Brixton for fun games of both A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (also with Austin, Obie and Paul) and Doomtown: Reloaded (with Rocky and Austin). There’s something special about playing a really nasty game in completely the right spirit, where the smack talk is almost drowned out by the laughter. Good times.   
  • June: In what was, criminally, my only play of Terra Mystica in the year, I had a rare good game and won by about 15 points. I blew six magic in turn one on a double-spade move to stop getting blocked in: seemed desperate at the time, but probably won me the game as my second settlement was on its own. I traded in 32 cash for 16 points in the final round too, after giving up on largest area but nailing two 1sts and two 2nds in the temples.
  • July: A lazy summer Sunday, as part of a lovely weekend, which included a super close game of Mangrovia that I lost by a single point. But I really didn’t care. 
  • August: It’s always nice when you introduce one of your favourite games to four new players, who all really end up enjoying it. So it was with the last game I played at The Cast are Dice convention up in Stoke. I taught Notre Dame to Keef, Claire, Becks and Fin and – as usual with euro games – Claire took the win. But only just! Becks and Fin kept passing their VP cards to her, leaving her with nine cubes in that section in the last round!
  • September: Fun games of both Deus and Ticket to Ride: Team Asia featured highly again, while a game of Navegador with Morph and Swedish friend Janne ranked highly. But none could top a ding-dong game of Can’t Stop with Janne. I went 2-0 up and just needed two 7s to win. Janne came from about two 7s all the way up in one go to snag them – meaning suddenly he just needed one 6 and one 11 to win. So on my next go I came from three 6s all the way to the top to win the game. Epic.
  • OctoberWhile the obvious answer would be playing the production copy of Armageddon for the first time, I’m actually going to go for a play of Acquire with Rikki Tahta (of Coup fame) and Mark Chessher in London the night before we all made our own ways to Essen. They’re fun guys to play with, the Essen buzz was already in the air, and it was simply a good time with a great game and company.
  • November: I managed just 24 plays in the month (my lowest of the year), with the highlight probably being our second work games night. At the first won, we’d won one game each – except for poor Simon. He’d had quite a ribbing about it since, so arrived for this ready to play – and ended up winning all three games of the night. Love Letter and Celestia were both fun, but Cash ‘n’ Guns was probably the highlight – despite me being blown out of contention (quite literally) very early on.
  • December: My first play of Terraforming Mars has to be the winner here, for pure gaming joy (followed by my first play of Lorenzo il Magnifico). It’s a wonderful game that I can’t wait to explore more (when they get around to reprinting it…), despite making a terrible hash of it and finishing in last place. But introducing Sarah to some games was also a highlight (Ticket to Ride and Can’t Stop), as it may just pave the way for a rather interesting and more positive 2017…

My most played games in 2016

Prototype plays (91) made up around a quarter of my total plays for the year once more. Alongside these I clocked a total of 160 different published games in 2016, 81 of which I only played once (in a grand total of 423 plays). The most played were:

  • 16 – Empire Engine (52 all-time plays)
  • 11 – Ticket to Ride (116 all-time plays, all maps)
  • 8 – Can’t Stop (24 all-time plays)
  • 7 – Race for the Galaxy (256 all-time plays)
  • 7 – Game of Trains & Love Letter (7 & 24)

Race for the Galaxy only just hung in the top 5 this time – but it doesn’t mean I don’t still love it. My review schedule and lack of a regular midweek group still hamper plays of it, but it has already hit the table in 2017 (as has Ticket to Ride). I’ve always got Empire Engine on me, and always seem to be meeting new people, so I’m sure it will continue to get plays as well (I don’t think I’ll be taking Armageddon everywhere – it weighs a ton!).

But as always, a few classics fell through the cracks. Caylus and Brass both sit unplayed since 2014, while favourites not hitting the table in 2016 included Ingenious, Lost Valley, The Little Prince, Manhattan Project (although I did play Energy Empire) and El Gaucho (since rectified!).

And so, to 2017…

Overall, 2016 was a reasonably gaming year both in plays, experiences and releases – with some big highlights slightly overshadowed by my own largely downbeat mood.

But I’m entering 2017 with renewed optimism and there are plenty of gaming highlights in prospect too.

David and me will be at Nuremberg Toy Fair for the first time, hoping to combine some publisher meetings with some fun nights out in the city (which I’ve never visited) with a friend I’ve previously met on trips to Essen (hi Peter!).

SorCon, UK Games Expo, Essen and Eastbourne promise to make February, May, October and November awesome once again, while a tourist/gaming trip to Granada also promises to be a lot of fun in March (we’ll get to go to the real life Alhambra). Plus I have a new ‘friend’ to introduce to the wonderful world of gaming.

I very much hope that Pioneer Days (another co-design with Matthew Dunstan) will be released at some point in 2017, while I’ll still be trying to sell some designs to publishers while working on more new ones. So many ideas, so little time…