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…

Crisis: A four-sided game review

Crisis* is a worker placement, engine building and resource management euro game. It has great artwork which does a good job of bringing this dark, dystopian sci-fi world to life.

The box says 1-5 players, but it is certainly at its best with four (more on this later). With four, you can expect a game to last a couple of hours.

Age is listed at 14+, but I’ve seen similarly weighted euro games listed as 12+ or even 10+. You’ll know your own kids, but this game is no more complex than the likes of Tzolk’in or Terra Mystica – in fact a little less so.

That said, it takes up a good amount of table space – especially at higher player counts. But part of this is thanks to the fantastic quality of the components: oversized cards, custom resources and the like abound. In the box you’ll find 165 wooden tokens, 128 cards, 137 cardboard tiles, a double-sided board and a cloth bag. Art is lovely throughout and the graphic design works well, although some criticise the overly dark and graphically busy game board (the less pretty mono side is easier to play on).

Teaching

While there’s a lot in the box, and a few clever mechanisms, at its heart Crisis is a relatively simply engine-building worker placement game.

The board has 14 clearly marked areas to place your workers, each of which is carried out in order once everyone has finished placement (think Caylus). This gives you a simple way to walk through how the game plays, as it will be the same process in each of the game’s seven (potential) rounds.

In the main, earlier worker spaces give you money, resources, employees and companies; while the latter ones let you exchange/sell those money and resources, as well as operating your companies with your employees (you don’t choose a manager to do this action, it just happens; but it’s handy to have it as a set place on the board). Workers you place on the game board are called ‘managers’, differentiating them from employees.

The real driving force of the game are the companies. Resources go in one end and better ones, or money/victory points, come out of the other. The more, and better, your employees the more efficiently this process will run – and the better you can make your companies work together, the richer you’ll become.

But it’s not quite that simple. Like all good sci-fi, Crisis is based on real events – this one being the financial crisis that so devastatingly hit Greece. Many of the issues therein were blamed on greed, especially around a lack of ‘desire’ of companies to pay their taxes – and its that which Crisis successfully emulates.

Getting money is pretty easy – and money buys you companies, resources and foreign employees. But you get the big money by ignoring victory points: sell abroad for cash, or support your country by taking a split of points and cash. Especially early on the money is so tempting. You can just get points later, right?

Not necessarily. Every turn, players are tasked with getting a certain amount of victory points (you can set the difficulty level). If overall you fail to, the economy will start to tank – and if things get too bad, the game ends prematurely. If it does, any loans you had and cash in hand are worthless; while if you all survive the full seven turns you’ll get victory points for remaining money – but you’ll also have to pay off any loans you’ve taken. And a player can only win the game (no matter what turn it ends on) if they were ahead of the required victory point target.

Players should find everything runs really smoothly, while the time-consuming engine-running can be done simultaneously to avoid downtime. Everything is face-up and in view except for some very simple hand cards, so it’s also easy to help talk through any issues that may crop up.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: In theory, Crisis seems to offer you the delicious conundrum of greed versus good – but in reality, it doesn’t play out that way. To win by taking early debt you’re relying on two things: the other players playing ball and keeping the economy afloat, and your cash-grabbing giving you a palpable advantage long term. Unfortunately, in the early game, this is unlikely to make a big difference – the big points come later and your greed won’t guarantee you the platform you need. However, it’s still a really fun engine-building economic game.
  • The thinker: I’m really torn on this one. The worker placement and engine building elements are smooth and well realised, but a little simplistic and random. The economic sides are more interesting, but the selling of goods can also falter on unlucky random draws; while the semi-cooperative element of keeping the economy afloat rarely adds tension – after the first couple of turns, it either floats like a duck or sinks like a truck. Despite the fun to be had, after multiple plays there doesn’t seem enough strategic variety to keep me coming back – it’s more of a tactician’s game.
  • The trasher: Crisis is a game where the player count really makes a difference. With four or five, especially in early rounds, the worker placement is brutal in a really good way. Getting available companies and employees to match up can be a real challenge, making blocking genuinely painful – whether deliberate or not! And throughout there can be some real tension in the market, with a limited amount of places to sell those goods you’ve made – made worse by having limited warehouse space to store them. But with less than four, the tension fades.
  • The dabbler: I like the theme, love the art, and the big cards and custom wooden resources bring the game to life. While the game looks daunting it is pretty easy to follow, and its fun to get your engine up and running. However, after about half way, I found it getting a little repetitive. We seemed to be doing very similar things, just with more companies and employees – and it became hard to parse the information and stopped being as much fun. And, if you get your engine wrong, you can be dead in the water quite early on in a long game.

Key observations

The real elephant in the room, for me, is player numbers. Unlike most worker placement games the board is not affected by player count. So, each round, you’ll have six companies and seven workers to choose from – whether or not you’re playing solo of with five players. You’ll also have the same eight slots of export opportunities available.

This means that with two and three players, you largely get to do what you want. While it isn’t quite as bad with three players, you then face the issue of there essentially being two ways to go with companies – either export, or ones that simply produce victory points on their own. If one of you does one thing, and two the other – well we know how that goes. With four and five it sings, but play time (and table space) rise accordingly.

On which point – bigger is not always better. Playing with four of five players, especially late on, you’ll need a big table – a problem created purely by the oversized cards. They’re lovely to look at and high quality, but I’d take smaller ones any day of the week. But if this isn’t an issue for you, you can revel in a very well produced game.

The game’s unique selling point is the economy track, but it rarely feels as if it adds much to the experience (unless you’re rubbish, or play on hard!). The event cards are an annoyance and add little; and while the game tanking may be interesting politically, it doesn’t really make for a fun game experience if it happens. I feel these more gimmicky aspects take away, rather than add, to a pretty elegant central structure.

Finally, luck of the draw can be a big factor; especially with available employees and the companies that come up. Early you’re buying blind, while there’s no skill in beating a player who can’t operate his companies as well as you because your perfect employees came out of the bag. Export goods are random, but at least you see what’s coming – although this can still really screw you in the last round, if the thing you want to sell is in the ‘future’ economy column, meaning you’re unlikely to be able to sell it.

What these issues point at is a fragility that can be hard for some people to accept in what can be a pretty long game.

Conclusion

I hope this review of Crisis hasn’t come across as negative: it’s a game I’ve enjoyed playing and that will be staying in my collection despite its foibles. However, there’s no avoiding it has a limited audience and issues at certain player counts – as well as falling down a little on its USPs.

As a fun engine-building worker placement game, it has a lot going for it. The game plays smoothly with a good level of interaction, both in worker spaces and in the exporting of goods. But you’ll need to come in knowing that luck of the draw can be a factor, while poor play early on can really leave you floundering and struggling to catch up (although it’s certainly not impossible).

Yes, it can be a little fragile at times – but the other option would have been to take the route Scythe took and put the game much more on rails by smoothing out any and all rough edges. I’d like to think a good player could overcome some poor luck here, and have more fun doing it. Overall, an interesting and ambitious addition to the worker placement genre.

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

The best of 2016, part 1: My best new (and ‘new to me’) games

As the New Year begins, I like to take a little look back over what I’ve played in the previous year – and in particular the games I’ve played for the first time (new or otherwise).

My game collection has increased to 175 (up 10 on last year) – (another) new record high, but the slowest rate of increase since I got back into gaming. And with plenty on the ‘for sale’ list and very few titles likely to be incoming until late in the year, maybe it’s reached its peak (yeah right).

Total game plays were again down, this time to 423 (from 450 in 2015 and more than 500 in 2014). This has been down to finding it harder to get games in rather than any drop in enthusiasm – a sad state of affairs! It seems some people prioritise things such as families over gaming; what is the world coming too?

My faith in the Board Game Geek ratings fell to a record low this year too, with some truly average games stinking up the so-called ‘top 50’. Kickstarter fever and personality politics seem to be taking over from genuine ratings (a product of more Americans getting into gaming – coincidence? Discuss).

My 5 favourite new releases of 2016

Much as with 2015, I don’t think 2016 will be looked back on as a classic year for new board games – there doesn’t seem to have been a long list of truly great titles.

But there were some really fantastic releases, alongside some solid games that will stand the test of time without necessarily knocking it out of the park (hopefully Armageddon among them!).

Of the higher profile titles, I haven’t played Mansions of Madness, Mechs vs Minions or the Arkham card game; I’d like to, but not enough to rush out and make a special effort. I was hugely disappointed by Scythe and underwhelmed by Imhotep and The Networks, while Adrenaline didn’t really do it for me either.

There are some notable titles I’ve not yet played that may later trouble my top 50 list, as well as my gaming shelves. I need to play A Feast for Odin, I’m waiting for my copy of Railroad Revolution and Oracle of Delphi is on the review pile, for example. But to date:

  1. Terraforming Mars: Print more already, dammit! The hard card/tableau decisions of Race for the Galaxy, but with direct player interaction that works and a board that adds an extra dimension. It must’ve taken years to get right – but boy, did they.
  2. Lorenzo il Magnifico: This harks back to the classic euros of a decade ago – clean rules, quite a small decision space, a lot of indirect interaction and loads of meaningful decisions. A hundred times better than Grand Austria Hotel.
  3. X Nimmt: 6 Nimmt is one of my favourite filler games, so it was fantastic to see a new version come along that works really well with a lower player count (two to four). It’s all the fun of the original card game, but with a little extra strategy.
  4. Eternity: Strange to see two fillers in my top five, but I’ve been totally won over by this simple yet fiendish trick-taking card game. I think it just came along at the right time for me, and looks gorgeous too – clever, stylish, thinky and fun.
  5. Star Wars: Rebellion: If you’re looking for the first three movies in a box, this is it. Loads of minis, loads of dice rolling, all the characters and situations – but all muddled up in your own story. Truly epic (although much less fun as the imperials).

Very honourable mentions go to Codenames: Pictures (I see it as an expansion, really); Ice Cool (a fantastic flicking party game); Ominoes (super light but super fun family dice game); Fabled Fruit (a light card game where the rules change as you play), and Ulm (a gateway level family board game that may rise in my rankings with more plays).

Best 10 not new but ‘new to me’ games of 2016

I played 78 ‘new to me’ titles in 2016 – almost 20 more than in the previous year, despite having less plays in total. 33 were 2016 releases, with a further 24 from 2015 – so only around 20 older games.

I guess the last stat shouldn’t come as a surprise. I’m starting to run out of older classics I’m yet to try; while also knowing more about my own tastes, and therefore what to avoid!

And really, 2016 was the year of the review: I managed to post 32 reviews on the blog here during the calendar year – far more than I’ve ever managed before and almost all of them being of new games. So a big thanks needs to go out to all my regular groups who’ve suffered through a lot of rules explanations!

There are still around 10 games sitting on my shelf waiting to be reviewed to – and I’m really starting to moss some of my old favourites. So once these ones are done, expect some reviews of older classics for a while – I’m done with new games for a while…

Owned

  • Mombasa: This 2015 release really cemented designer Alexander Pfister’s place in the A-lister category and I prefer it to his current hot title, Great Western Trail. It’s a deliciously complex blend of worker placement and area control.
  • Thurn & Taxis: The 2006 Spiel de Jahres winner from Andreas and Karen Seyfarth gets quite a bad press from some, but I really enjoy the mix hand management, set collection and route building. A great ‘next step’ game, if a little dry in theme.
  • Game of Trains: This light filler flew a little under the radar, which is a real shame as it is a deceptively thinky card game beneath its simple looking exterior. And the artwork is really fun too – all round, a great game in a small, inexpensive package.
  • New York 1901: Much as with Thurn and Taxis, if you’re looking for a small step up from the likes of Ticket to Ride you can’t do much better than this. Tile placement with an interesting area control twist, and more depth than you might initially think.

Not owned

  • Blood Rage: While many ameritrash games are fun but dumb, this takes some cues from the world of euro games (especially card drafting) and removes many of the usual luck elements to create a brilliant hybrid. So much fun.
  • Eldritch Horror: Sticking with the ameritrash vibe, I’m totally behind this streamlined Arkham horror killer. As soon as a friend introduced me to this, Arkham was out the door – it has all the fun with far less rules headaches and fiddliness.
  • Imperial: I’d wanted to play this classic Gerdts (from 2006) for ages and am glad I finally did. It has the usual rondel and snappy turns, but everything else is turned on its head. Area control, stocks – I was largely lost, but thoroughly enjoyed myself.
  • Doomtown: Reloaded: While I can’t see myself ever getting back into CCGs, this is just fun – pass me a deck and I’ll happily play. The ‘weird west’ setting certainly helps – who doesn’t want to duel spell-wielding cowboys?
  • A Game of Thrones: The Card Game (Second Edition): This game perfectly recreates the feel of the books and the houses all feel different (and on theme), making this a thoroughly enjoyable (and super nasty) experience.
  • In the Year of the Dragon: Playing games such as this, from 2007, reminds you how great elegant euros were back then. And this from Feld – who has since been the problem, not the solution, in that regard! A really thinky hand management game.

I didn’t end up buying anything from last year’s ‘not bought (yet)’ list, although Kemet, Xia and Amun-Re would still be tempting at the right price – and I do still intend to pick up Manhattan and Tumblin’ Dice from 2014’s list! And while I’d love to play the six games above more, I don’t see myself buying any (unless they were bargains, of course).

More in part two…

SEE ALSO: Previous entries for 201220132014 and 2015.

Great Western Trail: A four-sided game review

Great Western Trail* is a medium to heavyweight cowboy-themed euro game where the emphasis is on the cows, rather than gun-toting John Waynes rounding up a posse.

The game will take two to four players the best part of two hours to complete, and it definitely sits in the ‘advanced’ category: the box recommends ages 12+ and you’ll definitely want to play with more experienced euro gamers.

While the theme just about holds together, Great Western Train is definitely a euro game first and a thematic game (a long distant) second. This isn’t a criticism – it just needs to be said: this game is all about the marriage of deck building, hand/resource management, action selection and tile placement and how you manipulate them: you’ll have to work pretty hard to imagine yourself out on the plains while playing this one.

That said, the components certainly help. Andreas Resch has done a great job on the artwork and graphic design, giving us a vibrant set of cards and tiles alongside a gorgeous board that perfectly blends form and function with style. All the components are of the high quality we’ve come to expect from Eggertspiele and Stronghold games: in the box you’ll find more than 100 cards, 200+ cardboard tokens and more than sixty wooden pieces, plus player boards and a score pad. You can find the game for around £40 in the UK right now, which I’d say is reasonable value.

Teaching

Great Western Trail has an awful lot going on and you might want to get the snacks and comfy chairs ready: this is a game that needs a long rules explanation before you get going, as all the options (and there are many) are going to be available to the players in the first couple of turns.

However, experienced euro game players will find they’re in familiar territory. There are no new mechanisms here and the familiar ones you’ll find are largely handled in a traditional manner – its how they all come together that makes the game feel fresh and new. But really, do not try and teach this one to new players unless you want a very slow game.

The thematic essence of the game is that each player is driving their cattle (their personal deck of cattle cards) to Kansas City (across the board), stopping at various locations along the way (where they’ll perform actions on each of their turns) – before heading back out to the range to drive the next herd.

The player boards do a good job of reminding players what they can do, and what they can build towards. The main section of the board is dedicated to storing workers you hire as the game goes on, who in turn will make the related action options more powerful. These are the chaps depicted on the box cover – cowboys, craftsmen and engineers.

The game starts with seven neutral buildings on the board, which act as the game’s action spaces (there tends to be a few actions available on each, but we’ll stick to the key ones here). One lets you hire available guys; one lets you build your own buildings (craftsmen make this more powerful); and one lets you buy more cattle (helped by having more cowboys); and two let you move your own train (which goes further with more engineers).

When you buy a building, you place it onto an empty space. This is now an extra space you can use which may also slow your opponents and even make them pay you for passing them – so placement, as well as type of building, is an interesting decision. Every player has the same set of buildings available to them, which variously help different strategies.

Buying cattle will let you add better cows to your initial personal deck of 14 cow cards. You’ll start the game with a hand of four, with the aim of having as many different breeds of cow in your hand by the time you arrive in Kansas. Cards have a dollar value and a colour (breed), with your initial cards being worth only $1 or $2 in four colours (so a potential sale value of just $7). But five more breeds are available, with values from $3-5. Luckily, many of the action spaces have actions that let you sell cattle along the trail, or gain rosettes that add value, allowing you to draw new cards and get your optimum hand in place.

While your cowboy moves repeatedly across the board, your train will make slow progress around its edge. When you arrive in Kansas you’ll get initial money for your cattle, but will then need to get them to another city – with ‘better’ cities (which demand a higher value herd) giving better bonuses. But these cities are further away, meaning you’ll need to have got your railway further to avoid incurring financial penalties. But an extended train network will also open up the opportunity to open stations, which give lucrative immediate and end game bonuses.

And these are just the main mechanisms: your player board has many smaller actions, all of which can be improved, while you can also increase your hand size, amount of spaces you can move, quality of baked beans for your trip etc (sorry – I expect that will be in the expansion).

Buildings offer even more variety: everywhere you look, a basic premise of the game can be built upon in incremental ways. As I said, there’s an awful lot going on – and when its all over, everything scores points in a Feldy salady fashion.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While Great Western Trail is large in scope, the restrictions on movement shrinks the decision space each turn (at the start to four choices) and actions tend to be snappy. This brings it almost into line with a Mac Gerdts rondel game, helping everyone stay engaged and ticking over. However what it lacks is the elegance of the best Gerdts games: there are twice as many rules, twice as many icons, and god knows how many more ways to score points. But somehow, it hangs together well enough to be make sense.
  • The thinker: The initial play suggests set places for the seven neutral buildings, after which you can place them randomly. Your own set of 10 buildings have an ‘a’ and ‘b’ side, and you choose which to use (as a group) at the start of each game. This helps add variety to each play in a similar way to a deck-builder such as Dominion: survey your options, decide on a strategy, and go for it. You may be scuppered by the way workers come into the game, but otherwise – after half a dozen plays – the real strategist may find themselves running out of enthusiasm.
  • The trasher: In terms of interaction and screwage, Great Western Trail hints at much but delivers less. Clever placement of your buildings can give you a nice little income stream, but the few extra coins are unlikely to swing the game in your favour: it certainly isn’t a strategy in itself. And if it was, oh my – can you imagine the volume of the euro softy whining lol! Another potential screwage area is choosing which worker and hazard tiles to place onto the board each time you reach Kansas (hazards can potentially filter players to your buildings, by making alternative routes more expensive). But so many come out, so often, it rarely has an impact.
  • The dabbler: While the game looks great and I liked the theme, it can be very punishing if you get things wrong early. Most games we’ve played have seen at least one player end up with half the score of the others – not a problem for many groups, but it’s worth mentioning if you have a table-flipper/moody type in your midst! And don’t come in looking for the theme to have any depth: you’ll soon be asking yourself why you can only send one herd to each city, for example – and let’s not start down the route of historically accuracy (cattle drives to Kansas? The cattle going west by train? etc etc).

Key observations

This is a game where EVERYTHING scores you points and where many strategies may lead to victory. Interaction is limited, it’s pretty crunchy, and beyond the deck manipulation it is largely deterministic – if that isn’t your thing, Great Western Trail isn’t here to convert you to the euro cause.

But even for a hardened euro salad fan such as myself, there is sometimes a little too much going on here and a few ‘decisions’ could’ve been safely left on the design room floor. When you arrive at Kansas City, for example, you need to pick three workers/hazards from a set of six. This is fiddly and largely pointless, rarely being much of a choice (you could grab them from a bag).

Also, despite the options, the game can feel repetitive: wander across the board, sell cattle, repeat – and you’ll do this 10+ times each per game. Sure, the building selection ramps up a little and the cattle get more valuable – but largely its rinse and repeat. The game lacks the push-and-pull of Alexander Pfister’s previous design Mombasa and many will see it as lacking in comparison because of this. It feels much like a solitaire puzzle than an interactive euro game.

All the fiddliness and plethora of options makes for many icons, exceptions etc; and while I’d praise the rulebook for first learning the game, it becomes a very poor resource for later looking anything up. Great Western Trail is a game crying out for a simple reference sheet including all the myriad of similar (yet significantly different in practice) icons. Instead I found myself frustratingly flicking back and forth trying to find what I needed – a real impediment to a game which benefits from what should be short, snappy turns.

Conclusion

I’ve ummed and ahhed about my overall thoughts on Great Western Trail over my five or six plays so far, going from loving it to indifference to warming to it again.

There are interesting decisions to be made, both strategic and tactical, but is there real long time appeal? I’m currently enjoying ‘exploring the game space’, but in the same way I did with a few plays of Lewis and Clark or Russian Railroads – games that felt instantly fascinating to me, but which faded once I’d tried the few available strategies available and realised they lacked the competition needed to keep coming back for more.

But almost everyone I’ve played Great Western Trail with has really enjoyed it and I’ve enjoyed it too, so I’ll be keeping the game on my shelves – at least in the short term. And isn’t that the plight of the modern euro? To be played five times, then replaced by the latest new hotness? If so, this is the perfect example of the new breed – but I can feel my heart yearning for those simpler, more interactive and timeless euro classics that may well outlive the current crop of games. Or maybe I’m just getting old…

* I would like to thank Pegasus Spiel for providing a copy of the game for review.

Designer’s Dozen: Q&A interview with Tony Boydell

Tony Boydell is a board game designer and developer, and part of the publishing team at Surprised Stare Games. He is best known for designing the hugely popular worker placement game Snowdonia, alongside the likes Guilds of London and Ivor the Engine.

This is the third 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 am a Business Analyst who emerged, butterfly-like from a Unix/RDBMS administrator pupa and tend to work on small, but successful, Governmental IT projectzzzzzzzzz. Other than boring mortgage-feeding office work, I used to draw cartoons and cartoon strips a lot – which is now subsumed in to the game design process – and wrote short stories for my children when they were young…which most of them aren’t any more.

2. Who is your favourite designer(s), and which one do you most admire? What is your favourite design(s) by them?
It’s no secret that I am mostly in love with Carl Chudyk for the twin gifts of Glory to Rome and Innovation which, for me, epitomise big ideas and ambition in efficient, lean packages; they’re just combo-bonkers and I love him for it.

I have to admit that Alexander Pfister has leapt right in to the Top 2 thanks to one of the most prodigious 18 month periods in gaming EVER (am I right?): two Kennerspiel des Jahres, a shelf-load of fat IGA and DSP trophies and – with Great Western Trail – surely even more to come? He, and co-KdJ hogger Andreas Pelikan, are also two of the nicest people you could ever wish to have lunch with – it makes you SICK, doesn’t it? I should also name-drop Ignacy Trzewiczek because he is brilliant, hilarious and unashamedly self-confident.

3. What drew you to game design?
I’d always scribbled notes on school books and did a lot of RPG-ing in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until I was lured in to Magic: The Gathering (1997) by some workmates on an IT project (!) that I met Alan Paull (City of Sorcery, Siege, Confucius) at a pub in Cheltenham. In between drafting and trading Unlimited cards, we talked about old favourites like Axis & Allies and Samurai Swords and Diplomacy; knowing that Alan had ‘designed stuff’ got me to thinking about turning my cartoon strip ‘The Black Overcoat’ (a spy) into a board game and within about six months I’d also knocked up a design about clearing the world of pollution (eventually re-engineered as Ivor the Engine) and the bare bones of what would become Coppertwaddle. That was quite a fecund couple of years for someone who sort-of-drifted in to the hobby!

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?
It’s been mostly mechanisms but, very early on, a theme is essential to keep momentum going (for me, at least); I’ll get a little stuck unless I can, for example, make sense of ‘draft cards from a central line’ (Fzzzt! has robots rolling off a conveyor belt) or the ‘draw X cards and assign each one to a specific purpose’ (Lux Aeterna, my 2001: A Space Odyssey solo game, forces you to pick how bad two out of three actions will be each round).

I’m currently noodling about with a set of miscellaneously-shaped pieces (the same set for each player) and have come up with a “tech tree” to link them; however, it’s flopping about like a landed sea bass at the moment because I haven’t attached a theme to bring it properly to life. Pure theme can sometimes kick the process off; for example, the Ivor the Engine stories suggested that it should be ‘pick up and deliver’ and Snowdonia would obviously need to be ‘worker placement’, but these are rare successes amid a shed full of many, MANY more failed ‘theme first’ prototypes!

5. What are the best and worst aspects of game design?
Generally, I love all the aspects of the design process. I have noticed a significant reduction in actual local playtesting time, though; while I was working in London (2005-2012), I got a LOT of different types of player involved with Snowdonia and Guilds, for example, because we were gaming three nights a week; now I’m reduced to just the one (Friday) night and can intrude on ‘real games’ only occasionally – that slows the whole process down.

Building prototypes can also be a bit irksome; I like multi-function cards and the mental turmoil they generate. I also like lots of them and I want them to look fantastic for playtesting; preparing these can be a Sisyphean endeavour! It’s my own fault, I know: Guilds of London had 120 such cards, Lux Aeterna has 100 or so (as does my air race prototype): that’s a lot of cutting, sleeving, calluses and blisters!

Perhaps the worst aspect is when a design is obviously going nowhere and has to be ‘shelved’; they’re never permanently written-off, though, as something is always salvageable BUT going from that excited enthusiasm of the first rush to the tummy-aching disappointment of a dead-end is a blow.

6. What is the hardest type of game for you to design?
All of them are of equal hardness; whether a filler or something meatier, they have their own challenges and constraints.

7. What is your best prototyping tip for a budding designer?
This is an oddly-contradictory one: “If you have lots of cards with effects and icons, make sure you have plain text explanations to assist the testers” – this worked a treat for Snowdonia and is an essential part of the final product. Believe it or not, Guilds of London cards all had brief ‘this is what I do’ help text right up to final layout design. Generally, though, I’d say don’t introduce a design to playtesters unless it looks pretty damned good – otherwise you’ll spend the first hour listening to moans about ‘lack of clarity’ and suggestions on how to lay everything out better rather than playing the actual bloody game!

8. Would you mind sharing your worst publisher game pitching moment?
It was a mixed experience: I was playing my home-made & painted prototype of Totemo (a three-dimensional stacking game using the artist’s colour wheel as a central mechanic) in the Hotel Ibis in Essen (2008); it was the night before Day 1 (Thursday) and a random punter popped over and asked if he could join in. We played and he was VERY enthusiastic at the end – so much so that he immediately called his friend who worked for a big German games publisher! Gushing with praise, he booked me a meeting for the following morning (the first meeting of the show for that company)!

I delivered a positive demo and left my only copy with them for follow-on evaluation: three months later it came back with a short letter that said “It’s not for us because we don’t see a unique selling point.” – that was it! No further hints or tips? No ‘things we DID like’? From such high hopes to bland dismissal; a few years later Qwirkle won Spiel des Jahres… I can’t help thinking MY blocky, colourful game could’ve gotten there first!

9. And what has been your best game design moment?
At the risk of sending readers away to another website, it’s Ivor the Engine by a country mile (see the Designer Diary on BoardGameGeek!). Getting Snowdonia co-published with my favourite game publisher, Lookout Games, is a VERY close second but how can one compete with a childhood dream?

10. Which style of game is your own personal favourite to play?
I love worker placement games (Agricola, Le Havre, Pillars of the Earth, Snowdonia, Lords of Waterdeep) and I love games with multi-function cards (Glory to Rome, Royal Goods et al). Auctions also tickle my fancy, if done right, which is why Princes of Florence is so beloved – mind you, that’s ALSO the dynamic of the group that plays it the most (me, Boffo, Smudge, Jobbers and A.N.Other).

11. What would make the tabletop gaming landscape a better place?
I don’t know, to be honest. I love what the UK Games Expo is doing – with the help of organisations like Imagination Gaming – to promote more family involvement: the more people we can bring in to the hobby, the more it will grow and the better it will be for everyone. The UK has forgotten how great board games are: Trivial Pursuit and a million franchised Monopoly editions in the 1980s have erased the memory of the rich selection that was there before. It’s a crime.

12. Tell us something about yourself we probably wouldn’t know.
One of my favourite albums of all-time is “Guilty” by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb.