Lembitu: A four-sided game review

Lembitu boxLembitu* is a co-operative board game from small Estonia publisher 2D6.EE, by designer Aigar Alaveer.

It was launched at the UK Games Expo 2015 in Birmingham with very little fanfare, but if you like co-ops it may well be worth your attention.

The game plays two-to-four players but like most co-ops it is equally good for solo play. Games shouldn’t take an hour with four and with one/two it’s possible to play in 30 minutes – or, if things go badly wrong, it could be considerably less!

The components are a slightly mixed bag – but mostly top notch. The box and board and beautifully illustrated while the 60 cubes (the bad guys), three custom dice and 20 fortification tokens are industry standard. It’s just a shame the cheap plastic turn marker and player pawns look like they’re our of an old budget copy of ludo… But as the game retails at about £25 it still represents solid value.

In terms of theme, Lembitu represents a tough time in Estonian history – the Livonian Crusade – when the nation was being conquered on all sides by the Danish, the Crusaders and Novgorod (an ancient part of Russia), with only their Leader, Lembitu, standing in the way of them all. That’ll be you then.

In truth, for most of us, the theme is non existent. You can use the three different coloured cubes as you like as each army is essentially the same  – one hit, one kill – while your cheap plastic player pawn has all the personality it deserves (ie, none). This is an abstract co-operative game, unless you’re being taught it by an Estonian history teacher.

Teaching

Lembitu in playAs with any co-op that has no hidden information, as long as one player is fully versed with the rules you can teach as you go.

Game play itself is straightforward and once you get up to speed things rocket along – but unfortunately the rulebook isn’t the greatest and there is also an error on the board itself: pretty inexcusable, especially as it isn’t mentioned in the rulebook/in the box as an addendum (I’ve highlighted all the problems/answers I had in a Lembitu rules FAQ over at Board Game Geek).

Turns are super simple. First, move the turn marker to the next space (nice and clear around the edge of the board) – this will indicate if it’s your turn, an enemy turn or a rebellion, or if you’ve won (by getting back to the start of the track). Winning is simply a case of surviving long enough to get once around the board.

The bad guys move, Defenders of the Realm or The Dwarves style, from the the edge of the board towards your capital along pre-set paths. If they make it, or you run out of defenders (players), you’ve had it. On each bad guy turn, roll the three dice and add attackers (0-2) to the six enemy routes (each dice has two symbols). If the enemy arrive on a space with a player, that player is dead – if they arrive in the capital, game over.

Player turns see each player act, with the amount of actions determined by player number (always a total of 12, so 6 each in a two-player game). An ‘action’ is either move a space, kill one enemy or place an uprising token. That’s it – no dice, no player powers, no items.

You’ll notice the board is in three colours: there are three ‘rebellion’ spaces around the edge of the board, each matching one of these colours. When you hit these spaces, any uprising tokens on towns of the same colour become a fortification – slowing the enemy. In certain strategic positions, these are super useful – but hard to pull off.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I shouldn’t like Lembitu. It is structurally naive, the luck can be unmitigable and at times it feels like a prototype rather than a product. But what can I say? It’s fun. Chaos be damned – it’s so simple to set up and quick to play that if everything goes to hell you can set up and go again. And on the plus side, different player numbers makes for a very different game each time precisely because it hasn’t been balanced to within an inch of its life.
  • The thinker: In one way I like the stripped, abstract nature of Lembitu: it has an elegance that is easy to appreciate. But those dice rolls are just too swingy, especially near the end when the enemy is getting two turns to your one. I need to feel good play will be rewarded more often than not and here I think too many games will be decided by the dice. But I wouldn’t turn down a game if others were keen.
  • The trasher: I found this one to be fun, in a crazy dice fest kind of way. The game moves at a great pace and we actually played back-to-back games after getting thrashed the first time – which is quite rare for our group. That said the abstract nature means I probably wouldn’t miss it if we never played again: it just lacked a bit of personality, despite some fun pics on the board. If only those sea monsters were actually in the game!
  • The dabbler: While I didn’t hate Lembitu, I was quickly shouted out of the picture by more alpha gamers. Beyond the colour of your plastic piece you have no personality, no power, no distinction – it’s even worse than Pandemic in that respect. I ended up being given a quiet bit of the board and just plugged away, doing what I was told. It was fun watching things unfold, but I didn’t really feel part of it and the theme was totally lost on me.

Key observations

Lembitu player actionsLembitu is definitely a game that will irk the pampered modern gamer. With no player powers or hidden information/traitors there is plenty of room for a gobby ‘alpha gamer’ to take control and order everyone around; while a player taking a risk could well be eliminated in the first round and have to sit the rest out.

The latter isn’t much of an issue though, precisely because of the first point: no player powers. You don’t feel invested in your character, but you do feel invested in winning – in solving the puzzle. Moving a particular piece feels like an arbitrary part of proceedings.

In addition the setup dice rolls (showing how far the enemy troops have encroached before play begins) can swing from practically non-existent to outside the city gates – and there is no official way to make a game ‘beginner’ or ‘hard’ difficulty. It’s down to luck. But again this just makes it feel like a different puzzle to solve each time.

But from a design perspective there is a lack of cleverness or subtlety behind the scenes, which will annoy some: it has a microgame ethic, but not a microgame size or price point. But others will appreciated the stripped-back vibe that moves so far back away from the fiddlyness of games such as Dead of Winter and Robinson Crusoe.

And a minor point: I would’ve liked a token to represent the ‘free move’ you get after moving on a road. The extra action makes sense, showing you made more progress by moving on an established route, but when you’re trying to work out your moves it can get a bit much when another slightly different action is thrown into the mix.

Conclusion

Lembitu boardPurists may well mock Lembitu for its naive, retro design – I know there are some players I wouldn’t put this in front of knowing the derision that would follow. But for me it is an absolute keeper.

Friend and fellow game designer David Thompson described it perfectly as a ‘guilty pleasure’: a game that ignores recent conventions and suffers mechanically because of it, but has enough old skool charm to carry it off and be a success regardless.

Bad luck can, and sometimes will, see you lose – while on other days you’ll quite easily coast to victory. If you can’t take that from a game, walk away now. But quite often the game sits on that tightrope edge between victory and defeat – where that risky move could give you the edge or lead you to certain doom.

This is something I’ve heavily criticised in my review of Dead of Winter, so why do I find it OK here? Simple – this is a puzzle that sets up in two minutes and does not have me role-playing or investing in theme: you can set up and play a game of Lembitu in the time it takes to get Dead of Winter out of the box.

Lembitu will be on sale at Essen 2015 and if you like puzzley co-ops I’d recommend checking it out. But if you roll lots of doubles during setup, don’t expect anything other than a hideous spanking…

* I would like to thank designer Aigar Alaveer for providing a copy of the game for review.

It’s coming! 5 Essen Spiel off-piste newbie tips

Essen 2015 logoWith the number one event on the worldwide board gaming calendar – the Internationale Spieltage Spiel ’15 in Essen – just two months away, I’m already getting stupidly excited.

This year’s event will be the biggest yet, moving up to 63,000 sq m of convention hall space (from 58,000 last year), with a staggering 850+ exhibitors flogging they’re cardy, dicey and boardy wares. This will be my fourth time attending, but each time feels just as good as the previous visits.

But if you’re heading to Essen Spiel for your début gaming Mecca experience, here are a few things that I feel shouldn’t be missed but that may not be immediately obvious to the goggle-eyed and overwhelmed first-timer. I’d also suggest checking out my Essen Guide for travel, hotel and Spiel tips. See you in the mad throng!

  1. Österreichisches Spiele Museum: The Austrian Boardgame Museum is a charity that hosts a collection of more than 25,000 board games. Each year the charity has a stand at Essen with a couple of new games on sale, donated to support the charity and often from highly reputable designers. Recent offerings include the original version of Port Royal (Handler der Karibik) and a Bohnanza variant (Sissi!) from Uwe Rosenberg – plus the games are usually cheap, the money goes to a good cause and they’ll throw a bunch of other promos into your bag if you smile sweetly.
  2. Istra Steakhaus: Germany is well known as a carnivorous nation and my favourite restaurant in the city so far is the traditional meat fest of the Istra Steakhaus. Handily located on Rüttenscheider Straße – the nicer of the roads that connects the Messe to the city centre – I’ve had several meaty meals there over the years and never been anything other than well satisfied with the food and also the beer. Expect a ‘traditional’ German welcome (ie, surly) but hey – it’s all part of the experience and they’re a friendly bunch once you engage them.
  3. Adlung-Spiel: If you’re from outside Germany you may not be aware of this little card game publisher, who always has a tiny booth squirrelled away in a corner of the Messe. Its games are always in a traditional single card deck-sized box, but can vary from drafting and hand management through bidding and bluffing to children’s and dexterity games. Much like an OSM game above, these are great Essen mementoes. Classic titles include Meuterer, Vom Kap bis Kairo and Blink.
  4. Grugapark: Depending on how you arrive at the Messe, it can actually be easy to miss the fact that the north and west sides of the huge conference centre are dwarfed by a huge and lovely country park. Even if you don’t have time for a wander around, or if the weather isn’t playing ball, you can sneak out of Hall 2 on its western edge onto a balcony (mainly wasted on smokers) that has a lovely, peaceful view over the greenery, deer and other tranquil sites – perfect for taking a 10-minute break away from the bedlam inside the main halls.
  5. Toys ‘R’ Us: This one may only apply to us Brits, but wandering into this store (which is just a five minute walk from the central Essen Hbf station) its a sobering indictment of the state of the high street for board gamers in the UK. Where in England its wall-to-wall Barbie, Lego and Frozen, at Toys ‘R’ Us in Germany you’ll also find everything from Arkham Horror and Dominion through to the latest Spiel des Jahres nominees. You may find some classics cheaper than at the Messe – but remember language dependency!

Top 10 outdoor/summer holiday games – even in the rain!

molkkyIf you’re currently ‘enjoying’ a typical English summer, or are anywhere looking for games to take on holiday – camping, to a festival etc – check out this list of my most likely candidates for outside gaming.

all these games are either totally non-cardboard/paper, or are close enough that you’ll be able to get away with it.

So don’t waste your poor old phone or tablet battery trying to entertain yourself in the tent or on the beach – grab a few of these classic games and enjoy the last of the drizzle in the great outdoors.

The outdoor gaming top 10

  1. Mölkky: Pictured above, this Finnish take on skittles sees players throwing a wooden baton at a bunch of other lumps of wood – but there’s more to it than initially meets the eye. You get a point per pin knocked over, or the number on the pin if you can hit just one. Plus, once they are knocked down, they are stood up again where they landed – meaning it gets harder as you go on. You need to finish on exactly 50 points – bust and you go back to 25. Alternatively it can end up being last man standing, as three straight misses and you’re out. Plays up to 10 people.
  2. Pickomino (Heck Meck): This classic push-your-luck dice game (think Yahtzee, but good) comes with just 8 dice and 16 domino-style plastic tiles, so all you need is a flat surface. You roll dice Yathzee style to claim scoring tiles from the centre, but can also steal them from your opponents – adding a great take-that element. Plays up to 7 players in about 30 minutes. Pickomino review here.
  3. hiveHive: If you prefer a more chess-like, two-player only abstract game experience you can’t go wrong with Hive. The travel edition is just 22 plastic tiles in a handy carry bag – you don’t even need a board, just a vaguely flat area. Each player places/moves their pieces in an attempt to surround their opponent’s queen – with a game lasting about 20 minutes.
  4. Werewolf: This classic party game is great for big groups as the original plays 8-24 people – with more modern variations filling in the gaps in both directions (One Night Werewolf plays with as few as 3, Ultimate Werewolf s many as 68…). Games run from 10 minutes to several hours. Each player receives a card with a role – werewolf or villager (many have specific powers). At night the villagers close their eyes and the werewolves will plot and kill a villager – but by day everyone will discuss who they think the werewolves are – and put one to death. Great, silly and often loud fun.
  5. Hanabi Deluxe: This prize winning co-operative game sees players trying to lay their tiles onto central stacks in the right number and colour order – the big catch being they can see everyone’s tiles except their own! Each turn you can lay a tile or give a clue to another player about what they have – but with restrictions on what you can say it’s incredibly tricky. Originally a card game, the deluxe version uses domino style tiles and takes 2-5 players about half an hour to play.
  6. Crossboule: Another ‘proper’ outdoor game, Crossboule is all about throwing hacky sacks at a smaller hacky ‘jack’, much in the same way you’d play classic French game Boules – but sillier. Each round begins with the jack-thrower making a rule for the round – maybe throwing under your leg, off the wall, over your head etc. You get bonuses for getting close, but also for landing on/touching other sacks. And while it plays up to six, you can of course add more sets for more mayhem.
  7. Blokus: Another classic abstract board game, Blokus is an all-plastic affair – both board and pieces. The bits look like Tetris pieces and you can only connect yours corner to corner. The idea is to block your opponents off while laying as many of your pieces as you can, with both defensive and attacking strategies at your disposal. Blokus Duo/To Go is great for travelling but only two-player, while the big box version plays two to four – either version in less than an hour.
  8. Can't Stop in playCan’t Stop: This is another classic push-your-luck dice game, also with a plastic board and plastic pieces – and like Blokus you can even play on the move, as it is played on a grid. A game lasts about 30 minutes and takes 2-4 players, but you can buy extra playing pieces cheaply to take it 5 or 6. This one isn’t as nasty as Pickomino, as the essence is much more on the pushing your luck than in the take-that elements – so pick your poison (I recommend both). Can’t Stop review here.
  9. Qwirkle: This award-winning wooden tile game sees players matching colours and shapes to score points in classic family game fashion. Playing 2-4 players in under an hour it’s a brilliant abstract game of pattern building – and all you need is the 108 tiles in a bag. There’s also a dice version, Qwirkle Cubes, which is every bit as good (same player numbers and time) – and better if you rolling dice, I guess!
  10. Liar’s Dice (Perudo): Talking of dice, this has 30 of the little blighters – plus six plastic cups. Roll your dice, secretly hide them under your cup, and then guess, lie and fluke your way through as you declare higher and higher totals of a number with your very limited information (three 4s, four 2s, five 6s etc) – until someone calls the last player to guess’ bluff. Everyone then reveals their dice and you count so see who was right – the loser losing a dice. Simple, thoroughly entertaining fun.

With the exception of Hanabi Deluxe (which is easy to find, but a little pricey) all of these games can easily be found inexpensively at your favourite friendly independent online retailer – as long as your favourite online retailer sells games, of course. Or worst case scenario, they’re all on Amazon.

You shouldn’t have to pay more than about £20 for any of them either. So what are you waiting for? Become part of the great social gaming renaissance. Or if you really can’t drag yourself away from your smart device; Qwirkle, Can’t Stop, Blokus, Hive, Perudo and Hanabi all have apps too…

What I have I missed? Let me know below.

The World Cup Final of board game awards: Spiel de Jahres vs The Dice Tower

The Golden PooFor many years The Spiel des Jahres, or German Game of the Year Award, has been the undisputed gold standard for the games industry.

It was first awarded in 1979, so has history, while the winners see a massive swing in sales – making it worth entering for any publisher. And as Germany has long been the spiritual home of modern board gaming, what better place to turn than Europe for the awarding of the industry’s top prize?

But for a decade or so now there have been rumblings from the West: a rising growth in gaming from the US led first by Board Game Geek and now The Dice Tower – Tom Vasel’s little media empire that, despite the odds, has seen the world’s least humble former missionary attain cult status (and make an enviable living from it too).

In 2007, in typically modest fashion, Tom declared all other board game awards rubbish and set about setting up his own board gaming Oscars, calling them The Dice Tower Awards. So, eight years on, has the Dice Tower toppled the SdJ – and if it hasn’t, is it ever likely to do so?

The Spiel des Jahres (SdJ)

SdJ 2015The SdJ is judged by a jury of German board game critics. Publishers enter games for consideration, as long as they have been available to the German public during the previous 12 months.

The main award is for the best family game, because in Germany the hobby is very much still a family one. There is a separate award for children’s games (the Kinderspiel), while since 2011 there has also been the Kennerspiel award (roughly translating to ‘connoisseur’ – meaning more advanced than a family game).

Many of the award winners from over the years are considered genuine classics. Early winners included Hare and Tortoise (1979), Rummikub (1980) and Scotland Yard (1983), while 90s winners included Manhattan, Catan and El Grande. More recent classics to bag the SdJ include Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, Dixit, Qwirkle and Hanabi – a list of titles I’m sure no one could argue with.

There have been some choices that seemed odd – in both good and bad years for design (some heads are still spinning at last year’s win by Camel Up) – but generally the SdJ winners are hanging around in the 1,000 games on Board Game Geek, proving their longevity as well as their quality.

The awards themselves are announced at a summer press conference, with the nominees invited along (and from what I can tell most go – designers and publishers). It isn’t a showy event, but it is professional; a typically German understated breakfast. People really want to win this thing!

As a non-German it can be a good wake-up call for games not already out in English, while the vague ‘family game’ description means anything from a little card game to a big box board game can win. The decisions create debate, which is surely the point, while they normally pick a strong set of winners (the Kenner has been won by the likes of Village, 7 Wonders and Istanbul).

The Dice Tower Awards

dice tower awardsThe Dice Tower Awards are also chosen by a group of gaming journalists and enthusiasts, but the bias is very much towards the American, English speaking gamer (as should come as no surprise).

It now has a total of 14 awards, from Game of the Year right down to ‘small publisher’ and ‘new designer’ – with no less than 11 different titles scooping awards this time around. Over the years, only 7 Wonders and Dominion have won the big one for the Dice Tower and also bagged a German gaming award.

All eight of the Dice Tower Game of the Year Award winners so far are highly regarded on board Game Geek, with only Small World having fallen out of the top 100 (just) since its 2008 win. Impressively, all the rest remain in the BGG Top 30. The first winner was even Race for the Galaxy – my favourite game.

Despite a seemingly strong roster, the list feels a bit too ‘Ameritrash big box’ to be taken seriously outside of the states. But The Dice tower is very much an American production – so arguably, as with the SdJ feeling German, this is the way it should be.

But with thematic games Star Wars X-Wing, Eclipse and Dead of Winter winning three of the last four awards they’ll soon be handing the awards out of the back of a pick-up, rather than at the Dice Tower Convention – where those that have been on the voting panel (and mostly Tom, of course) take centre stage rather than the actual winners. For the ‘Best Art’ award, they didn’t even read out the artist names…

As a non-American some of the lesser awards can throw up some interesting names in the nominations, but as their positions in the game rankings suggest the games nominated and picked tend to be largely predictable. But if they’re the best games for this audience, there is absolutely no harm in that either.

And the winner is… The SdJ (by miles)

I’m sure you noted the, erm, ‘hint’ of sarcasm when it came to the Dice Tower Awards. But when you come out and criticise every other award, and say you’re going to make your own – then create something as bland as The Dice Tower Awards – you deserve it.

Despite the restriction of being for families, since 2007 the SdJ has gone to games as diverse (and brilliant) as Qwirkle (abstract), Hanabi (co-op, cards), Dixit (imagination, party) and Dominion (genre creating card game). The main Dice Tower Award has gone to eight big box gamer’s games – six of which have fantasy/sci-fi themes (and two of those essentially re-themes of older games). If they read ‘Dork Tower’ rather than dice tower, I don’t think anyone would turn a hair.

By having such a huge range of awards, The Dice Tower panellists can hide their prejudices for what they ultimately want (minis and spaceships and dice) by dishing out minor silverware on all sides. But the problem with this is that the more awards you have, the more watered down they become – people outside of the winners’ families only ever really remember the BIG winner. And with Tom always seeming to want more of everything, you can only see more – not less – awards in the future.

But don’t think I’m saying The Dice Tower Awards are without worth. As already mentioned, these are all highly ranked games on Board Game Geek and a lot of people get a lot of joy out of them (including me in some cases). I don’t think most of them are worthy of awards, but if they help new gamers choose them over opting for some Kickstarter crap then more power to them!

In the end I see it as a cultural difference: a country, in Germany, that never gave up on board games – versus a country, in America, that is seeing its nerds and geeks start to become justified in their hobby as it starts to go mainstream. Both these things are awesome, but when you step back one of these looks (and is) a lot more mature than the other.

As a Brit its easy to fall into either group – and I happen to have ended up more on the European side of the fence. But I’d like to think that even if I hadn’t I’d still see the SdJ as the more meaningful award. Quirky, yes – but more interesting for it.

The Dwarves: A four-sided game review

The Dwarves boxThe Dwarves* is a fantasy themed co-operative board game which plays out in just over an hour. It is listed as two-to-five-player but also works very well solo and plays well across all player counts.

The English version is released later this year – I’ll update the post when it arrives. This review will hopefully whet your appetite!

The game-play is classic co-op, as you’ll find in titles such as Pandemic and Defenders of the Realm. It is very much suited for families as well as gamers who like thematic games.

Each player has a character with individual abilities and decides what to do on their turn, but this is discussed as a group because you’re working towards a common goal. The tension mounts the longer the game goes on, and the group of players will either win or lose together – there are no individual victory conditions.

In the box you’ll find a gorgeous game board, five player boards with matching cute plastic minis, 100-ish wooden cubes (the encroaching enemy horde), 10 dice, 50-ish cardboard tiles (mainly marking the enemy’s taken land) and 80 cards. (Kickstarter backers can expect more of just about everything, including monster meeples, while the ‘Saga Expansion’ looks to include the same ‘more of everything’ for the rest of us).

The Dwarves victoryFirst released in Germany in 2012 under the title Die Zwerge, it is set in the world of the books of the same name by author Markus Heitz. While huge in Germany the books have failed to have quite the same impact elsewhere, often blamed on what are seen by many as pretty poor translations.

This lead to a reluctance on Pegasus Spiel’s part to release the game in English – hence their decision to crowd-fund the game via Kickstarter in May. It smashed its €30,000 goal (passing €118,000) and is estimated to be sent out to backers in December 2015 (board game gods willing) – so hopefully the rest of us will get it around then too.

It is also worth noting the design team behind The Dwarves, Michael Palm and Lukas Zach, were the pair behind celebrated 2013 party game ‘Bang! The Dice Game’.

NOTE: The version you see pictured below has a paste-up board and cards from the original German version. Expect big changes in the ‘proper’ version.

Teaching

One of the beauties of classic co-op games is that they’re very easy to teach and The Dwarves is no different. There is no hidden player information and you’re all on the same side, so in fact helping is beneficial to all!

A player’s turn follows a simple structure: move the hero token (bad stuff), draw new cards (if any were completed on the last player’s turn), then carry out two actions – the turn structure is even printed on the main board.

Taking a hit from the bad guys (boo!)

The Dwarves scenario cardsMoving the hero token will do one of three things: shuffle threat (read: bad) cards into the adventure (read: good) deck, roll dice and add bad guys to the board, or move the council marker in the wrong direction – all of which I’ll discuss below.

The key to winning the game is completing a number of scenario cards before either one of the heroes (that’s you guys) is killed, or you run out of time (marked by the hero token track). Each scenario card has a condition that needs meeting before you can move onto the next and the harder you want the game to be, the more of them you include.

Alongside the scenario card will be three adventure cards. These are non-essential side quests but a handy way to gain items (in the form of cards) and other benefits. When you finish a scenario you also clear out the current adventure cards and replace them – but as the game goes on some will be threat cards (see ‘moving the hero token’ above). You’ll face dire consequences if you didn’t complete them, making for some tricky situations.

The hero token starts on the left side of the hero track, but there is also a doom token at the other end – and like Knizia’s Lord of the Rings, if the two meet the heroes lose the game. The doom token will rarely move early in the game, but f the enemy troops get some traction you may need to start worrying about it.

Most hero track actions involve rolling the recruitment dice, which slowly bring enemy troops onto the board. They come in from four locations that all have paths leading to a central square (Blacksaddle). Once they start arriving here the doom token can start to move at an alarming rate – time to wrap up or face defeat!

While this sounds like an old mechanism it is done well. When five enemy units occupy a hex they burst it, turning the land ‘perished’ (making it a pain to move through) before moving on. A tile is flipped and placed on the hex – its detail showing the main direction of troop movement and which headed to neighbouring tiles instead. Bad luck sees several tiles burst in a row while paths can also meet – speeding the enemy’s path to your door.

Finally there’s the council track. It starts in a neutral position and can be moved right by the players (giving nice advantages), or left by the enemy (predictably giving penalties).

Sticking it to the bad guys (huzzah!)

The Dwarves player boardEach hero has a health level, three stats (attack, crafting and speed) and a special ability. You get two actions on your turn, all revolving around stat-check dice rolls.

While luck is of course a factor, it can be well mitigated. Tests see you rolling a dice for each number you have in a stat, so asking Boindil to complete a 5+ crafting test when he has 1 crafting is a desperate or stupid act – especially if it is Balyndis’ turn next and she gets 3 dice for crafting, plus a re-roll of them all. But it means things are never certain, which again adds tension.

Your actions allow you to move, fight, influence the council or try to complete a scenario or adventure/threat card test. For movement you can move as many spaces as the best dice you roll; for the council, you need to get a certain number to move it one space (there are four each side of the neutral space) – needing a six to move into the best two slots.

The Dwarves equipment cardsFighting is also simple. There are three enemy types, the easiest (orcs) killed with a 4+, trolls a 5+ and elves a 6. Simply go to the space you want to fight in, roll your dice and deal damage accordingly. The risk is that if you manage no hits at all, you take a wound in damage.

All cards – scenario or otherwise – revolve around these same actions. You may need to move from A to B, fight creatures on the card at a certain location, or go somewhere and craft some items. But importantly the theme is felt throughout.

The final twist is in the last scenario card, which is actually three cards you turn one at a time until one equates to the current state of the board (how many enemy troops are on the board, or how many perished land tiles have been laid). This adds a nice element of surprise to the game’s finale.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: One thing that really impressed me were the ways you can change the difficulty level. Adding more scenario cards makes the game harder, but a little longer; while changing the number of enemies that bust a hex from five to four makes it harder and shorter. Doing both simply makes it insane, but it’s great to have more than one way to change things up.
  • The thinker: The Dwarves sang for me as a solo experience. There is something to appeal to the table top miniatures fan here as the lava-like flow of the enemy movement combines with the dice rolling for attacks. And while it has quite a few components only the cards felt fiddly, but certainly not unmanageably so. But for me there is not enough decision making to make it more than a solo game.
  • The trasher: At the right difficulty level, The Dwarves really ramps up the tension. You can choose your own character, letting me grab one of the warriors and get right into the think of it. Battles are fun if simple and by the end you can be rolling seven attack dice if you play your cards right – with a re-roll! But then you’re relying on the crafters to do their thing too, making it a great co-op.
  • The dabbler: As always I was worried about the alpha gamer problem, but it hasn’t really cropped up in our games – but this may be the group, not the game. Whatever happens it will be you rolling the dice though, so no one can stop you doing what you want to do! The theme is great too, while the dice mean you’ve all got something to cheer – or as often commiserate over. Great with the right group.

Key observations

The Dwarves board and bitsThere aren’t many English reviews or comments on the game yet, but those I’ve seen raise some valid points. The biggest are the game lacks decisions while the amount of randomness makes it too much of a luckfest.

Yes, there is a lot of random – which is why I wouldn’t (and didn’t) recommend The Dwarves for groups of more advanced euro gamers. But this shouldn’t worry those who enjoy lighter games, or a dice fest; and especially those with an interest in the fantasy genre. And personally, as a euro gamer myself, I really enjoy it solo.

I think the lack of decisions is covered by the same argument: those getting into the theme or playing with less experienced gamers will play their own game can get a real kick out of it – especially fans of the books. But this is generic fantasy 101, which isn’t going to sway those who are looking for high culture.

One frustrating random situation can occur early on: you get the ‘Gear Up’ scenario card (have three items equipped) and then get a run of adventure cards that don’t reward you with items. But even this can be overcome by raising the council track to the limit (very advantageous anyway) then crafting your own items.

One fair beef with The Dwarves may be on replayability. Despite having three end game scenarios I can see the game getting samey if you played it to death, but after five plays I’m still enjoying myself – especially having now found a challenging game level. I could name many games that failed to get to five plays in our house.

Finally you can find you don’t need to pick up equipment or fight monsters, as you simply work through the scenario cards and do what they tell you. If you’re in this situation, you have the difficulty level wrong: ramp it up and watch the sparks fly.

Conclusion

The Dwarves boardThis is probably my longest review, but as this game hasn’t had many English write-ups yet – and because I’ve really enjoyed it – I thought it was worth the extra time.

While it isn’t the biggest or cleverest game out there, from a design perspective I love the way the enemy moves on the board; while as a simple soul I love rolling dice and crushing orcs: The Dwarves has become my favourite co-op and is a keeper for me.

There are definitely players I won’t be putting this in front of and a lot of people who won’t like it. But when the snobby elves head home, this will regularly be hitting my table.

* I would like to thank Pegasus Spiel for providing a copy of the game for review. It was an early paste-up version of the base game using some components from the German version, so please be aware there will be significant changes in the final release.

Adventure Tours (AKA Mai-Star): A four-sided game review

Adventure Tours boxAdventure Tours* is a ‘take-that’ and hand management card game from Seiji Kanai (Love Letter, Brave Rats/R) that is both a little larger and a little longer (40+ minutes) than his rather more illustrious micro games. It takes three to six players.

It was originally released in 2010 under the title Mai-Star in a small box format with a geisha theme, which didn’t sit well with some. While still available in this format, Adventure Tours addresses some problems with the original and has higher production values – while costing about the same (£10-15).

The original had 75 cards, six geisha cards and some score sheets to write on; while the re-released Adventure Tours boasts thick cardboard player mats with some lovely artwork, more than 100 cards (with good if unexceptional art, but good iconography), cardboard victory point chits and some useful player aids – but a much bigger box.

As you may have guessed though, the theme is wholly irrelevant in terms of the rules – this is an abstract card game with some nice, colourful art plastered on top. And this is cutesy artwork too – which very much belies the rather nasty nature of the gameplay.

Teaching

Adventure Tours player boardAs we’ve come to expect from Seiji Kanai, Adventure Tours is a simple game at its heart which relies much on player interaction to make it sing.

It is also very luck based and swingy, but enough so that things should balance out over the game.

Each player is dealt six random cards (from one big shared stack) at the start of play. In the basic game, your player board starts you with three of each of the game’s three ‘resources’ to get you going.

On your turn you will lay one card – either for its resources or as an explorer (for its action and also end-game points). If you lay a card for resources it will allow you to play more powerful explorers later, as cards cost between 1-9 resources to play.

Cards played as resources mean you have to pick up a new card from the stack to replace it, so you’re not reducing your hand – but you are giving yourself more chances to lay better explorers later. When you lay an explorer, you do not draw a new card.

Explorer actions are very much what you’d expect from a ‘take-that’ style game: make player players draw more cards (to stop them going out), or force opponents to discard/hand you explorers or resources. But some also benefit you more simply – letting you lay another card being the most common.

The advanced game sees you use the flip-side of the player boards, each of which has a special ability and different starting conditions – so that powers that seem stronger leave you starting with hardly any resources.

The real trick to Adventure Tours is to balance getting rid of your cards while also scoring enough points to make ending the round by doing so a good idea, or to just stockpile points regardless – neither of which are as easy as they sound! The nice player aid and simple icons mean everyone should be up to speed within round one.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: This is a rare time when I’m still on the fence despite multiple plays. I enjoy the mood Kanai’s games create and he has worked the same simple magic here – but this is on the cusp of being too long for the game experience it creates. I do enjoy playing, but where the luck of the draw makes me laugh in Love Letter it can have me cursing here, which suggests a slight mismatch in fun and complexity.
  • The thinker: There is really very little for the strategist in Adventure Tours. Games instead become about bashing the ‘supposed’ leader – which is more about those with good chat talking the meeker participants into thinking a particular player is winning. The only real strategy seems to be: don’t be leading after round two, then try to have a big third round very quietly. Not for me.
  • The trasher: I like this one! It’s all about table talk and hitting the right players at the right times, which is much like spinning plates. Both ways to lay cards make you a potential target, but for different reasons – going out or scoring big. You have to be a hawk, pointing out anyone who is edging an advantage – except yourself of course! And yes, I’m echoing the strategist – but from the complete other side of the table.
  • The dabbler: While aggressive games aren’t usually my thing, this one is so nice, bright and colourful that I just got swept along with it. Also the take-that cards never devastate – more hinder – so nothing you can do will put someone out of a round, for example. There is room for clever combos and lots of table talk and laughter, so for me what’s not to like once you get past the fear of being a bit snidey!

Key observations

Adventure Tours cardsIf we ignore complaints by people who were never going to like it in the first place, the most common issues with Adventure Tours are that it’s repetitive and that it drags, even for some who enjoy the game.

But simply shortening the game from three down to two rounds (or even one) will solve this – I don’t see how you really lose anything, and it brings the game much more firmly into the ‘filler’ category that the mechanisms suggest it belongs in anyway.

A bigger and related issue is that too many cards make the game last longer. Giving people more cards, for example, rarely feels ‘fun’. It feels like a necessity, while there’s no guarantee it’s even giving you an advantage – you could be handing them the perfect card. But again, this is something that wouldn’t feel like an issue if the game played shorter.

And without wishing to sound like a broken record, for a game lasting close to an hour if played ‘properly’ (ie, three rounds) there are too few options in turns of card options. Essentially they boil down to pick up cards; add extra or take away cards; defend; have an extra go, or get bonus points. You see these cards a lot – probably too much – but over a round or two instead of three I think this is mitigated.

My final concern is the advanced player powers: it’s too early to say for sure, but some of them seem really overpowered. now in the right group this isn’t a problem, as players will realise this and pick on the players with the best powers accordingly – it can actually add to the fun of the table talk. But in less boisterous groups it may be an issue.

And a quick word on the original, Mai-Star. While I haven’t played it I have seen the cards – particularly the advanced player cards – and there have definitely been adjustments made for balance. Have they worked? No idea! But they’ve certainly tried to address well publicised issues with the original and I certainly didn’t think anything in Adventure tours was ‘game breaking’. My fear is they balanced the game by making it longer.

Conclusion

Adventure Tours aidAdventure Tours isn’t a game I feel I can wholly endorse, but at the same time wit the right group I’ve had a lot of fun with it.

‘Take-that filler game’ is already a niche, so when you put it in a big box (despite nice production) and make it last more than 30 minutes you’re going to scare some people off.

But underneath is a typically simple and fun Kanai game – 12 different cards that interact with each other in interesting ways and get the table laughing and chatting. If you’ve enjoyed his previous titles this is certainly worth a look – although I’d give it the ‘try before you buy’ (where possible) caveat just in case for the reasons discussed above.

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

Sushi Go!: A four-sided game review

Sushi Go boxSushi Go!* is a light-n-fast card drafting and set collection card game originally released in 2013 and reprinted in its current form (in a swanky little tin) in 2015 from Gamewright.

Designed by Phil Walker-Harding it accommodates two to five players easily, takes less than 30 minutes, plays as young as six to eight-years-old and should cost you less than £10.

While the theme has no relevance to game play the cards (there are 108 of them) are super cute and high quality (linen finish), while the tin is nice if you like that sort of thing (I’m a box man myself!).

Teaching

The rulebook is colourful, nicely laid out and simple to follow. If you took out the cringe-worthy ‘jokes’ (which I can only hope are for the younger audience) and extraneous art they’d probably fill a single side of A4 – including several variants (one of which is great for two players).

As for teaching, it couldn’t be much simpler: deal everyone the appropriate amount of cards (dependent on player count), choose one each simultaneously, reveal and place into your tableau, then pass the remaining cards to your left. The only wrinkle is the ‘chopsticks’ card, which allows you to play two cards in your turn instead of one if you pass on the chopsticks card, but otherwise it’s rinse and repeat until you run out of cards.

Once all cards have been laid, you add up the scores. Scoring is again simple, with several standard set collection scoring methods applied across the different sets of cards. The exception are ‘pudding’ cards which are, of course, only scored at the end of your meal – which is three rounds long. No surprises, at the end the highest score wins.

The four sides

Sushi Go two cardsThese are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While I think there’s a lot of design space still to be explored within the drafting mechanic, Sushi Go! is the perfect ‘bare bones’ usage of the mechanism: clean, fast and simple. It’s a shame about the end-game pudding scoring, as it’s the only thing stopping you finishing when it suits you; the perfect fillers can be put down at the drop of a hat when that extra player arrives, or another game finishes.
  • The thinker: While the chopsticks do add a bit of thought to the game, this is just too simple for me to really enjoy. I’m not averse to a filler game, but I’d prefer them to either test my brain or be super silly and light – for me, this game falls between those into a murky middle ground. I can see younger gamers enjoying it, but it won’t be a keeper for my groups.
  • The trasher: I enjoyed the push your luck elements here – especially with the ‘wasabi’ card which allows you to triple the score of a ‘nigiri’ card if you place one on top of it – potentially nine points, or potentially none if everyone else denies you the good ones, as wasabi is worth nothing on its own. Despite the cutesy images, this can be a nasty little take-that game in terms of denying scoring opportunities.
  • The dabbler: I love the Sushi Go! art, love the simplicity, love love love it! The two-player game doesn’t get much love, but the variant is pretty cool. You have a dummy third hand, which you take it in turns to draw a bonus card from. This throws in much more luck, but can add some really great moments when you take a risk and the perfect card drops into your hand from the third pile. Great fun!

Key observations

Sushi Go rulesFor such a simple card game, it is impressive to see Sushi Go! sitting in the top 500 games at Board Game Geek. Filler games, fairly or unfairly, average lower scores there so for such a light game to get an average above 7 is impressive. But like every game, it still has its detractors.

As this is a card drafting game, there are the inevitable comparisons to 7 Wonders. Sushi Go is often described as 7 Wonders without the depth, or 7 Wonders lite – but on the other hand, many say it ‘fixes’ 7 Wonders by taking out the pretend complexity and shortening the game considerably.

To those who say it lacks depth, may I remind you – its a filler! And to those who say it just copies 7 Wonders, may I remind you that if anything it copies Fairy Tale (from 2004) – a game it is much closer to in play style and which 7 Wonders (from 2010) also largely copied, simply adding a layer of ‘engine’ on top of a perfectly good game. If you think Sushi Go is a little too light for your tastes, Fairy Tale is definitely worth a shot.

Conclusion

Sushi Go cardsAs an exercise in distilling the idea of card drafting into a simple set collection game, Sushi Go! ticks all the boxes. Whether that’s the game for you is of course a very different question, but there really isn’t anything to hate here if you know what you’re getting into.

Personally it has reminded me of how much I enjoyed my plays of Fairy Tale, which really is a game I should add to my collection (its more of the same, but with an extra layer of complexity). But until I get around to picking it up, Sushi Go! will be hanging around on my shelves. If you’re looking for a light family game and have kids in the six to 12 age group, I’d definitely recommend it.

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

Board game design: Three ideas inspired by heist movies

I tend to have ideas for game mechanisms most days – and of course most of them are terrible. Others hang around long enough without being dismissed for me to want to write them down, while still fewer make it from my phone’s note-taker app into my ideas document at home.

These few borderline cases kind of shared a heist theme, so I thought I’d write about them here just in case anyone else can make something useful out of them. Maybe I’ll get round to them, maybe I won’t – or maybe they’re terrible after all. They’re far from fully formed too, but maybe they’ll inspire someone.

batman jokerA co-op with evolving roles

The first idea came to me when watching the Batman movie where The Joker is getting all the people involved in the heist to kill each other off once their particular job is complete – but could equally be applied to any fast moving and dangerous situation. The game would be a co-op (although wouldn’t need to be, I guess) in which every character starts with a roll – in this example it could be the muscle, the safe cracker, explosives expert etc.

As the game goes on, players will need to decide when to change to their other roll – perhaps the getaway car driver, the van driver carrying the lot, the guy causing a road block/distraction, or tampering with traffic lights. Once you switch roll your old character is still in play, but becomes a hindrance – slowing down play and getting in the way.You’ll get a better final score if you get everyone home, but can you succeed while dragging along this dead weight…

Safe-cracker

In my mind this is a very simple mechanism requiring two players that would be used in a role-playing type scenario – say in our co-op heist game above. Both roll the same amount of dice of different colours, lets say three – red, blue and green – but one of them roles them behind a screen. The person playing the safe-cracker has to match their dice, by colour and number, to those rolled behind the screen.

The safe-cracker would’ve been able to spend skill points on raising their skill at the start of the game – with each point letting the second player give them a clue (say, ‘blue higher’). The safe-cracker can opt to change any dice as much as they likes, then asks if they have the right number for each dice. The player with the dice behind the screen will say ‘higher’, ‘lower’ or ‘cracked it’ for each dice – and then the safe-cracker goes again. Each failed attempt will use up time units.

Lie detector

This feels more like a party/werewolf-style game idea, where one (or maybe two) of the players are questioning suspects and trying to get to the truth. The potential felons all have a few parts of the story, which could potentially save their skin – but of course one of them did it (and knows it).

The questioners will have a limited time scale to grill the suspects for information, and will then have to decide who to charge – you could even have people in different rooms. The suspects can give up as much info they like, or lie as much as they like, to try and work out who did it or just frame someone at random. Maybe one of the questioners could have a preferred victim to throw to the wolves – or a prisoner could be under cover…

One play: Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter in playIt’s fair to say I believed the hype about Plaid Hat Games’ Dead of Winter. I was a long-time fan of the company’s podcast and had enjoyed the descriptions and design talks about the game leading up to its launch; so much so that I was happy to pre-order it.

I’d been looking for a replacement for old classic Arkham Horror for a while, and this looked like it would fit the bill: a story driven co-op with a horror theme but the bonuses of being shorter, less fiddly and with a tension-building traitor mechanic – as well as the much lauded ‘crossroads’ mechanism (more on that later). It duly arrived, we duly played it, and it has since been duly traded away. So what went wrong?

Theme and components: Check

Out of the box, Dead of Winter is a triumph. While the churlish could point to thin location and player boards – or even complain about old-school standees (in this day and age!) being included rather than minis – overall the production quality is excellent. The artwork is evocative and high quality, the rulebook solid and the tokens, dice etc up to snuff. I don’t care a jot about minis and the like, so I was more than satisfied.

On the downside it’s a bit of a bear to set up, with a multitude of card decks needing to be shuffled and placed, alongside a plethora of tokens – and that’s before you get to choosing a scenario, setting it up, and then dealing each player their choice of starting characters. This is definitely a game you should play at the owner’s house, giving them time to get it ready before you arrive – but once it’s ready to go, I think it looks pretty cool on the table.

It’s also worth pointing out that players that enjoy this kind of game are prepared for a lengthy setup process. Arkham Horror takes just as long to get ready, while players of games such as Descent or Star Wars: Imperial Assault will see nothing to put them off here. With highly thematic games, it seems to go with the territory.

Can you keep a secret?

So far, so what – it’s just another thematic zombie game with nice bits: but the first semi-USP comes with the secret roll cards. Before the game starts, two secret objective cards per player are shuffled in with a betrayal card and one is dealt to each player.

While Dead of Winter is a two-to-five player game you don’t have a betrayer with two, leaving a 45-ish per cent chance of someone being the betrayer with three-to-five players. There is a betrayer variant that swings this wildly in the other direction, giving you an 80-ish per cent chance. But either way, the lot of any betrayer may not really be in their hands – and sadly the same goes for everyone else.

Because here lies Dead of Winter’s first real flaw: unbalanced objectives. Some of them are just plain easy, while others take a real effort and may not be possible despite your best efforts. The aim of this seems to be to create tension: to force people into situations where others may think they’re showing betrayer tendencies. But unless you are dedicated role-players, it is a very real possibility this tension will fail to emerge – especially as after one play you know those super tough objectives are out there.

Attack of the randoms

While not fatal on their own, you are trying to complete your unbalanced secret objectives while competing with the oldest and lamest of all board game mechanism – the ‘one in x chance’ of something terrible happening. And you thought we’d moved on right?

Some caveats here. First, I love me some random – and second I know Ameritrash games are the beating heart of random. I get that. But there are ways to do random right, or cleverly, or with a bit of imagination. Instead here we seem to have incredibly naivety.

Every time you move to a location, or fight a zombie (unless you have particular equipment cards or special powers), you need to roll a 12-sided dice – on one side of which is a tooth. If you roll this, that character is dead. This in itself isn’t a big deal – you’ve probably got more characters (you start with two each and often pick more up) and if not you just grab a new one out of the box. The bigger problem is ‘morale’.

Morale is the game’s timer – the ticking clock of doom which, if it reaches zero, will mean the players lose. In anything but the easiest scenario this should be causing the tension, which is ramped up by the fact every character death causes a one-point loss in morale. Which brings us to the ‘one play’ which put the nail in Dead of Winter’s coffin for me.

Epic fail

This was my fourth game of Dead of Winter and we had a group with some new and some experienced players (five in all). After the epic set up/rules explanation we embarked on a short scenario to give everyone a taste of what this game had to offer.

As it was a short scenario we started with just six morale. The base was surrounded by zombies so as a first act my tough guy – who had the ability to kill two zombies with one blow – ploughed into the fray. And promptly rolled the dreaded ‘tooth’.

So he’s dead – no biggy. One morale down. But it gets worse: the next player in the compound has a decision to make. They can just die and stop the infection spreading – or roll and take a big risk of survival vs getting bit, and passing it on again. With so little morale to play with they fell on their sword – so we were down to four morale.

Much like the game Battlestar Galactica (which it borrows quite heavily from), Dead of Winter has an objective players can meet each round – or face the consequences. In our case, if we failed to meet it – which needed quite a lot of fuel – we would lose two morale. So with two already gone, it was all hands to the pump (ho ho).

With our safe bet having tried and failed to get fuel from the petrol station (random card picks FTW), someone less likely tried their luck. En route they too rolled the tooth – and took both themselves and the person already at the petrol station with them. We failed to get our petrol, lost two more morale, and it was over. Worst. Walking Dead episode. Ever.

You traitor!

The highlight (and this is clutching at straws) was that we did actually have a traitor – but they didn’t even have enough time to complete their simple objective because two random dice rolls finished us all off before we got going. Otherwise, he’d have won.

And that’s the second big problem with the morale system: the betrayer rarely needs to show their hand before the final turn, because either the players are going to hell in a hand basket anyway – or morale has gotten them close enough that one really destructive final turn is enough for the betrayer to blow the game, without needing to draw any suspicion before it is too late to do anything about it (they can be exiled, in theory).

While this was a laughably short game, in some ways it was the best of the four I played. Two were tedious processions to victory playing the starter scenario with new players where we didn’t have a traitor, while the other was another defeat – again with no traitor – which threatened to ignite into a really fun experience but never truly shone (despite providing some laughs). It’s possibly the most fragile game system I’ve ever experienced.

Still, you might love it 🙂

Does Dead of Winter have the capacity to give players a fantastic thematic game experience packed with intrigue, tough decisions and a tense endgame? Absolutely. But does it equally have the capacity to provide a shallow and worthless one? As you can see, the answer is yes to that too.

I’m not reviewing Dead of Winter in my usual style because I realise a lot of people LOVE this game and I didn’t want to give it my standard treatment, as that format wouldn’t allow me to get things across the way I wanted. I can see I may not be the right audience and if you search t’interwebs you will find many an honest, glowing review of this very popular title. All I wanted to do was share my experience which was, sadly, a lot less positive.

At the time of writing Dead of Winter is in the top 20 games on Board Game Geek and games rarely get up that high by accident. But equally, just because they’re flying high doesn’t mean they’re for everyone.

The promise of better to come: Crossroads cards

I’ve saved the real jewel in Dead of Winter’s crown until last and that’s its one genuine board game innovation – crossroads cards (and I’m not belittling this – many, many games have on innovation at all and one bit per game is above average!).

At the start of each player’s turn, the player next to them draws the top crossroads card from the deck and reads the intro to themselves: this intro tells them in what situation they need to pause the game and read the card out. This could be very open – perhaps if a player leaves the colony to go to an outside location – or very specific – if a particular character is in play and this player controls them.

This restriction is interesting because it means not all cards are read out, so they do add a unique feeling to the game that’s akin to RPGs – that, “Oh god, will opening this door spring a trap” feeling. Each card has an ethical dilemma of some kind on it, either for the group to vote on or for the player to decide themselves. These can be great for adding theme, a laugh or even give you some character insight.

But sadly in Dead of Winter they don’t quite seem to work. You can have games where very few trigger, while many of those that do are no-brainer decisions. But on the plus side Plaid Hat is already working on another ‘crossroads’ game, this time set in space with an Alien style them – which could be awesome. But this time I’ll keep my powder dry and wait for the reviews before pulling the trigger.

* If you’re a fan of this game, good on you. But please don’t pick holes in my story if I have made small rule errors in the retelling. The facts may be a little off as this was a while ago, but believe me this happened: we played the rules right, we lost in a turn and it was crap. 

Report: My first UK Games Expo

UK Games ExpoLast week I attended my first UK Games Expo in Birmingham. Having been spoilt by Essen over the years I’d never considered this a ‘must see’ convention, as it’s a 10th of the size, but this year I made the time to make it happen.

And – spoiler alert – I’m thoroughly glad I did. I had a fantastic time throughout, didn’t get to do half what I should have, but came home with a host of new games, new friends and great memories.

First, the boring (but significant) stuff: The organisers estimated they had 7,000 unique attendees (up 20 per cent on 2014) over the three days, with a total footfall attendance of 14,000 (up 40 per cent, but it was a day longer than last year) – impressive numbers by any standards. And the event is growing too, with 1,000 tables setup in the NEC Hilton for the weekend – that’s a lot of gaming!

As a holidaymaker

UKGE through the ages

First look at the new edition of Through the Ages, still in prototype form (so all this can still change)

However good the Expo itself was, you can’t get away from the fact it’s in one of the blandest, most soulless locations in the UK.

The NEC complex is a built-for-purpose money-grabbing warehouse-come-car park and the hotel I ended up in – The Crowne Plaza – was more of the same. Comfy but sterile, unfriendly and overpriced (£14 for breakfast you say? What if I just want cereal…?).

The Expo itself was held at the NEC Hilton which, while in the same price bracket, does at least have some personality. But what was truly remarkable was how open they were to the event. Throughout the weekend every available table, windowsill and corner had a game being played in it – often accompanied by greasy slabs of cardboard bought from the (really rather good) food trucks outside the hotel. But the staff were polite and patient in the face of what must have felt like some kind of natural disaster aftermath.

As a publisher

UKGE the dwarves

First look at the English version of ‘The Dwarves’ from publisher Pegasus

With my blogger’s hat on I spoke to representatives from a lot of publishers and retailers over the weekend, from main sponsors Mayfair to one-man-bands with a 10-ft table and one game to sell – and in all honesty I didn’t hear a single dissenting voice.

Of course there were minor quibbles – press events ending just as the main doors opened; the doors opening 30 minutes earlier than expected on one day; some rather unfortunate placements between inappropriate stands etc. But these were always brought up in the context of having a great show overall.

And this year’s publisher list was notably impressive. While many didn’t have their key staff on show, or large stands, you can’t argue with a line up that includes Fantasy Flight, Days of Wonder, Mayfair, Asmodee, Pegasus, Czech Games Edition and Queen Games – alongside the likes of Esdevium and Coiled Spring.

As a gamer

UKGE the game

Playing Spiel des Jahres nominee The Game

The Expo had set aside tonnes of open gaming space as well as nine board game tournaments, including the official UK championships for Catan, Carcassonne and Mage Wars (plus CCG Yu-Gi-Oh).

While at times near capacity, and tricky to find a large table at times, overall the system worked well.

The Thirsty Meeples game cafe ran the games library and all agreed it was a vast improvement on previous years – although at peak times the selection grew pretty thin. Oddly an insider told me Thirsty Meeples had wanted to bring more games but had been limited to 500, so hopefully next year’s selection will be even better.

People in general were friendly, making for a nice atmosphere. I shared a lot of silly conversations with those gaming on adjacent tables, and chats with people wondering what game I was playing. But it was hot and noisy and I wouldn’t want to play a long thinky game there. Highlights for me included Welcome to the Dungeon, Smash Up, The Game, Hawaii and Red7. I even managed to hold my tongue when a couple of ladies next to us were saying how ‘brilliant’ the Firefly board game was…

As an explorer

UKGE terror bull

Terror Bull Games’ Tom and Andrew preaching the Hen Commandments

I’m afraid this is where my coverage takes a nosedive, as I spent precisely zero time getting out of my comfort zone. I’m going to make a solemn promise that next year I’ll do at least a few sessions of miniatures, war games or role playing games.

Despite my adsence there was a lot of it going on and I heard some fun stories while chilling in the bar, overhearing other tables’ conversations. I know the Cardboard Console podcast guys got their feet wet in the RPG pool a few times, so listen out for their exploits in future episodes.

There were some great cosplay outfits on show too – shame on me for not getting any pics, but I’m sure there will be loads at the Expo site (linked above).

My favourite was definitely a Jawa – mostly because they had a speaker with all the cute sound effects that take me back to being seven years old. Wootini ftw! And there were some impressive remote control Daleks – that voice is still pretty menacing…

As a tester

UKGE art

Some great board game graphic design and art from Vicki Dalton

The Playtest UK area was a definite highlight for me, being filled to capacity pretty much all day Saturday and Sunday with about 15 unpublished games running at a time. I got a few hours of testing in on Saturday afternoon, then helped out as a volunteer for the last few hours of the day.

What I didn’t expect was to have people turning up saying they’d actually sought us out and wanted to ‘help’ – alongside people who would test one game, then come back to us a little while later and ask to test a different one. Rather than trying to reach out to passing traffic to try and get them involved, we were more often telling people they’d have to wait a few minutes for a slot to appear.

It’s hard to know if people realised that many of those testing games there over the weekend were published designers – the UK Expo award winner for Strategic Card and Dice Games this year was Elysium, whose designers spent almost the whole weekend helping organise r testing their games in the area.

Raise a glass to the volunteers – and the organisers

UKGE cycling party

Spanish game Cycling Party, brought to the UK by Games Quest

Overall I think it’s impossible to see the 2015 UK Games Expo as anything other than a huge success. There are of course lots of areas for improvement (I’ll certainly be emailing the organisers with my thoughts as a journalist who has visited many such events but has never felt so unsupported) but overall – win.

I think what I found most impressive was either the amazing attitude of everyone involved – especially all the volunteers, who need a massive pat on the back – but also how all this was achieved with ever-changing goal posts.

Every year the Expo has grown a significant amount, reflecting both the word-of-mouth goodwill for the event and the growth in popularity of the hobby games industry.

To be able to both improve and expand on the top line numbers while responding to the mistakes of previous years – while keeping both traders and punters appeased in the middle of it all – is a real achievement.

Bring on 2016

UKGE my games

My personal haul for the weekend – reviews of them all on the way!

And next year will be even bigger. While I’m not keen on the warehouse that is the NEC I can see the wisdom of moving the retail arm of the Expo into its wide open spaces – but equally note the importance of keeping its heart in the Hilton.

This is going to be a tricky balance to pull off but I think it should work: the trade areas will close as usual at 5pm and gaming in the hotel will go on until you want to go to bed – its just that you’ll have a five-minute walk between the two venues.

I’ve already put the 2016 Expo in my calendar (June 3-5 if you’re interested) – see you there!