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!

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.

Con report: LoBsterCon XII, Eastbourne, December 2016

marine-eastbourneDespite the best efforts of freezing winds and the utter incompetence of Southern Rail, around 100 hardy souls managed to make it to Eastbourne for the winter leg of London on Board’s bi-annual board game extravaganza.

Returning to The Cumberland was like warmly hugging an old friend, despite it only being our second time here. It has that creaky, tired charm you tend to find in English seaside resort hotels – all creaking floorboards and wobbly staircases. But it’s friendly and we have the place to ourselves for four solid days of drinking gaming.

I’ve been having a crappy time of late, so it as nice to get away from reality for an extended weekend. But geography can only take you head so far and I found myself playing a lot fewer games than usual, preferring to spend quite a bit of time just relaxing and emptying my mind. The Marine’s Christmas grotto (pictured) certainly helped for an evening out and about, while the nearby Victoria was also lovely. Even the dodgy looking American diner in town served up some pretty great food.

I love our Eastbourne trips the way they are – a big room of gamers playing, drinking and trash talking. So the addition of a bring-and-buy, secret santa and probably some other newfangled ideas for the kids totally passed me by (but were apparently enjoyed by those who got involved). And I’m glad I didn’t get involved, as I was probably hiding away in my room while they were going on anyway.

I did manage to play 17 games (13 different ones) over the four days, including quite a few gems I’d missed from Essen 2016. But as always it was more about the people – catching up with old friends and making new ones. To everyone I gamed with, and/or had a beer/meal with, thank you – and see you next time.

terraforming-marsNew game highlights

  • Terraforming Mars: This was comfortably the game I most regretted not bringing home from Essen – and it turned out to be everything I’d hoped it would be. It has the tough decisions and massive card stack of Race for the Galaxy, but without the confusing iconography. It also adds a board, a mild ‘take that’ element that works and about two hours more playtime per game – but it genuinely flew by. This is definitely a game I will be getting my hands on as soon as they manage to get it back in print.
  • Lorenzo il Magnifico: Another I’d had my eye on at Essen, I’d cooled on it after being pretty bored by the design team’s previous release, Grand Austria Hotel. This is also a dice-based action selection euro game, but a great improvement on its predecessor – it halves the game time by largely eliminating the AP downtime. It does this by reducing the game space considerably – there are fewer wordy options, but the decisions are much more meaningful and it still feels as if you’re all traversing different paths. I have some doubts about its longevity, but if I get 5-10 plays out of it that are this much fun it’ll worth the entrance fee.
  • Fabled Fruit: The latest idea from the unique mind of Friedemann Friese, I’d decided against pursuing this at Essen because you can never be sure if his games are more about a concept than actually having any fun. But post-Essen reports had been positive, so I made sure to get a few games in. It proved to be a great little simple card game, where you stayed engaged because the mix of available actions changes a little every few turns. It’s not a crazy change, as in Fluxx, but much more subtle – it keeps you on your toes, but never feels complicated. I won’t be seeking a copy out, as I don’t think my regular groups will car enough, but I look forward to exploring it more when I get the opportunity.
  • Manhattan Project – Energy Empire: The spiritual successor to Manhattan Project polishes the kinks out of the original design, making it a much smoother ride. But in doing so it takes out all the take-that and the end game tension, making it a rather solitary engine building affair with a set number of rounds. I really enjoyed my play and would play again, but was left feeling the perfect version of this game is somewhere between the two – and hopefully still in the making.

Other ‘new to me’ games

  • Oh My Goods – Longsdale in Turmoil: I’ve enjoyed my plays of Oh My Goods and was keen to try the expansion. You can absolutely see what he was trying to do here – but unfortunately it seems he wrote the ideas on the back of a fag packet and they published them by mistake. Much as with Manhattan Project above, a reprint of the original with a lot of this included (after some serious work on it) could be awesome – but this feels wholly unfinished. Each player could’ve won, depending on which interpretation of the rules you decided to throw up in the air.
  • Dale of Merchants: Sometimes you start playing a game and just think, Kickstarter. This is one of those games. There’s nothing wrong with it – there’s just no point in it existing. From the mediocre mechanisms, terrible title and clichéd fantasy animal setting to the mass of options that will never make the game different enough each time to care about, it’s just an over-complicated exercise in draw one, play one with way too much AP-inducing card text. Really, really average – never again.

The Dwarves boxGames I brought and played

  • The Dwarves: Once again Sean and Natalie joined our latest attempt to save the world from trolls, orcs and dark elves – this time joined by Hella and John Mitchell. We played the ‘Book 5: Triumph of the Dwarves’ mini expansion on ‘difficult’ and, after a relatively simple start to the game, I decided to spruce things up with some epicly bad Sean-esque dice rolling. Luckily I redeemed myself (a bit) in the final battle to secure a very narrow win with just a couple of turns to spare. Love it.
  • Armageddon: I explained the rules (poorly) to Hella, Sherine and Teri – and then Teri showed us how to play the game. I was lucky to end up joint third, but more disappointed to find a couple of the end game tiles are problematic balance-wise. Don’t look at me! Also gave everyone a chance to mock me as they wandered past – which was much like I imagine it feels like being in the stocks! Hats off especially to Jacob who mocked me, came back and told me how much he actually enjoyed his one play of it, before walking away – and then thinking better of it, doubling back, and mocking me again.
  • Planet Defenders: I’m still reserving judgement on this one, because it has garnered such mixed reactions – weird for such an innocuous game. It’s a cleverly designed puzzle game where you’re essentially trying to fulfil cube combos to capture robots. But the art is cute, it plays fast and there are some nice little tech cards to differentiate the players. It may be a layer short of holding the imagination of more experienced gamers, but I don’t think that makes it a bad game – more a family or gateway game that doesn’t overstay its welcome. More on it soon.

Other games I’d played before

  • Navegador: In a year dominated by review plays, my three plays of Navegador make it stand out as one of the most popular of my oldies – and this was another fantastic play through. The builders (Karl and me) got going faster than the explorers (Anne and Adam) and we were about 10 points ahead of them by the end – with Karl pipping me by three for the win.
  • Acquire: Another old favourite, this turned out to be my 10th play of the 60s classic – but I didn’t have it my way. A great start was scuppered mid game as my stock of hotel making pairs dried up – leaving me holding a lot of stock in a dead chain and my influence dwindling. But it was great fun, as always. This is a game I very rarely reach for on my own shelves, but am always happy when someone else suggests it – so thanks for doing so Simon!
  • 6 Nimmt!: I entered a LoBsterCon tournament for the first time – and ended up coming third. I really don’t like tournaments, they can really drag, so I’ll probably end up going out on a high. Three went through to the final table from the two starting tables, from which I progressed in second place. Two players fell early in the final and I was in a strong position, until one bad hand left me adrift of the top two. The final hand saw one card I played (I couldn’t have seen it coming) really stitch up Rocky (which is always fun) and ultimately it handed Marcus the trophy. But despite it going very long for what should be a short, fun party game I did really enjoy it.
  • Race for the Galaxy: Can this really only be my sixth play of the year of my favourite game…? Shocker – and it shows what a strange year it has been for me. It was an enjoyable five-player game, despite a couple of newbies struggling their way through making it very slow (never something I really care about). I used the contact specialist to spam out a bunch of military windfall worlds, guaranteeing myself a regular stream of cards to choose from and a steady flow of points. Laying the nine-point grey rebel world sealed a narrow win in the final turn. And what better note to end a con report on, than with a scrappy victory?

Con report: The Cast are Dice (TCAD) 2016

TCAD logoAfter having a cracking time at both SorCon and the UK Games Expo this year I decided to have a crack at The Cast are Dice – one of the many other smaller UK board game cons.

Around 200 players descended on Stoke-on-Trent 6th Form College for a Saturday and Sunday of gaming.

I’ve decided to compare the event directly with SorCon as they’re very similar and appeal to the same crowd (I saw many faces at both), but this means your millage will of course vary; many of the things I prefer at one to the other would be the total opposite for others, so rather than skipping to the conclusion please take all the points on their merits and remember this is simply my experience!

Location location location

Here’s a great example of why your opinion may differ from mine, as for me this was a complete knockout for SorCon’s Holiday Inn over TCAD’s college campus. And before I go on its important to point out that both had great, friendly staff, well-lit rooms and reasonable/reasonably priced food.

The first problem is TCAD kicked you out at 10pm on Saturday and 8pm on Sunday, while at SorCon I was still playing at 4am on Sunday morning. And while I was dry as a bone at TCAD, there was always the promise of a beer or two if you wanted one at SorCon.

Stoke TCAD collegeThis had the added effect of meaning early (Friday) arrivals such as myself had nothing to do – while late leavers (again like myself…) also had nothing to do on Sunday evening.

And it was in a crappy area, with nothing but a Subway (bleugh) and some really grotty looking dogburger takeaways for sustenance: SorCon is surrounded by chain restaurants.

This was made worse by the shabby ‘recommended’ North Stafford Hotel. The prices were OK, as were the food and drinks, but with a drunken 18th birthday do on the Friday night and an Indian wedding on the Sunday it was a million miles from what I’d hoped – and barely any other gamers were to be seen.

Secondly, I much preferred SorCon’s big gaming room to the ‘lots of small rooms’ approach of TCAD. It rarely felt like you were part of something and many of the people even had the doors closed to rooms, which just made you feel unwelcome. But as I said above, this is personal taste and I have no actual complaints – it just wasn’t really for me.

Available board and card games

On the flip side this was a big win for TCAD, which was excellently run by the friendly staff and family/friends of Stoke’s own Shire Games. A weekend ticket was just £15 which included a ‘guaranteed prize’ raffle. I randomly drew a ticket for the crappiest prize table and still managed to get a copy of Tichu (£8).

There was also an excellent (and well run) games library with hundreds of games, with a great mix of classics and recent releases and a wide range from quick fillers to long, complex euros. We never found ourselves short of choices and the games were all in good condition.

In comparison SorCon had no prize draw and a library of about 20 games – but that wasn’t an issue as you knew that in advance so brought your own. But more importantly it makes TCAD more of an inclusive event as in theory anyone could’ve rocked up and joined in, whether they were a gamer or not.

Gaming highlights: Old favourites

Cant StopI’d expected this to be a weekend of three-player medium weight euros, but what I ended up with was a weekend of five-player light weight board and card games – which, apart from lugging a bunch of games I didn’t play on the train, was fine with me.

I ended up teaching some of my favourite games – Ra, Notre Dame, Can’t Stop and For Sale: all of which were in my last top 50 and were in TCAD’s impressive games library.

I think Can’t Stop went down the best, with it being both the first and last game we played over the weekend despite it only going to four players (although I’ve pimped my own copy out to play five and you can easily add more cones to take it to six) – not bad for a 35-year-old game!

The other three are great with five and also went down really well. For Sale continues to go up in my estimations as its so easy to teach, always gets a reaction and is out, played and back in the box in 30 minutes tops. Note Dame is probably at its best with three but still sings at five (I don’t mind the extra game length at all), while Ra is a great game from three to five players.

Gaming highlights: New favourites

Isle of SkyI learnt three new games over the weekend and bizarrely managed to win two of them, but it was the one I didn’t win that left the biggest impression.

Isle of Skye was number five on my Essen wishlist last year and has since gone on to win the coveted Spiel des Jahres Kennerspiel award – so it’s hard to believe I’ve only just gotten around to it!

It’s a really solid tile-laying game that played in about an hour, even with five players. There are plenty of genuine decisions to make and while there was quite a bit of luck-of-the-draw, it was fine for a game of this length.

There were just enough new and interesting ideas to merit its lofty status too, but despite all this I won’t be seeking it out as it isn’t quite strong enough to knock the likes of Maori or Entdecker out of my collection.

I also enjoyed my first play of Augustus (gamer bingo!), but it was very light and I can see the shine wearing off quite quickly. As for The Networks I enjoyed the theme and humour on the cards and the gameplay was good; but it was terrible with five and had that hallmark ‘slightly underdeveloped’ Kickstarter vibe – especially in the effect the random show draw affected points in scheduling, and the unbalanced Network cards.

That said, I’d happily player either of them again – with the caveat that I’d only play The Networks with two or three players max.

TCAD: Will I be back in 2017?

To be honest, it’s highly unlikely. Despite being really well run neither the location nor the hotel/con venues would tempt me back. I’d rather try my luck at a different event, as there are so many others out there to check out. Stoke was a pain in the arse for me to get to and it really didn’t feel like it would be worth the money/effort a second time.

But a big thanks to both the organisers and my gaming compadres for the weekend (Keef, Claire, Becks and Fin) – I still had a really good weekend of gaming. And if you’re not really a drinker/late night gamer, live in the Midlands and like to play board and card games The Cast are Dice convention comes highly recommended.

Essen Spiel 2016: The build-up begins

Essen 2016 logoWith Essen Spiel 2016 just 10 weeks away, the anticipation is starting to build for the world’s most important annual tabletop game event.

While those in the US will want to get GenCon out of the way this month before getting too excited, those of us of a more euro persuasion – both in terms of location and gaming tastes – are already looking towards October.

And once again it’s looking like being a landmark year. For the first time there will be more than 1,000 exhibitors at the event. And no, that’s not a typo – 1,000 exhibitors. And over the four days they’re expecting 160,000 people through the turnstiles (which includes the likes of me four times, as you’re counted each day you enter).

This will be the fifth year I’ll be going, this time for six nights, but it always feels fresh and new. This is partly due to staying in a new hotel every year, so fingers crossed for this year’s choice – InterCityHotel Essen. I’ve previously stayed in two good ‘gamer’ hotels, a budget nightmare and a pretty fancy non-gamery place – all of which have given me some stories to tell. Let’s hope they’re the right kind this time…

I’ve written a few blog posts before that anyone heading to Essen may find useful. Here’s a couple of my Essen guides from last year that should still be useful:

Wearing three hats (again) – or maybe four…

Having a press pass is great because you don’t have to queue to get in – but unlike an exhibitor pass (which I’ve managed to get before thanks to AEG) it doesn’t get you in early. That has proven invaluable in the past in terms of getting in for demos early, so I will have to be more focused (read: sneaky) this year in terms of getting organised.

There’s still a chance I may be able to get one of said passes, as one of my co-designs might make it to the show – but the publisher admitted it was a “very ambitious” target to make it with the time we have left. Having seen some of the early artwork I think it’s going to look amazing, so I’m desperate to see it there – but won’t be holding my breath.

Essen balconyAt the other end of the game design spectrum, it’s getting to crunch time in terms of getting prototypes ready for showing to publishers – and then arranging the meetings. I can’t believe its only 10 weeks away! Ye gods… Two older games will definitely be there, while two more have the potential to be in good enough shape to show. But for that to happen we’re really going to have to get our houses in order.

If I’m honest it has been a slack year for me in terms of design; I just haven’t felt motivated, which hasn’t been helped by the slow progress of other games that are already with publishers. I need to shake that off – and hopefully the thrill ride that is Essen will help me get over this malaise.

Then of course there’s the fun of trying to grab the games I want most from publishers without having to buy them! With almost 100 game reviews to my name now, and having kept all my reviewing promises from last year, I’m hoping this will be a little easier in 2016. But to be honest I enjoy the challenge of bartering, so bring it on publishers!

And finally, of course, I’ll be there as a punter; as a gamer (and as a drinker). It’s the world’s best board game shop for one week a year and it was open for eight days rather than four I’d still be heading in every day. I may not love the smell of gamers in the morning, but I do love the games themselves a possibly unhealthy amount.

The preparation begins…

So all my trains are booked and the hotel is confirmed, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of preparing for Essen.

Now it’s time to start reading the press on all the new releases that will be coming out at this year’s show. It’ll probably be close to 1,000 new games this year, so narrowing that down to about 20 I want to check out is going to be the usual mammoth task. And yes, I LOVE IT! Bring on the Geek lists 😀

But before then I’ve got about 10 other games sitting on the shelf I need to review. And there are those prototypes to work on. And those publisher meetings to organise. Can it really only be 10 weeks to go…?

Con report: LoBsterCon XI, Eastbourne, May 2016

Eastbourne view 2016Our bi-annual trips to the south coast for London on Board’s weekends away are two of my absolute highlights in the gaming calendar. As much as I enjoyed SorCon and intend to go again, this weekend always knocks it out of the park – and the best just got better.

This was my eighth ‘Eastbourne’ and it was the first in a new hotel, The Cumberland (the view from my room, above). Previous trips at the Best Western had always been great, but you did get the feeling they didn’t really want us to be there – and while we took up a lot of the rooms, it never really felt as if it was ‘ours’.

It couldn’t have been more different at The Cumberland. We took over the whole hotel (there were about 100 of us), had more gaming space than we knew what to do with, and all of the staff were super friendly and accommodating throughout – a big “thank you” needs to go out to them all. And it was the Bank Holiday, so there was even more time for gaming/drinking/eating crap. Huzzah!

Eastbourne Blood Rage 2016As always it was as much about the people as it was the games. There are a lot of great people that I only really see at these weekends, while I met lots more great people too.

I didn’t have a single bad gaming experience throughout the weekend either. There were even promo games, a raffle, competitions – it was a proper con, and brilliantly organised by Tom and Ronan (thanks chaps – and hi to third organised Paul who couldn’t make it due to doing something even more fabulous instead). I even managed to get a slightly drunken podcast appearance in too, thanks to the guys at The Game Pit.

So, to the games themselves. I managed to play 19 different games over the four days, which doesn’t sound many – but Star Wars: Rebellion lasted six hours on its own…

Gaming highlights

  • Blood Rage: Accurately described as 7 Wonders meets Kemet, luckily it takes the good bits of both and makes a fascinating euro/Ameritrash hybrid (slightly crappy picture above). I was very apprehensive, but by the end totally won over. Soren did the honourable thing and taught a bunch of noobs the rules – then played like a massive tit and came last. I went for a pacifist strategy in a game called BLOOD!! RAGE!!!1!, and won by miles.
  • Star Wars – Rebellion: This really is the original Star Wars trilogy in a box – and about as long – but I thought this was a fantastic game. It’s clever how they’ve included all the important things about the movies without the game feeling scripted. Big thanks to Sam and Mike for teaching/guiding us through it and if you want to know how Darth and chums managed to lose despite the odds being overwhelmingly in their favour, it was because Sean was rolling their dice…
  • Imperial: Soren, (teacher) Rich P, Karl and me had a fun few hours being baffled by this classic Gerdts rondel game. Karl presumed (sensibly) Rich would be good so spend much of the game (less sensibly) repeatedly dicking him over. Rich spend most of the game growling at Karl, while Soren was just happy being a greedy dictator. I quietly did things I thought might be OK, was still baffled by the end, and won by five points. I don’t think the burning in Soren’s crazy eyes as he gleefully spat “tax those bastards” as the ruler of Italy will ever leave me…
  • Eldritch Horror: I’d been keen to play this Arkham remake and it turned out to be all the fun and nonsense of Arkham with 70% less bullshit rules exceptions! After Ronan told me creatures ‘hardly ever move’ a massive beastie moved onto my space two turns in a row, killing me at the second attempt; then moved onto my new character the following turn and ate him too. So I chose a burly sailor, who promptly went mad two turns later. I thin we lost eight characters before the game finally had pity on us and finished us off – but it was thoroughly entertaining.

The other ‘new to me’ games

  • Royal Goods: I finally got to play this (I bought it at Essen!) thanks to Paul A teaching it to me as the last embers of the con began to fade. He warned me one card was broken, especially if you got in the first round, and that if that happened that person was a dick and was bound to win. Cue Lloyd to join us, get dealt and play the dick card in the first round, and win by two points. I was pleasantly surprised by the mechanisms and card play, but need more plays to decide on it.
  • Chenghuang – Guardian of the City: I went into this expecting Japanese hipster bullshit and was pleasantly surprised. I spend the rest of the weekend telling people it was great and then making it sound shit – so I won’t try again now. Just give it a whirl. I came second by lying my tits off from start to finish.
  • Carcassonne – The City: It was super late, and super drunken, when Tom taught us this one. Which probably isn’t the time to try and learn a version of Carcassonne that tweaks all the rules so that they don’t make sense to a tired, beboozed mind. I really didn’t like this one at all, although I’d give it another try.
  • Arboretum: Who new orchard keepers were such massive dicks? Don’t let the pretty cards fool you – this is a real brain-burny and tricksy bastard. Not for me, but a very clever (and pretty) design.
  • Joraku: I went in expecting Japanese hipster bullshit and was absolutely right. Some bright spark threw a bunch of mechanisms in the air and caught ‘trick taking’ and ‘area majority’. It almost worked – they just totally ballsed up the trick taking half.

Games I brought and managed to play

A surprising amount, for a change! The only failures were Artus and Bora Bora.

  • Entdecker: Sunday night, 2am – perfect! I think this is a great family game, as long as you go with the bastartised rules taken from BGG (as in get a copy of the original release and take the good rules tweaks from the later edition – minus the bullshit huts). It’s fast, with plenty of luck and dickage going on – what’s not to like? Somehow, I managed not to come last (result).
  • Ticket to Ride – Pennsylvania: My second last game of the weekend. I didn’t bring this one, but I won it in the raffle, so I guess technically it counts as it came home with me! It was my second play of this map and I really like it. The shares are quite gamery, which showed as everyone else was new to them and I won by a mile.
  • Zombie Tower 3D: We were on our way to a last turn victory before Sean proved he can turn his skills at terrible luck to cards if there are no dice available. I’m still really enjoying this as it manages to be a clever solo puzzle while being a non-alpha-problem co-op at the same time. Lots of chat, lots of tension, lots of fun.
  • The Dwarves: Sean, Nat, Jacob and me set off on a quest to save some fantasy land from some bullshit or other. Sean’s terrible dice-rolling was useful for a change, as hardly any enemies decided to join us on the battle field – until it started to looking a bit hairy (hoho) towards the end. But we held out for a win with two turns to spare.
  • Empire Engine: I thought I’d spoil any chance of making new friends out of Spud and Alicja by foisting my half-cocked wares on them in a desperate pitch for some sales (John M toughed it out too). I even came third, which is pretty good for me…
  • Prototypes: I also managed to talk seven people into helping test mine and Matt’s most recent design. It went very well, with some genuine improvements coming from the sessions, so thanks again to Adam, Alicja, John M, Ricardo, Rich P, Rocky
    and Ronan for taking time out from ‘proper’ games to help a brother out.

Games I’d played before

  • Ra: My first play of the year, and a win! It was after midnight on Sunday but I was right in that zone of drunk enough to be having a giggle, but not quite drunk enough to start losing the plot. And it’s always fun to play with Rocky and Keith, while meeting and playing with Candice was an added bonus.
  • CV: A nice gentle start to the weekend, which summed it up too – I sat with some people I knew (John M) and some I didn’t (‘Spud’ and Alicja) and had a really nice time. This is usually a game I enjoy playing rather than winning, but John’s whines of misery as I took the card I needed to beat him on a goal – and him subsequently realising he’d already had his last turn – changed all that. Man up Mitchell!
  • Sticheln: An evil trick-taker that changes things just enough to totally befuddle you. I got told what to do and managed to tie for not-last. That is way better than I would have done if I hadn’t been told what to do. My brain still hurts, but it was a lot of fun.
  • Grand Austria Hotel: I’d been keen to get another play of this, but unfortunately it confirmed my suspicions rather than winning me over. The only original thing in the box is a new name for brown cubes (strudel) and I think – with so many euros out there now – that’s pretty unacceptable. There are slightly too many unoriginal mechanics in there at once too, its too long, while there is no interaction at all.

SorCon 2016: Board gaming bliss… in Basildon?

SorCon 16 badgeAt the start of the year I promised myself I’d go to at least one new board game convention. And after asking around with friends about who was going to what, the list soon narrowed itself down to one: SorCon.

Now in its ninth year, SorCon sees a couple of hundred hardy souls getting together in Basildon’s Holiday Inn for three days of gaming.

The location itself is far from salubrious, being bang in the middle of one of those concrete edge-of-town hell holes bereft of soul but chock full of chain restaurants – and the obligatory cinema and bowling alley. That said, the hotel itself was nice, the staff friendly, the food/drinks pretty good and the conference room perfect for gaming.

There’s something nice about gaming in a big space – especially one with reasonably high ceilings and good light. There was always a pleasant hum of chat (not an unpleasant hum of stink) and it helped you feel part of something, rather than being funnelled off into small rooms where you may as well have just stayed at home.

Another real key to my enjoyment off the weekend was how friendly everyone was. I only knew a couple of people when I arrived (with a special thanks to Keef and Claire, my surrogate parents/chauffeurs for the weekend). But everyone I spoke to was fun and accommodating – and my Facebook friends list is now all the better for it.

Gaming highlights: Old favourites

SorCon 16 concordiaThankfully, like me, Keef and Claire love their mid-weight euros so my suitcase was brimming with some of my most loved games.

I got games of Concordia, Macau and Deus in and they were all close. Deus saw the three of us separated by just two points; Claire pipped me by six points in Concordia, but I returned the favour in Macao.

I managed three sessions of Codenames, all of which were a good laugh (including one with a doctored version with more adult themed words, courtesy of Phil, Jen, Hannah et al), as well as The Boss (a rare win), Love Letter (a schooling from Craig) and several games of Empire Engine (I think I managed two wins in four games, all against new players – I don’t think I’ll ever be any good at it!).

Gaming highlights: New favourites

SorCon 16 mombasaThe only ‘new’ game I was determined to play over the weekend was Mombasa, which we played the Friday when we arrived. I’ve always found it best to get the one you’re learning from the rulebook out of the way while everyone’s fresh!

I really enjoyed it and we (read: me) only got a few rules wrong – none of which would’ve prevented Claire from taking John, Keef and me to the cleaners. It’s a really solid euro game with a larger than usual take-that element in the area control and a nice thinky discard/deck building system. I’m looking forward to playing it more.

SorCon 16 fast food magnateI like to play at least one heavy euro game at each con I go to and this time (thanks to Jennie and Richard) I got to try out Food Chain Magnate.

I would say I learnt it, but that would be a reach! It was my third euro of the day, having taught two already, and it’s fair to say that by the time I started to catch on (despite a great rules explanation) I was dead and buried. It’s a great game though, but mean as hell and totally unforgiving.

It was great to try the recent Pennsylvania map for Ticket to Ride, which adds a stocks element to the mix. I can’t really justify adding another Ticket to Ride map to my collection right now, but it is one of the most fun ones I’ve played.

And an honourable mention for Think Str8! – an abstract game that crosses Hanabi with competitive deduction mechanics. It was ugly as hell, but a really good puzzle game.

SorCon 10: Will I be back in 2017?

Most definitely, life permitting. Having gone with a couple of friends this year I’d now be more than comfortable going on my own if need be. The price is very reasonable, the people are great and I didn’t have a negative thing to say by the end if it (I haven’t even mentioned the pancake machine at breakfast. Oh my…).

If you’ve considered going to a smaller board gaming convention I’d highly recommend this one. As well as open gaming there was a quiz on the Saturday night, a retailer there all weekend if you wanted to buy any games, plus a bring-and-buy area for second hand games. And if you wanted to pop out for a while, there was all kinds of multiplex ‘fun’ to be had on the doorstep.

If you’re considering it, alongside the website linked above there’s a Facebook group for the event which you can sign up for to keep up to date with the various announcements (dates etc). See you next year!

UK Games Expo 2016: Bigger, better and a few months away

UK Games Expo logo 2016This year marks the 10th anniversary of the UK Games Expo – Britain’s biggest annual celebration of all things board gamey.

Expo has been growing even faster than the hobby, which is itself in rude health. The first Expo had 800 attendees; in 2016 they’re hoping for 10,000 over the weekend.

The gaming parts of the event, taking place from June 3-5, are staying in the Birmingham NEC Hilton Hotel while the trade vendors are expanding into Hall 1 of the NEC itself. This is a significant development, giving the event another level of credibility and helping attract more retailers and manufacturers. Many publishers I’ve spoken to are now seeing UK Games Expo as a genuine event on the world board gaming con calendar for the first time.

Although it’s not just about trying out and buying board games. Both role playing games and war games will be well represented, along with cosplayers covering everything from Star Wars to superheroes. And you can guarantee some great talks and high profile guests, alongside the odd darlek and storm trooper.

UK Games Expo crowdBut for me, of course, it’s all about the games. Publishers in attendance this year will include Mayfair, Fantasy Flight, Queen Games, Czech Games Edition, Artipia, Mage Company, Osprey, Modiphius, Coiledspring, Surprised Stare and Grublin; while the biggest UK retailers will all be attendance.

But the real beauty of UK Games Expo is how inclusive it is. Both the organisers and attendees are dedicated to expanding the hobby. There are always people around to teach and explain both the games and the hobbies themselves. If you can spare a day and can get to Birmingham, you should come along and get a taste of what you’re missing. The family zone, for example, was massive last year and is only going to get bigger as the event expands.

Prices are pretty good too. A family ticket is only £30 for the day or £45 for the weekend, with adult/child tickets starting as cheaply as £15/£7 for a one-off trip (just remember you’ll have to also pay a bit extra for parking).

I’ll be there for the weekend and, with the exception of the odd shift in the play-testing area and hopefully a couple of publisher meetings, I’ll be there to game. There’s always a copy of Empire Engine in my pocket if you want to learn, so feel free to come and beat me at my own game! Although you may have to buy me a consolation pint afterwards…

Cafe Taktik, Gothenburg: Sweden’s first board game cafe

Cafe Taktik

While it might not be in the top tier of European tourist destinations, Sweden’s second city Gothenburg has plenty going for it: Liseberg Amusement park, the cobbled shopping streets of Haga, great second hand record shops – and Sweden’s first board game cafe.

Cafe Taktik has a great central location on Wadmansgaten,  just a mile from the station and a few steps from the nearest tram and bus lines (Berzeliigatan). Its closed on Mondays, but otherwise you can game from lunchtime until 10pm in a lovely relaxed atmosphere.

The game selection is impressive, with 450+ titles, so you won’t have a problem finding something to play. I saw pretty much every classic I could want to find and their website has a full alphabetical list if you want to check it before going. The only slight criticism was I saw very few titles from this year’s Essen on display (they did have Codenames).

On entering we were given a warm welcome and asked if we needed any help in choosing a game. Once we said no we were politely left to our own devices – just about the perfect reception. The table cover charge is generous too – probably too generous. 50kr (about £4) and we could play for the whole day, despite arriving at about 1pm.

cafe taktik cakeThat said, we did spend plenty of food and drinks. The coffee was really good and if you just took filtered you could get top-ups for just 20kr (less than £2) all day.

I also had a really lovely slice of home-made choccy cake and possibly the most ill-advised lunch you could want to serve in a board game space – a super greasy and overflowing melted brie and salami sandwich on a tiny plate. It was small, but pretty cheap (under £3) and really tasty.

I really enjoyed our afternoon in Cafe Taktik. We played four games (Jaipur, Stone Age, Africana and Kingdom Builder) and if we hadn’t have had other plans I’d have happily returned another day for a second session. There was a steady flow of customers, despite it not being the best of days, so its clearly doing things right.

It’s hard to find a downside, but the lack of tables was a shame – I think there were eight in total, with one large enough to take two groups (or a big game like Arkham with expansions). It filled up a couple of times while we were there and I can see them having to turn people away on even a slightly busy day, which seems a shame. Perhaps a less prominent but bigger space may be a better option.

I’m lucky to have friends in Göteborg (the native spelling) and always enjoy my time in the city. Now I’ve got yet another reason to keep going back regularly – and a stop in at Cafe Taktik will definitely be on the agenda for future visits.

*Photos taken from the official Cafe Taktik Facebook page

Essen Spiel wishlist 2015: My board and card game top 10

Essen 2015 logoWith less than a month to go until Essen Spiel, it’s time once again for me to gather together a list of the 10 board and card games that have caught my eye out of the 600 or so (you read that right – 600) being released at the show this year.

I’m super excited to have Empire Engine coming out in German this year from Pegasus Spiel, while I’m also incredibly nervous about having ten or so publisher meetings in the book to show off prototypes of three games I’ve been testing all year – finger’s crossed!

But as much as I’ll enjoy seeing Empire Engine on the shelves once again, and the thought of maybe more of my games hitting the show next year, I’m just as excited about coming home with another suitcase full of games. So having gone through the entire list (I know…), these are currently the most likely to be on the train home with me.

My Essen Spiel 2015 Top 10 anticipation list*

Antarctica1. Antarctica

Dodgy rulebook aside, Antarctica is ticking so many boxes for me and will probably be my first port of call on day one of my Essen trip.

First up, it will be discounted for the show (down to €30); second, the publisher (Argentum Verlag) was responsible for one of last year’s surprise hits for me (El Gaucho) and generally has a good track record; third the game has both interesting looking rondel and weather mechanisms; and finally, it has really great artwork.

Shakespeare2. Shakespeare

Ystari is another publisher I can generally trust. At €40 Shakespeare is at my high end for price (I go for quantity at Essen!) but it looks like a great mid-weight euro game and will possibly be my ‘big’ purchase.

I’m not sure it’s offering anything sparklingly original, but the unusual theme; the tension of competing for limited resources, and the pacing of scoring very much appeal.

The Bloody Inn3. The Bloody Inn

Another interesting looking game and another publisher I can trust – this time Pearl Games, who published my game of the year last year (the still brilliant Deus).

The Bloody Inn has a great theme – you’re knocking off your guests for fun and profit – and a fantastic art style, while costing just €25. The mechanisms of this little card game also look as if they’ll throw up plenty of tough decisions while keeping the atmosphere tense.

Inhabit the Earth4. Inhabit the Earth

I’ve sadly arrived pretty late to the R&D Games party, with my first experience being the excellent Keyflower. Their 2015 release sounds really interesting – a typical mass of mechanisms that will hopefully blend together beautifully. I’ll definitely be getting a play of this one.

Isle of Sky5. Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King

Released by euro stalwart Lookout Games and with art from the legendary Klemens Franz, Isle of Skye seems to mix up key mechanisms from both Carcassonne and The Castles of Mad King Ludwig.

I love tile placement games and like the idea of putting values on tiles that other players might then buy, as used in Ludwig – even if it was poorly implemented in that game. So even at just €30 this will need a test run, but I have pretty high hopes for Isle of Skye as it looks like having a much better take on that mechanic.

Lignum6. Lignum

Coming from way off in left field, Lignum is a two-hour euro from an unheralded publisher (Mücke Spiele) and designer – and at €45 the price is far from appealing. So why is it here?

The game takes the ‘walking down a road’ mechanic from Tokaido – a nice idea in a dull game – and adds worker placement to the mix. This could be a great mix and it looks really promising – but I’ll definitely be after a demo.

Celestia7. Celestia

In this sea of euro games I thought I’d better throw in something lighter – so here’s a cheap (€25) 30-minute push your luck card game. Celestia reimplements old game Cloud 9 and looks really cool, with great components and a few new twists on the original game. Pre-orders are signed by the designer and have a €2 discount, but I’m going to want a demo before I commit as it could be just a little too basic to bother with.

CVlizations8. CVlizations

My surprise hit from Essen 2013 was CV from Granna and this year they’re back with another cheap (€25), light game – the terribly titled CVlizations.

Once again it has great art from Piotr Socha and looks like a fun game; this time centring on cards rather than dice. But it seems like there could be way more luck than judgement going on, making it a bit too insubstantial, so I’ll be looking to grab a demo.

Stem Works9. Steam Works

This two-hour Tasty Minstrel release from Cambridge designer Alex Churchill is one I got to play once at the Cambridge Playtest Meet Up group. Steam Works is a really thinky tile and worker placement game – a proper brain-burner, but in a good way.

TMG is a publisher you can trust and it looks like they’ve done a great job on the artwork and components. However it sounds like it has changed quite a bit since I tried it, so I’ll still be looking to try before I buy.

The King is Dead10. The King Is Dead

I’ve popped this one in last place here because it is both an old game and an insta-buy, so isn’t getting my juices flowing as much as when I saw it was coming to Essen a while ago.

The King is Dead is a re-theme of brilliant old abstract game King of Siam, but instead set in the UK. The new artwork looks brilliant and there is an interesting variant thrown in for those already well familiar with the game – and of course the map is different. And to top it all, it’s just €24 euro. Sold.

Bubbling (just) under

Stronghold Games are doing the English version of The Golden Ages, which looks like it might actually be that 90-minute civ game many of us have been waiting forever for. This is definitely one I’ll be looking to get a play of.

Porta Negra looks like the pick of three good looking euros coming from Pegasus this year (alongside My Village and Mombasa). I think I’ll be spending a fair amount of time at their booth getting demos of these and I’m sure at least one will come home with me.

And finally Quined Games are bringing 2012 release Xanadú to a larger audience – an interesting looking small box card game that seems to pack all the punch of a bigger worker placement euro game; with plenty of player interaction thrown in.

* All games claim to run between 50-90 minutes unless stated