Konja: A four-sided game review

Konja* is a two-player only dice and card game from the same design/art team (Simon McGregor and Rob Van Zyl) that brought us Ancient Terrible Things and Snowblind. A game lasts 30-60 minutes and while the age on the box says 8+, that may be a little low (I’d probably guess 10+ unless they’re a full-on gamer child).

Players are duelling wizards; a popular theme, but as usual with Pleasant Company Games the art style makes it stand out from the rest. Also like the aforementioned games, this is a dice-chucking push-your-luck game with cards throwing in special abilities and one-off powers along the way.

In the box you’ll find 11 custom dice, 40 cards, five wooden idols, five thick cardboard tiles that make up the play area, and about 100 cardboard chits in various shapes and sizes. All the components are of the usual high standard: fair value at around £20-30. There’s also a handy card effects cheat sheet separate from the rulebook.

Teaching

Konja is a straight race to 21 points. Between the two players are five god tiles (inspired by African mythology, which makes a nice change), one of which the active player uses on their turn.

Once all five have been used, they’re reset and the players go through them again (and again, until the game ends). These powers grant a special one-off ability to the player choosing it, then another ability that both players benefit from.

Next the active player rolls five dice (plus any extras they may have accrued), using various cards/tokens to change or reroll the results until they’re happy – or out of options. Their opponent then gets a chance to mess with them by rolling a dice that can cancel one of these results. Finally, the active player ‘spends’ their roll on various benefits: end game points, tokens to help in future rolls, or both.

The meat of the decision making comes in what you spend your tokens on. Magic tokens help you cast spells (instant discarded effects that can do everything from steal from your opponent to make your rolls better); while money can buy/upgrade victory point tokens, or buy new and improved ancestors (each player starts with three of these, which may be activated for various dice rolling effects). Finally, power tokens are used to power (der) the ancestors.

When one player’s end game points hits 21 or more, the round is completed and the player with the most points is the winner.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: What makes this series of games stand out, Konja included, is the wealth of mitigation on hand for those pesky dice. This also has a nice blend of visible (ancestors) and hidden (spell cards), so you never quite know what your opponent may do. I think I’d mix it up even more, giving each player a replacement choice in round one for one of their starting ancestors. But, with all that in mind, it was a shame the player who won most times simply hoarded money for buying points, rather than buying ‘fun’ stuff like ancestors.
  • The thinker: While there are many interesting ways to mitigate your dice rolls, Konja still felt much like an exercise in futility. You can add as many bells, whistles, twists and turns as you like, but if one player rolls ‘well’ and the other badly – guess who is going to win? Sure, I’m not the target audience here and I certainly didn’t have a bad time playing – the game is short enough that the high level of luck is acceptable. But there doesn’t seem to be a viable, more strategic option available here. For me the best dice games have a ‘roll and hope’ model that may win you the game, plus a slow and steady one with less outliers.
  • The trasher: I’d really looked forward to Konja, as the thought of a straight push-your-luck dice battle always excites me – but I was a bit disappointed. There’s hardly any real interaction between players and it certainly doesn’t feel like the advertised ‘dice duel’. Sure, there are some spell cards that liven things up but beyond that – how is ‘roll dice, mitigate bad roll, repeat’ a duel?! A duel should be action packed! This game is ponderous, with a player’s turn feeling long and convoluted even after repeat plays. Not for me.
  • The dabbler: As always, I loved the artwork and effort put into the components. The little skulls on the dice are adorable, which sounds weird – you’ll have to check them out. We really didn’t like the red ‘screw you’ dice power, which lets you mess with the other player’s results. Luckily there is a variant included where, instead of removing a dice from the other player, the red dice is used to upgrade one of your own dice if you roll something better with it. We found this also sped the game up a little, rather than slowing it down and frustrating us. Played like this, I found plenty to love in the world of Konja.

Key observations

For a game that revolves around a one-on-one dice chucking mechanism, Konja is actually a slow and thoughtful game. This thematic break can be hard to overcome and feels like a misstep for some players. This is not King of Tokyo.

While the god abilities is a good mechanic, the five choices are so specialised that they rarely feel like choices. Normally one choice is the obvious one, no matter what style of play you choose – at least one tends to be pointless, for example, or one may clearly favour your opponent. It also feels like a very mechanical step that breaks game flow for what is often a very small payoff.

Some have said that the card powers are unbalanced, but I can’t say this is really something I noticed – and even if it is a bit of an issue, the game is short enough that it is unlikely to be much of an issue. spell cards are one-and-done, while players start with identical ancestors: those you buy later will only be used a few times each, so are unlikely to have a massive impact – especially when you’re rolling a load of dice, which are pretty random themselves…

Conclusion

When a design team decides to keep revisiting the same mechanism, as a punter you hope they’ll continue to refine – or adapt – to create a set of games that fans of the original will love. Mac Gerdts and Uwe Rosenberg are the obvious proponents of this design ideology, and who can argue (sensibly) with their results?

Pleasant Company are doing it with this ‘dice quest’ game system and while I loved the first two offerings (reviews linked above), for me Konja feels like a small misstep. But hey – you can’t win them all, right? And I’m sure some players will prefer this to the others – if you like puzzley, gorgeous push-your-luck dice games you should definitely seek it and give it a try, especially if you haven’t played anything in this series. But why wasn’t I sold on it?

For me, a great two-player experience means getting inside the head of your opponent. This can be done in the simplest to most complex games: I love anything from The Rose King to Race for the Galaxy two-player. I want to be worrying about what the other player will do next but here I didn’t feel that. Take other Yahtzee-style games, such as Heck Meck or Decathlon. These aren’t ‘two player’ games, but when played with two you need to think about what the other player is up to: can I steal their tile, do I need to go for it on this event etc. Konja feels too restrained, despite all the mitigation. I just didn’t feel as if there were any truly satisfying ‘Hail Mary’ moments.

I know the guys have another game in the works with the same dice mechanism. Titled ‘Grim Heroes’ and slated for a 2019 release, it takes this dice system into the co-op fantasy realm – where I have high expectations for it working wonderfully.

* I would like to thank Pleasant Company Games for providing the game for review.

My top 50 board and card games (2018 update)

Welcome to my fifth annual Top 50 board and card game list. As always, I hope it may inspire someone to take the plunge into this wonderful and revitalised hobby – or that one of the more obscure picks may pique an older gamer’s interests. This is a real mixture – there are loads of games here suitable for families, kids, couples, you name it.

My method for picking the games is a mash up of how much I like them, how much I play them, how great the design is, and who/how many groups they work with. You’ll find games taking from 15 minutes to four hours, from two players to 10, and from free to £50+. But you won’t find any games with minis. Maybe next time…

More than half of the games link to my in-depth reviews of them, so if you want more info simply click through. And if a game isn’t reviewed but you’d like some more information – or if your favourite game isn’t on the list and you demand to know why – head to the comments below and call me out.

My Top 20 board and card games 2018 (last year’s position in brackets)

  1. (1) Race for the Galaxy (2007)
    Despite just five plays in 2017, Race retains its top spot for the fifth year in a row. Once you get past the learning curve caused by an overindulgence in icons, you’ll find an engine/tableau building card game par excellence. There’s luck in the draw, but for a game lasting 30 minutes that’s fine with me – and this variety means it blows San Juan (which has similar mechanisms) out of the water: especially in terms of replayability. Hugely tactical, clever play can see you benefit from other players’ actions – so while there is little actual interaction, a good player wins by using their opponents.
  2. (30+) Terraforming Mars (2016)
    There used to be a game per year that troubled my Top 10, but it’s been a couple since a real top-level keeper came along – but boy is this a good one. I’d always wanted a longer version of Race for the Galaxy, with a board, and I guess I’m not the only one – because while very different, Terraforming Mars is a two-hour tableau/engine building card game with a board. It has the same massive stack of random cards too, although the longer game time and seeing more cards means it feels less random. And while player interaction is again limited, it makes up for it with fantastic timing and competitive end game mechanisms. A new classic.
  3. (3) Downfall of Pompeii (2004)
    I play a lot of family/lighter games, as many of my friends are less into the heavier side of the hobby than me – but Pompeii is one of those games that appeals to both audiences with aplomb. 2004 was a great year for family releases and I fear it was a little left behind in the Ticket to Ride buzz, but for me it is at least its equal: simple to learn, plays in an hour, and generates brilliant table talk. The clever switch in play style half way through is something I’m amazed we don’t see more of in gaming; you start by populating the city, then run like hell once the volcano starts erupting – sacrificing your opponents to the flames as you.
  4. (2) Ticket to Ride (2004)
    Still an absolute favourite, probably only falling behind Pompeii because I play it a lot more and enjoy it about the same. It’s the game I wish would replace Monopoly in every household, as it is simple to learn and fun to play, but is all over and done in an hour or so. There are also extra boards you can buy that spice things up a little when you get bored (ho ho) of the base game – with my current favourites being Legendary Asia (tight and fast) and Pennsylvania (adds stocks for a little extra depth). There’s also a great app if you want to try it on your phone first.
  5. (5) Ra (1999)
    Ra continues to ride high on my list despite a decreasing number of plays. One person in my most regular group doesn’t like it and the majority of my other gaming is now done two-player, ruling this classic Knizia 3-5 player auction game out for most occasions. However, while writing this, I’ve found a very popular two-player variant – so that’s my next game session sorted out then! And I can see it working fine with two: while it’s a bidding game, you only get one bid each time – it’s more about pushing your luck and evaluating the current value of the pot.
  6. (6) Terra Mystica (2012)
    Very few plays, again, but still an absolute favourite. This euro game is also on the heavier side in terms of complexity, but still plays in less than two hours. It has a pleasing amount of interaction despite not being an aggressive game, while you have many meaningful decisions to make each turn that really can swing your fortunes. While it is a ‘changing stuff into stuff’ game it does it in a way that means you always feel a sense of progression along an arc towards the game’s end. It’s just a really pleasing, if complex, experience.
  7. (4) Deus (2014)
    A lack of plays has seen a small drop for Deus, but the Egypt expansion (which I’ve only played once so far) has given the game a new lease of life. It’s the kind of modular expansion I love, where you can add as many of the elements (essentially a different set of cards for each type of building) as you like to spice things up and add variety. It’s still a great 60-90 minute euro game of finding the best card combos you can in a race for victory points – with the added bonus of two ways to win keeping everyone on their toes.
  8. (8) Concordia (2013)
    Did someone say one to two-hour euro game? There must be an echo in here… Clearly my genre of choice, this is one of my favourite examples of them: snappy turns, loads of important and meaningful decisions, and a great mix of tactics and strategy. Again the expansions that have come out have mixed things up nicely, adding different boards and a few extra rules you can throw in if you want a little bit more complexity. It also works brilliantly across all player counts, making it a great all-rounder to have on any gaming shelf.
  9. (12) Can’t Stop (1980)
    Another slow creep up the table despite all the odds, Can’t Stop is here to prove you don’t have to be young and cool to make this list. Now pushing 40, this classic Sid Sackson push-your-luck dice game is still a hoot every time I play it – whether it’s with experienced or novice gamers of any age. It’s amazing how fun Sid managed to make what is basically a maths puzzle – just don’t tell the kids they’re learning something! It plays in under an hour (and has a few variations that can speed it up) and is great two to four players (I bought extra pieces to add a fifth player – and you can go more).
  10. (9) Through the Ages (2006)
    While the recent app released for this is brilliant, it just went to give me another platform on which to be useless at this wonderfully complex civilisation building card game. Even with just two players you’ll be looking at two to three hours of brain burning – so add more players at your peril. But more players means more targets for your evil plans, so you loses nothing except hours in the day. The game’s biggest triumph is giving you that feeling of conflict, of scale and of progression through time without the need of a board.
  11. (16) Thurn and Taxis (2006)
    While Pompeii and Ticket to Ride have been my perennial family board game hits, others have come and gone. The likes of Carcassonne, New York 1901 and Survive had their moments but ultimately fell away – but with each play, I feel Thurn and Taxis is here to stay. Sure, it’s beige and boring to look at with a theme would send all but the most hardened Victorian era German postal service fan to sleep… but the game itself is an excellent mix of route building and card collection.
  12. (15) Ingenious (2004)
    I’ve now played 50 games of Ingenious, seeing it join a pretty exclusive club – and Sarah enjoyed it too, meaning it should good more plays in the coming months. It’s a classic Knizia abstract game with a clever scoring system that ensures that, somewhere after half way, play changes from simple score accumulation to either defending or breaking out from your board position. It was one of my first games when getting into the hobby and I’ve never looked back.
  13. (19) Notre Dame (2007)
    This now classic euro game continues to climb, I think largely due to its short game time and ease of teaching – while still containing the essence of a great Stefan Feld game. For me, this is card drafting done right: a hugely important component of the game that offers tough choices and restrictions – but that then gets out of the way and lets the other mechanisms take over. And at its heart there’s a mean optimisation engine ready to crash your plans at every misstep.
  14. (7) Oracle of Delphi (2016)
    Quite a drop for this fantastic Feld euro game, but only because the new game shine came off a little in the face of so many new games – meaning it has had precious few plays since last time. It’s games like this that have made me curb my ambitions for this year’s Essen – I’ve played so may mediocre games this year, while titles such as this sit unplayed. While it has a typical Feld ‘point salad’ feel, here it’s funnelled into a race against time that focuses the mind beautifully.
  15. (20) Codenames & Codenames Duet (2015/2017)
    Codenames is a game of finding associations between words set out in 25-word grid – but while you’re trying to get your team to guess some of the words, others need to be avoided. Codenames was slipping out of my Top 20 – but Codenames Duet gave it a new lease of life. It’s a game Sarah and me have played a lot, largely because it’s just so different to other games. We’re both into language, so get a real kick out of it – and there’s nowhere to hide in a two player game!
  16. (11) Bora Bora (2013)
    After a Feld-free Top 10, Bora Bora becomes the third of his designs to make my Top 20. There’s not much to say about a game that has become a ‘once a year’ one for me that I really enjoy. Loads of ways to score points; a clever and original worker placement mechanism (this time with dice); and the liberal sprinkling of luck and passive interaction. Some find the colours a little gaudy and of course the theme is pasted on, but I still prefer it to many of his more fashionable titles.
  17. (14) Snowdonia (2012)
    While my plays of Snowdonia are diminishing, my enjoyment of those plays is not. It’s a wonderfully tight worker placement euro game with one of the cleverest mechanisms you’ll find in terms of moving the game along – and surprising the players at the same time. The theme is both original and well realised, while the whimsical artwork also adds to the charm. You can build a strategy, but when the weather does what it feel like you’d better have your tactical brain ready!
  18. (17) Caverna (2013)
    Another member of the ‘once a year’ euro club, Caverna is now comfortably my favourite long Uwe Rosenberg game. Most of his games end up having two big of a decision space for me to enjoy in the latter stages, where Agricola and Caverna focus you on a plan which helps narrow that as you laser in ate game. And of the two I prefer Caverna, as I’m less keen on Agricola’s pre-game card draws that shapes things too much before you’ve even begun.
  19. (NEW) Azul (2017)
    This is the lowest ‘highest new entry’ since I started the Top 50 and it is more out of caution than anything else. If anything I’m more confident of Azul staying around than many of those I’ve placed higher in previous years, but just how high I’m not too sure. It’s a beautiful, simple, elegant abstract game that plays in 30 minutes and is great from two to four players: right in my wheel house. The only reason I don’t own it already is because I’m waiting for the improved third edition.
  20. (30+) Maori (2009)
    I didn’t introduce this to Sarah until August, but I’ve played it 10 times since (nine with her) – hence its clamber back up the chart. It’s a relatively cheap, relatively small box tile placement game with lovely, simple artwork and gameplay – but that has some really tough, really nasty elements once you get the hang of it! Despite a small number of components games play really differently, and quickly, giving it loads of replayability – with some great variants to ramp up the complexity.

21-30 (alphabetical)

  • NEW Adios Calavera (2017) The first of two new two-player abstract games in this section, but both ooze personality. This one revels in its pasted on ‘day of the dead’ theme, but it’s the clever design that makes it shine. Chess in race form, one player goes north-south and the other east-west – crossing in the middle to cause havoc.
  • Archaeology: The Card Game (2007) Despite having failed to pick up the improved 2016 reprint, I’m still really enjoying my original version of this clever little push-your-luck romp. It’s a simple set collection card game with just the right amount of twists and turns and it’s also super accessible to non-gamers.
  • Macao (2009) I’ve played this at least once every year since picking it up in 2010 and I’m still loving it – although I still never feel in control, or have any idea who is going to win. This dice-driven euro game really shouldn’t work, and the luck can be brutal, but it somehow has enough charm for me to forgive it. A Feld classic.
  • Merchant of Venus (1988) A big drop from the Top 10 this time, but I can’t see it dropping any further until a better pick-up-and-deliver game comes along. I still love the game, but it’s a little fiddly – which is made worse by my shonky old charity shop original. Please, gaming gods, give me a Firefly themed reprint!
  • Navegador (2010) A little dryness and player count problems saw Navegador drop out of my Top 20 this time, but on its day with the right two or (preferably) four players this is still one of the best euro game experiences on the market. I just love games with quick, snappy turns but where every decision counts.
  • NEW Patchwork (2014) I was reintroduced to this two-player abstract earlier this year and quickly fell in love – as did Sarah – so it is now at the top of my wish list. The gorgeous quilt-style artwork is so inviting, masking what is actually a thinky and cutthroat Tetris-style puzzle game.
  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (2003) This is a simple family Yahtzee-style dice game, the rules of which you can download for free from Knizia’s website – all you need to play are eight regular six-sided dice and a pen and paper to play. Go go go!
  • Twilight Struggle (2005) The cold war in a box, with a clever mix of war game and euro-style card game to drive it along. It ramps up the tension and intrigue to match the game’s setting, while throwing in all the history a good war game needs, and is rightly considered one of the best games of all time by both euro and war game fans.
  • NEW Yokohama (2016) This Okazu Brand release totally passed me by in 2016, but luckily a TMG reprint lead many to it – and subsequently to me via friends Keef and Clare this year. It’s a really thinky point salad euro with a touch of Istanbul’s movement mechanic, but there is so much game here. I’ve ordered a copy.
  • Yspahan (2006) A very short drop in places, but only really due to a lack of play opportunities. with its slick euro style and simple dice selection mechanism, it would probably be all the rage if released today – but sadly it now seems largely overlooked and has slipped quietly out of print. But a great game nonetheless.

31-40 (alphabetical)

  • Copycat (2012) Another drop for Copycat, this time after my last few plays have fallen a little flat. I still enjoy the game a lot but it always felt as if it would need an expansion, but its lack of popularity meant it never came. It can also run a little long; but I still really enjoy its mix of Dominion and Agricola mechanisms.
  • Entdecker (1996) I’ve neglected this tile-layer a bit over the past year, but the memory of some super fun if swingy and daft games have seen it hold its position. As a tile-laying game it lacks a little finesse, but for me it makes up for that with the story it tells. And it’s just about short enough to get away with it too.
  • NEW Kingdomino (2016) The simplest ideas are often the best, and Kingdomino nailed it: take the classic idea of dominoes and take it up just a notch with area majority scoring, making it appeal to gamers while not scaring off casual players. A well-deserved Spiel de Jahres award followed, as did as Top 50 spot from me.
  • Manhattan Project (2012) After nearly dropping off the list last time, Manhattan Project has managed to move back up despite not getting a play since my last list. Last year it was a victim of too many euros – but now several of those have fallen out of favour – so up this classic gores again. I just need to play it some more!
  • Pizza Box Football (2005) If you want a dice-chucking NFL game this still reigns supreme, despite feeling even older mechanically than its 13-year age suggests. Rolling dice and checking tables shouldn’t be this much fun, but there you go. A slight drop in position, but still a must for American footy/spreadsheet fans.
  • The Rose King (1997) A hold for Rosenkonig, still one of the best two-player small box abstract games around. I need to bring this one home (it has been at work for ages for lunchtime plays that rarely happen now), as I’m intrigued to see what Sarah thinks after how much she has enjoyed Adios Calavera.
  • 6 Nimmt & X Nimmt (1994/2016) A slight drop for this great pair of light, quick and clever card games. My enjoyment of them hasn’t waned – they’ve just been eclipsed a little by a few new shiny games. But if I want an easy to teach card game for anywhere up to 10 players, I still know where to turn.
  • Thebes (2007) I’d definitely describe this one as a guilty pleasure – and it actually went up a section this year. Crazy randomness abounds in this light family board game and it’s anyone’s guess whether the best player will win – but it is fun enough for me not to really care, while having a really clever turn mechanisms.
  • Tumblin’ Dice (2004) I still haven’t managed to get hold of this brilliant dice dexterity game, but it’s only a matter of time. Flick dice down a wooden board – sounds a bit rubbish, but is totally compelling and one play is never enough. I just wish a big publisher would pick it up and then stick with it.
  • Tzolk’in (2012) Another year and another drop for this brilliant yet frustrating euro game. It’s clever and thinky with a brilliant cog mechanism, but I just find it frustrating that no matter how much I play I don’t feel I get any better at it – and the first half of the game can feel like you’re treading water. But I still love it lol.

41-50 (alphabetical)

  • Africana (2012) Another solid hold this year for Africana, largely because it has become one of Sarah’s favourites (we’ve had six plays since the last top 50). It’s a pick-up-and-deliver family game that plays in an hour that has just enough extra juice to keep more serious gamers engaged too.
  • RE Alhambra (2003) This one has snuck back onto the list, more due to others falling a little out of favour than any other reason. It’s a set collection and tile placement game that I’ll always enjoy, as it has a clever majorities scoring system and loads of replayability through its many expansions.
  • Brass (2007) Another year with no plays of this classic – but I still can’t bring myself to drop it from the 50! Despite a dry theme it has a brilliant balance of tactics and strategy, but the long play time and high complexity make it a pretty hard sell to the gaming groups I’m close to right now.
  • Divinare (2012) I doubt this will ever leave the list, as it’s a unique, beautiful and incredibly clever game design. The mix of guess/deduction work and light screwage make for a fun experience every time, despite every player always feeling they’re doing terribly and that the game hates them!
  • The Dwarves (2012) While I still always enjoy my plays of this clever fantasy co-operative game, it has dropped a little way down the rankings this year. I’m above 10 plays of it now and even with expansions it isn’t the most varied game in the world, so it’s stock is starting to fall – but it is still my go-to co-op game.
  • El Gaucho (2014) This has fallen a little due to lack of plays. I really need to introduce it to Sarah, as it certainly has some elements she may like: great artwork, a small rules overhead, set collection, and a one hour-ish play time. If she likes it, it may well rise again – or fall off the list next time around.
  • For Sale (1997) This is the third game in a row that has dropped back into this section from the one above since last year. But this cute, light and quick card and bidding game is still one of my favourite fillers, so will always have a place in my collection. And it’s great right up to six players.
  • NEW Ilos (2017) The last new release on my list is a sub-hour tile-laying and card/action selection game with a simple yet thought provoking market scoring system. It’s another rearranging of the design toolbox, but it does it elegantly in a stylish package that really sings.
  • RE Kingdom Builder (2011) This has been off of the list since 2015, but a couple of plays last year reminded me just how good (and unique) a game it is. I also have more expansions to try out now, which raises my enthusiasm levels again, while its simplicity and short play time make it highly accessible.
  • NEW Love Letter (2012) Despite being mentioned on loads of my blog posts, in everything from top 10s to best gaming experiences in several years, this is the first time in the 50. Fast and pocket-sized, anyone can play – and you can play anywhere. It’s a real Swiss army knife of a filler game that deserves a place here.

Out of the 50

This game that fell furthest in the list was Acquire (from the 20-30 section); while Ulm was the only one of last year’s new release entries to fall straight back out of the Top 50. I still like both, but other games are consistently chosen ahead of them.

It’s a similar story for The Boss, CV, Ancient Terrible Things, Blueprints, The Castles of Burgundy and Pickomino: all probably in my next 20 favourite games. The only one that has really fallen from grace is The Bloody Inn, which dropped a long way last year and further this. I’d like to try the expansion, but don’t have enough faith in it to pull the trigger. It’s simply too inconsistent an experience.

I’ve noticed that each year I pick a higher number of definites for the 50, with then a larger number of games scrapping for the minor positions. I quite easily picked 30+ I was confident of, then had to pick 20 more to join them from a very close gaggle of around 40 games I really like. There was the option to drop down to a 30 or 40, but I do like consistency. Or of course I could go up to a top 75. Or even a top 100…

As for other new releases from 2017/18, I’ve now played all the games I was given to review and with the possible exception of Agra, I can’t see any of them troubling the list. But you can guarantee at least one gem has slipped under my radar and I’m hoping to try a few more of the hot recent games over the next month or two, including Gloomhaven and Spirit Island.

Final thoughts and old Top 50 links

There were nine new entries this year, but just three of them were new releases – and of those Ilos was the only Essen pick I brought home: I was sent Adios Calavera before the show, while I managed to miss Azul until its third printing.

Looking back over the past five years’ releases it is a familiar tale: there are 11 games in my Top 50 released between 2013-2016, and three of those only arrived on the list this time around.

However, if you add in 2012’s nine entries on the list it means there are 20 games from the past five years – so along with this year’s releases, practically half the list. I still love a lot of games from the past, but it’s hard to argue with those that say, generally, board games have taken massive leaps forward over the past few years.

My final observation was a slightly embarrassing one: How many games are still in my Top 50 that I haven’t played since the last time I compiled this list? The sad truth is it was eight of them before I started this post, although none of those are in the Top 20 games. I’ve since knocked four of those off but still, it’s pretty ridiculous and another reason to curb my new release intake – especially seeing as I seem to lack the ability to spot a winner from the reams of Essen releases!

My top 50 games from 2017
My Top 50 games from 2016
My Top 50 games from 2015

My Top 50 games from 2014

Transatlantic: A four-sided game review

Transatlantic* is an economic card-driven euro game from designer Mac Gerdts. It plays two-to-four players and takes one to two hours (once you know the game), taking longer at higher player counts.

There’s quite a lot going on here, so the age suggested (12+) feels about right. But if your kids are younger and have player other Gerdts games, they’ll be equally at home playing this one.

Transatlantic sees players taking the roles of shipping companies in the age of steam, taking a historic journey from the earliest commercial steam ships (mid 1800s) through to the early 20th Century (yup, The Titanic is in here). You’ll buy modern ships and watch older ones become obsolete, but hopefully long after you’ve made a solid profit from them. The theme is fine, and there’s the usual PD Verlag history document in the box, but it’s as dry as it sounds.

The components are a mixed bag, which I’d have to conclude fall a little short of what we now call average. The main and player boards are dull if functional; the card stock fine but with some odd graphic design – and poor colour – choices; the paper money is thick and nicely designed, but it’s paper money; and the cardboard chits and wooden pieces are fine but uninspiring. Overall it doesn’t look great on the table but is perfectly serviceable; although using largely dark shades for the cards was a big misstep.

Teaching

If teaching to players used to playing previous Mac Gerdts games Concordia and Navegador, this will be a breeze. But even if not, Transatlantic has an easy to follow and well written rulebook – including a separate sheet for setup.

While setup is a little fiddly it does skip through what would be a boring couple of opening rounds, while setting all the players up competing in the various oceans of the world. This is a game with an underlying economic element built around area control, so forcing everyone to place their first two ships into different areas gets things off on the right foot.

After this you’ll be taking typically Gerdts short, snappy turns – as with Concordia, you’ll play a card and do its action: that’s it. One of your cards (you each start with the same hand of eight cards) allows you to pick up all your played cards back into your hand, so you can do those actions again.

When you do this you also get to take a new card from a public display, so as the game goes on reach player’s hand of cards start to deviate from the rest (you probably get slightly less extra cars than in Concordia, but there are several that feel more specialised and unique than in his previous release).

Standard actions see you buying and then deploying new ships; filling those ships with coal; or using the coal on ships to earn profit by transporting goods or passengers. You’ll also be buying trade houses, coal bunkers and business markers – which then help you score victory points as the game progresses. Trade houses encourage you to use your ships in the sea you place them; while the rest of the markers will increase the value of ships you have of a certain colour.

Whenever someone buys ships, one that hasn’t been bought goes into the ‘docks’; meaning ships of this colour will be worth one extra victory point later. This means ships in a colour no one is buying become more valuable – but of course there are less of them around. You can try to specialise or diversify, but as usual in Gerdts games the name of the game is efficiency: the player who best uses their tactical situations to feed their long term strategy is likely to come out on top.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: As a big Gerdts fan, and a lover of Concordia, I’d looked forward to Transatlantic with growing enthusiasm – especially after it was delayed a year to make sure it was just right. I also like how he takes a mechanism (such as the rondel) and runs with it for several games. Concordia kept just enough of his usual style but was an interesting take on deck-building – so another instalment was welcome. I even quite like the theme. It was easy to learn too, and despite some fiddliness easy to teach. But sadly, despite the pedigree, there just wasn’t a spark.
  • The thinker: This game is way more tactical even than Concordia, especially at higher player counts. Ships rocket past in the buying market and money margins are so tight (especially early on) you’re left with little to no control over what to buy. I’m sure that with practice this feeling may dissipate, but after several plays it still felt more random and fluctuating than i feel comfortable with. And while this is offset by the short-ish playing time, I’d rather player a game with more control that plays longer. Unfortunately, a disappointment.
  • The trasher: With a dull theme and look, I was surprised to find anything at all I liked in Transatlantic – but it definitely has some interesting interactions. Shipping decisions are often predicated by which ships have coal at what times, as sometimes you can ship a whole region – so timing can be crucial. Control of areas is also interactive, as you can’t beat pushing players’ ships out of areas they’ve spent money building trade houses in. And then there’s the Blue Riband – the only free victory point generator, but you can only get it by putting out the fastest ship into the North Atlantic.
  • The dabbler: I was quite surprised that I liked Concordia, but I really couldn’t warm to this one. It looks pretty ugly and without a main boar to move around it simply isn’t spatially appealing. I was moving things around and playing cards, but so many of the actions felt as if they were just variations on a theme. I certainly didn’t hate the game, and everything worked, but I never really felt engaged. And for me it wasn’t the theme – I like something a little different and it’s nice seeing the old style painting of all those classic ships. I just couldn’t really get into it.

Key observations

The more critical words players kept coming back to while playing Transatlantic were ‘abstract’ and ‘dry’ – which is odd, as several of my group (including me) really like dry, abstract games!

During play the games seems fiddly, but I think this is exacerbated by its repetitive nature: you’re son dong the same things over and over, in the same fiddly way, but the payoff doesn’t seem to improve with time. Sure, you’re getting more money per transaction and maybe a slightly better action from a new card – but these things don’t feel different.

While I didn’t have any issues with the rule book, it seems a lot of others did. Sure, its a bit of a dog’s breakfast in terms of layout – but personally I didn’t find it slowed me down. That said, it doesn’t flow well and I had the advantage of being familiar with Concordia – which works in a similar way. So do be aware mileage in this department may vary.

Finally, colour blindness issues with the cards really need a mention. One ship colour is white – but unfortunately the others are black, darkish blue, dark green and a deep maroon red. No, I have no idea what they were thinking – and to make it worse, there is no symbology to tell them apart (they all have the same shape flag on them with no pattern). This is pretty unforgettable in modern gaming, and it does feel a little as if some of the older, traditional German publishers are getting left behind.

Conclusion

I don’t own every Mac Gerdts/PD Verlag game, but have played and enjoyed all the ones I’ve come across – including this one. But Transatlantic is the first I’ve owned that won’t be staying in my collection. Perhaps if it had come along before Concordia, the card play would’ve been enough to keep me playing – but this very much feels like a backward step from that, rather than a forward one.

If you’re a Gerdts fan, like economic games, or if the theme appeals, I’d recommend seeking it out for a play. It is a solid design and mechanically there’s nothing wrong with it at all. But in comparison to his other recent titles, I found it a little lack lustre in terms of a hook, a spark, or a reason to keep coming back. Transatlantic is a solid 6.5, but I just didn’t find anything to love.

* I’d like to thank PD Verlag for providing a discounted copy of the game for review.

Board game Top 10: Two-player games

While there are thousands of board and card games that work well with two players, there’s often something a little bit special about games that specifically designed for two players to go head to head.

Below you’ll find my favourites, with a skew towards games for all: I’d be confident of teaching all but two these to pretty much anyone. Better still, almost all of them should cost you less than about £20.

Games are linked by the title where I’ve reviewed them elsewhere on the site – and pretty much all of them are easily found in stores and online. And, as always, if you have any questions or want more info – or have your own recommendations – just pop them in the ‘comments’ below.

(Gamers: I’ve avoided expandable card games completely, as well as miniatures games – and have only included one war game. I think the majority of people that might come looking for a post such as this will be relatively new to the hobby and be looking for the kind of game I’ve included here; but hopefully you’ll find something new to check out.)

The best two-player board and card games

10. Battle Line/Schotten Totten (1999)
20 minutes

Battle Line, from the master of abstract game design Reina Knizia, is a fantastic card game that’s been in print for almost 20 years. Essentially an area control game, the idea is to win either five of the nine areas – or three adjacent areas (picture nine flags across the centre of the table between the two players, with you each playing cards to your side of those flags).

Players take it in turns to play and then draw a card: either a numbered card (1-10 in six colours), or tactics card (they add complexity, but you can leave them out). To win a flag you need to have a three-card combo in front of it that beats your opponent – decided by a simple poker-style scoring system (runs, straights and flushes). You can even claim a flag early if you can prove – due to what has been played elsewhere – that your opponent can’t possibly beat it.

9. Blokus Duo/
Blokus To Go
 (2005)
15 minutes

This is a travel version of the popular board game Blokus from Mattel, with a smaller board and starting positions designed specifically for two players. It has many of the classic two-player abstract tropes: each player has an identical set of pieces, taking it in turns to place one, making it a totally even playing field – and you start with all pieces available, so there are no elements of luck involved. The game’s rules are simple enough for a six-year-old to grasp, but there’s plenty of tactical depth there for seasoned gamers too.

See also: Hive (a hugely popular Chess-like abstract game) and Little Big Fish (a draughts-style game with added bells and whistles, including a modular board and some board spaces that set off random effects).

8. Twilight Struggle (2005)
120-180 minutes

I’ve deliberately steered clear of war games on this list, as they’re an entire genre to themselves – but no game has done more to straddle the divide between war and board games than Twilight Struggle. The number one game on Board Game Geek for several years (and still number four at the time of writing), the game emulates the battle for political influence across the globe between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War. It’s a card-driven game, with each card depicting an actual historic event – and each allowing players to manipulate the influence its superpower has over a country or countries. It’s a truly epic experience, and takes some plays to get your head around, but is well worth the effort.

See also: Wir Sind das Volk! (a similar style game set in the aftermath of World War II, with East and West Germany in a battle to make its citizens the happiest). 

7. Lost Cities (1999)
30 minutes

The second Reina Knizia abstract on the list, Lost Cities shares several traits with Battle Line above: players face off on opposite sides placing cards either side of (this time five) central areas. This time there are five colours with numbers 1-10 in each, plus several extra cards in each colour that can multiply your score in it. The trick is you must play these multipliers before you play any number cards of the colour (so it’s often a gamble) – and you can only ever play a higher number of a colour than you’ve already played. You won’t score positively in a colour unless your cards add up to at least 20 – and negatives also multiply. You have a play a card every round – either discarded or to your area – and both players tend to end up feeling the game has got something against them. It’s very clever indeed, but incredibly simple in terms of rules.

6. Caverna: Cave vs Cave (2017)
30 minutes

While a bit more of a gamer’s game, Caverna: Cave vs Cave does a great job of simplifying and distilling designer Uwe Rosenberg’s classic euro game Caverna into a small box experience. Players collect resources (six types) by taking actions, with the aim of using them to furnish their caves with new rooms – that will in turn either score them points or make their gathering and other actions more efficient. Despite a relatively small amount of components there’s plenty of variety and denial can be an important part of play, so it isn’t just a ‘do your own thing’ game.

See also: Rosenberg has given the same treatment to two of his other euro games. Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small is the most popular, distilling Agricola down to animal collection; but Le Havre: Inland Port is a clever but ultimately uninspiring resource management game owing little to its predecessor. 

5. Hanamikoji (2013)
15 minutes

This clever and quick little card game has just 28 cards and 15 cardboard tokens – but packs a lot of game into a very small package. Much as in Lost Cities above, both players will find themselves making agonising decisions – but here it feels as if every one, even the first, is like this each round.

On each round you’ll both play the exact same four actions, but the order in which you do them and how they affect the cards in play is always changing. Again you’re trying to win control in the majority of seven areas in which you can play cards, but some hidden information spices things up – along with the fact you know all but one card is placed in every round (but you won’t know the missing card). A game can be over in as little as five minutes, a single round, but it always feels like you’ve strained your brain in the process.

4. Targi (2012)
60 minutes

While a little longer and slightly more complex than most games on this list, I still feel confident I could teach Targi to most non-gamers. It involves laying cards in a 5×5 grid before players take it in turns to claim a column or row (until they’ve claimed three different ones each). You place your three pieces on edge cards, but also claim the two central spots where your rows/column intersect (for a possible five spaces each). These cards then give you resources, or let you spend resources to buy cards that then go in front of you and give you either an ongoing or immediate bonus – as well as end game points. It clever combines set collection, worker placement and tableau building while adding that crucial competitive two-player edge to create a really great game.

3. The Rose King/
Rosenkonig
 (1992)
30 minutes

I started playing this one on Yucata back in 2011 and got my own copy in 2013; and it has been in my Top 50 games since I started writing one in 2014 – not bad for a 25 year-old abstract game. Played on a 9×9 grid, players take it in turns to either play or draw a card – placing a stone in their colour on the board if they play a card. Each player has a maximum of five cards, but they’re left face up on the table at all times – so while the draw is random, all information is open. Each card allows you to move a specific number of spaces (1-3) in a specific direction, but you can’t land on your own pieces – and only have four times may you land on your opponents piece, flipping it to our colour.  Points are gained for large connected areas of your colour and despite its simplicity it plays out in a really unique way.

2. Adios Calavera (2017)
20 minutes

I seem to have been talking about this game a lot since its release, with little to no success in raising its profile, but hey – I think there’s a little life in this flogged horse yet! What is, in essence, a simple rush across a 9×9 grid for your eight playing pieces is made unique by one of your going north-south and the other east-west. The amount a piece can move is dictated by how many pieces there are in its row – but of course, one player’s tow is the other’s column – so you need to think about the strength of movement you’re giving your opponent as well as yourself. Add in eight different special powers for the pieces, and several variants of how many to use them, and you also have huge replayability. It also looks great – so what are you waiting for?!

1. Patchwork (2014)
20 minutes

It was a close thing between my top three, and to be honest I think they’re all about even in terms of quality; but it is the proven crossover appeal of Patchwork that has put it to the top of my list.

Just outside the Top 50 on Board Game Geek, it has been a massive hit with gamers – but the gorgeous patchwork artwork on the cardboard pieces makes it a real head turner – and a game that’s very easy to get non-gamers to take a look at; especially spouses. Unfortunately, outside mainline Europe, board gaming is still seen as nerdy and blokey in many places – so it is always great to see a game taking a punt on an unusual and female dominated theme and making it work. Better still, it’s a brilliantly mean spatial puzzle of a game with a small rules overhead but loads of depth.

Honourable mentions

There are a couple of two-player games that used to be firm favourites, but have since left my collection. Jaipur  is a fun little game I’d happily recommend to new gamers, and that is hugely popular – but personally I got a little tired of it over time, as it seemed the game came down to luck in more plays than I was happy with. It was similar with Jambo, which was enjoyable until being blown out of the water for me when Targi came along.

I also feel I’ll get told off by someone if I don’t at least mention 7 Wonders Duel: a massive hit that is in the Top 10 games of all time on Board Game Geek at the time of writing. The scoring mechanisms have a strong resemblance to its sister game 7 Wonders, as you use cards to claim other cards as you strive for end game points – but the mechanism of the game underwhelmed me and it felt as if a lot of games ended up being a little ‘on rails’, out of your control. But other opinions are obviously available – it has been a huge and popular seller.

Con report: ColCon 2018, near Colchester

Having just gotten back from the first running of the UK’s newest board game convention, ColCon, what better time to give it a bit of a write up; especially as it looks like it will become a regular fixture on the gaming con calendar.

My biggest takeaway was that, despite being very small (they didn’t have that long to promote it, from conception to event), it got all the most important thing right. So if you’re looking to plan your own convention – or wondering whether to come along to this one next year – hopefully this will stear you in the right direction.

I’d never heard of Marks Tey, a small village outside of Colchester – but the important thing is that its easy to get to either by train (the station is a 10-minute walk from the hotel and less than an hour to London) or car (its right on the A12). We rocked up Friday afternoon and checked straight in.

The venue

The Marks Tey Hotel is a Best Western, putting it firmly in the ‘better than a Travelodge’ category. And the organisers had worked out a price deal on a room that was a genuine bargain (£65 a double for two people, including brekkie).

I’ve been to cons before where the deal is no better than promos you’d find on hotel comparison sites – while the larger cons pretty much leave you to fend for yourself, with local prices rising as the event gains traction over the years. The place was a little tired, but the bed was comfy: sold.

Apart from the large (air conditioned when needed) room we were playing in, the hotel had loads of other areas (large and small) to expand into if we needed them – plus two bars, a restaurant, bar food. The food was pretty good too; standard hotel prices, but filling and tasty – as was the full buffet breakfast.

There’s even a spa on site (steam room, sauna etc), plus a 15m pool and gym; even a tennis court. Did I use any of them? Of course not – I was too busy losing at games in a darkened room. But it’s nice to have the option – especially if you have a partner, children etc who want a little more to do.

The con

Like most smaller conventions, ColCon had a very friendly vibe. You got a name badge as you came in and there was a small but interesting game library on hand – although most people brought huge bags full of their own favourites with them.

It was great to see a dedicated designer playtest area set up, with several playtest demos set up all weekend – as well as an upcoming Kickstarter title SSO (a narrative sci-fi game) you could try out. There were also a couple of small tournaments you could sign up for (Codenames and Terraforming Mars), but you got the feeling you’d have been welcome to try something yourself if you were so inclined.

Alongside the games library (probably about 50 titles) there was retailer Xtreme Trades on hand, as well as a ‘bring and buy’ area for anyone trying to sell some of their unloved games. There were the obligatory ‘looking for players’ signs to pop on the table if you were – you guessed it – looking for more players; and you could get food brought to your table from a reduced-price menu. For £25 for the weekend (Friday to Sunday) you certainly couldn’t complain.

Other important things: As well as Guinness on tap (a proper tap – not one of those shaky can thingies), the organisers had arranged for five (!) different real ales to be delivered from the local Colchester Brewery. Unfortunately one of them wasn’t their magnificent Brazilian Coffee and Vanilla Porter, but there was another nice porter amongst them (until it ran out early on Saturday – can’t think why…).

The games

As usual I seemed to spend as much timer faffing, drinking, talking and eating as I did playing games, but that suits me fine. I did manage 10 plays (despite no early starts or late nights – getting old!), with the only game I had to learn from scratch being a prototype.

I played four medium weight euros with old friends Keef and Clare: Yokohama, Deus, Transatlantic and Caverna. I started brilliantly in Caverna, but as always started to fade as the decision tree grew beyond my tiny mind – but managed to hang on for a share of the win. I also put in a decent display in Yokohama, coming a close-ish second, but I need to master the game’s arc. Again, I felt like I was motoring only to fizzle out toward the end.

This was our first play of Deus with the Egypt expansion – and perhaps stupidly we used all the new cards at once. This led to an awful lot of reading between turns, and not really having a clue what synergies might be on offer, but the consensus was that while really changing the game’s feel it kept all the things we liked about the original intact: a big win. Transatlantic was a little less well received, but more of that in my next four-sided review (next week).

Sarah joined us on and off through the weekend, which gave us the perfect opportunity to rest our addled brains with three lighter favourites: Ticket to Ride, Africana and Thurn and Taxis.

It was a first play of the Legendary Asia map for Keef and Clare, but it didn’t stop them coming first and second. It was the same in Africana – mainly because it is such a different game with four than with two. By the time Sarah and I had adapted our play, we were already dead and buried! At least I won Thurn and Taxis…

The prototype I got to play was The Seven Dwarves: a Kingsburg-style dice placement game. As the dice roll/placement system is currently identical to Kingsburg, it may be one publishers turn their noses up at: but the goals have a simpler set collection/recipe completion feel, making it a faster but equally satisfying experience. It needs some work but showed potential. Finally, Sarah and me had a couple of games of the cruelly overlooked Adios Calavera: now our go-to two-player game.

The end

I had a really nice time at ColCon. Staff and gamers were friendly, the facilities were excellent and prices reasonable: what more could you ask for? I expect the organisers will be a little disappointed with the attendance on the Friday and Sunday, but there must have been 50-100 there on Saturday – a sure sign of what is possible in future. I’m certainly hopefully of attending again next year. As long as there’s more porter…

As well as the link to its website above, you can also stay up to date with future events by following ColCon on Facebook.

Terraforming Mars: A four-sided game review

Terraforming Mars is a tableau-building, engine building card and board game for one to five players. While a solo game can be done in an hour, more will mean two to three hours (so if you want to play with five people, you’re in for the long haul).

The 12+ age rating is justified, as there is a lot of symbology and writing on the cards and it has a long play time – but the mechanisms are pretty straightforward (no more than medium gamer complexity).

And yes, the theme is in the title. Each player will be managing a corporation hoping to make its name by most successfully completing terraforming projects on Mars. I think the theme comes through well, as designer Jacob Fryxelius has clearly gone the whole nine in making the cards make thematic sense – and has managed to do so without a dice or a plastic miniature in sight.

The component quality is open to debate. The board is clear and functional, the 400 plastic cubes and 80 cardboard tiles perfectly serviceable, and the player boards super thin but functional (for the majority of players). But the 230+ cards leave a little to be desired in quality, and the art is a strange mishmash of drawings and photographs. Personally I find this strangely endearing, but I understand it’s a problem for some so you may want to take a close look at an opened copy if that sounds like you.

Teaching Terraforming Mars

For a group of new players the game can be daunting, but once up and running it’s surprisingly fluid and simple. You only need one experienced player to make things run super smoothly, and even if you don’t have that luxury a group of gamers will easily be up and running by the middle of their first game.

Between you, players will be collectively (but competitively) increasing the temperature (creating heat), oxygen level (largely through placing vegetation tiles) and sea level (ocean tiles) to make the planet habitable. Each time you increase one of these you’ll improve your ‘terraforming rating’ – which is a good thing, as it equates to both your income each turn and also the starting base of your endgame score. Once all three have been raised sufficiently, the game will end.

The majority of actions you’ll take in the game will be via playing cards from your hand. Each turn players will be dealt four new cards, which they then decide if they wish to hang on to: each will cost you three money to keep, with the rest simply discarded. As this is done simultaneously, it’s not really a chore. Players then play cards (or take other actions) in turn until everyone has passed, which triggers the next round.

Cards give you an immediate benefit, an ongoing one, or both. Many give you ways to increase your ability to create plants or heat (raising your terraforming rating), while others help raise your income (opening up the ability to play better cards, as well as having more flexibility in playing basic actions).

All the important actions can be done simply by paying for them, but this is always less efficient than card play – it just means you can do it when you like, if you can afford it. But the game has many subplots running alongside the main goal.

There are cards that give end game victory points, awards for finishing certain goals first, plus awards for being the best at certain things at the end of the game. While many of the better cards need certain conditions to be met before they can be played: you may need to have played a certain amount of cards with a specific symbol into your tableau, or need the game to have reached (or not passed) a certain point to be valid – for example, the temperature may need to have reached a certain level.

While the game has a variable end time, all paths lead to Rome: most things you do are pushing the game towards its conclusion, so games tend to last a similar amount of turns and ramp-up significantly, and satisfyingly, as the game reaches its climax. But multiple paths to victory and different starting corporation powers for each player means every game feels significantly different.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: The three paths needing to be completed in Terraforming Mars make each game a very different tactical battle. You only want to spend enough to make hay until a path maxes out, as every penny spent could be used elsewhere. Another nice tactical element is the simple addition of being allowed to play one action, or two, on each of your turns. This can equal extra considerations in several situations, such as trying to stay in a round to see what opportunities – or taking a double turn to secure some a bonus.
  • The thinker: While this is clearly a well-designed game deserving of praise, it’s not going to appeal to all strategic players. The 200+ unique cards and multiple strategies mean luck of the draw can very much damage your chances: not idea in a game that can last several hours. Some have turned to drafting to get around this, but for me it is not an adequate solution. It merely moves the luck, rather than solving the issue, while bringing in a player’s seating position as an additional issue (sitting left of a hate drafter, or a player keeping the best cards for them), will make a big difference). I certainly wouldn’t play with more than three players.
  • The trasher: Terraforming Mars is a winner for me despite its length. Interaction is limited to a little board placement and a few minor ‘take that’ cards, but I love having to deal with the random draw. Other great elements include trying to eke out any possible advantage to win an award at the end of the game, to beating your opponents to a bonus through a smart double action. I also like the fact your engine can be evolving radically right up until the final turn, allowing a smart (and lucky) player to really play the table and roll with the punches.
  • The dabbler: When I first look at the massive deck in this game I was tempted to run to the hills – so many different ‘cards with words’! But after a few turns things start to make sense and the theme just works. The symbology is simple after a while and if a card looked a bit much I simply discarded it lol. While all the cards may be different, they’re essentially different ways to do the same core set of things – most of which work in a straightforward way: when you get enough of A, you can do B. Sure, pretty much everything could’ve been prettier (except the ‘Pets’ card!) but in a complex game I’ll take function over form this time.

Solo play

Not that I have a load of experience with them, but Terraforming Mars has quickly become my favourite solo board game experience. The game plays in exactly the same way as usual, meaning you don’t have to deal with ham-fisted solo mechanisms – while the massive unique card deck and multiple starting corporations are already enough to make every game unique.

The big challenge the solo game offers is trying to get all three of the paths completed in a very limited amount of turns. At first this seems impossible, but the speed at which you can get things done really ramps up as the game goes on – making for a great narrative arc. Also the fact you have to do everything makes a nice change of pace from the competitive game, where you’re jockeying with your opponents and able to ignore certain parts of the game.

Key observations

While Terraforming Mars has proven hugely popular since its release, it certainly isn’t for everyone. And two (often linked) problems more often than not rise to the surface. First is the luck inherent in the random card draws – second is game length.

For some, the card choices are obvious each round – if you have any good choices at all. I would argue this tends to balance out over a game, as you’re seeing a lot of cards, but sure: some players are going to come out of this process better than others.

When you combine this with the game’s length, especially at higher player counts, it’s no surprise more strategic players get frustrated fast. Downtime can feel interminable with five players, even for a fan such as me; especially as very little your opponents do on a turn is likely to change your plans. You’re just waiting for your next turn. This doesn’t seem to be an issue in my groups, as one negates the other: easy decisions means fast turns, while the slow bit (deciding what to keep) is done simultaneously. But I can see this being a nightmare with new, slow, AP prone players.

While I had no big problems with the rulebook, it has been flagged up as problematic for some players. When you combine that with some component issues, it’s easy to understand why some also grit their teeth at the game’s relatively high price point. Again, I have some sympathy with this – and if you’re in any doubt, try the game before you buy where possible. Personally, there’s nothing in the box component wise that really bothered me – and its high replay value means I’m happy with my purchase.

Conclusion

A point I’ve read several times is, instead of playing this why not just play Race for the Galaxy four times instead? But for me, the two games really complement each other.

I love Race, and it’s still my favourite game, but Terraforming Mars is high in my top 10 game list. It scratches a similar itch, but it’s more than just ‘Race with a board’. You not only get to build an engine, but you also get to use it and really see it purr – where in Race the game ends just when things start to get interesting. It’s nice to have this as a slower alternative.

I wouldn’t defend or recommend the game to a strategist, as it is unlikely to appeal (unless they’re an absolute Mars nut). Nor will I defend the price point, although I understand the high initial cost of having to pay for all the art (as amateurish as much of it may look). And I’d really rather not play it with four or five players. But on my own or with a couple of friends, this is currently one of my favourite gaming experiences – and that is with my plays already well into double figures (and a couple of expansions available to me if the sheen starts to come off).

A board game designing diary: Pioneer Days

Some game designs come together easy – while others certainly do not. For every back-of-a-cigarette-packet mechanism that just goes from theory to ironing out the details, there are many, many more that are years in the making.

Rather fittingly, I guess, Pioneer Days – a game about the long, hard struggle of winning out against adversity – falls into the latter category.

Fact junkies: Add 200 years to the dates for a more accurate reading… (and much love to co-designer Matt Dunstan, who also wrote the original draft of this diary).

December 1813

We first set out, from Australia and England, on a journey quite unlike the one that would shape out fate: to design a game about dwarves brewing beer. But as with so many grand designs, our plans were dashed on the rocks and the expedition was a failure. Over complexity, and ideas that didn’t quite hang together, saw us walk away from yet another promising adventure.

But those initial dreams did bear some fruit: a crumb of an idea in which dice were rolled but, no matter whether they were 6s or 1s, you’d have an advantage of one kind or another. Here, we had individuals rolling their own three dice then using them to draft cards, each representing a worker dwarf: low rolls would get the first choices of cards, but higher rolls would use the cards they drafted more effectively. I still hold some hope for the idea, but at the time it had too many issues. Hate drafting was rife on low numbers, choices limited on high ones, and all round it was unsatisfying.

March 1814

Undeterred by our earlier failure, we set out with a new destination in mind. America! Matt had a plan: three cards per player will still be drafted with their dice (lowest first), but the cards will have a number of profession symbols (traveller, miner, farmer etc) on them.

The dice now only give a one-time bonus to the players, with the highest collection of each profession giving that player a bonus for the round; meaning the drafting was also about long-term strategy with the professions, rather than just short term tactical play.

Actions saw players move caravans across the plains; mine the hills; build in new territories; fight off hostiles, and of course feed their hardy pioneers. But something still wasn’t right. While we were now firmly on dry land and resolved to discover a new destiny, the dice mechanism still didn’t sit well with us. Low rollers were still denying others of the actions they want and the compensation for the high numbers wasn’t strong enough. Are we simply doomed to repeat our earlier failures?

May 1814

A breakthrough! Dysentery and terrible weather had laid us low, but the skies cleared and we could clearly make out the way ahead. Rather than different coloured dice for each player, the dice colours will represent disasters that may befall all our pioneers – and will be rolled from a bag each round. Players will draw one more dice than there are players, and draft one each – with the one leftover moving that disaster one step closer to befalling those brave souls. Colours represent illness (medicine required!), raids (there goes your money!), heat (your cattle will suffer) and terrain (say b-bye to your wagons – which were holding all your stuff!) – with the dreaded black dice seeing all four disasters moving ever closer.

The game has five turns, with each player taking five dice each turn, for a total of 25 actions in the game. Each can be used either for money (where high is better – and can be spent on wagons, specialist workers etc); or for an action (with better actions tied to lower numbers). And as an added twist, your final set of five collected dice will create a Yahtzee/poker style ‘hand’ which will give bonuses at the end of the round. We feel confident in our new-found mechanism – but will it just be another false dawn?

August 1814

We spent the previous few months on the trail with a more singular purpose and it finally bore fruit! The answer wasn’t poker, it was people! While we fine-tuned the mechanical side of the game we realised what it really needed was the personalities that made the original idea so compelling – the people (now pioneers) themselves.

These hardy folk have added a whole host of interesting abilities into the mix, adding more interaction between players and making the base actions far more varied and complex. But as well as adding colour, these pioneers have brought two levels of mechanical progression that have sealed the game’s structure.

The poker idea has gone. Instead, your pioneers offer a third (neutral, in terms of number rolled) option when choosing what to do with a dice: each number now has a person randomly drawn next to it each round, who you can add to your wagon train with that roll. And better still they each have a way of scoring end game points, helping you choose a particular path to follow. If you can keep them alive to the end of the trail…

January 1815

An investor! Our very own Oregon Trail seems to have ended, in fact, in Utah – via Essen, Germany. Back in October we met with a character named Seth Jaffee who represented a company called Tasty Minstrel Games: a publisher we trusted to do the right thing by us and our game, then called Frontiers. He took the game away to show it to his partners – and low and behold, we have ourselves a deal! The game we gave them back then was rough around the edges, but mechanically sound – and we’ve spend the last few months going back and forth with them smoothing the edges.

The difference between publishers is astonishing. Sometimes you can hand a game over and out it pops into the shops a year later with nary a detail changed; while with others you can be all but cut out of the development process. But if we thought we’d be able to hang out spurs up and relax this time, we were in for a shock! We’re consulting every step of the way, with not a week going by without discussions of a particular pioneer’s ability, or the relative strength of a particular action. It’s a long process, but worth every second – because each week, you know the game is getting better.

June 1815

While the trail is long and winding, and we often feel the end is in sight only to find another fork in the path, we continue to persevere. I was worried we may be taking too many rough edges away: this is the Wild West, after all.

But in hindsight I can see the wisdom behind Seth removing some of the more trouble-making townsfolk. Who knows, maybe they can return one day? Elsewhere, wagons now take damage rather than being destroyed by storms – meaning you won’t lose as many valuable resources!

As fun as some of them were, some ‘take that’ elements are just a little too crass for this style of euro game: especially when the key focus should really be on the disaster track. You should be worrying if bandits will take your gold if you let a disaster happen, rather than another player sniping it from you. If I’ve learned one thing from all the game design blogs I’ve read and podcasts I’ve listen to, it’s this: find where the game is. For us it is on the disaster board, and the tension that it brings – that shouldn’t be upstaged.

December 1816

The end of the trail cannot be far away now! Many months of further small iterations have seen us create themed decks of townsfolk, while working on individual player board abilities. The game is now called Pioneer Days, and artist Sergi Marcet has been brought on board to bring the game to life. He’s done an amazing job, even bringing some of our family members and play-testers to life on some of the townsfolk cards. You may even recognise a few of our fellow Cambridge, UK-based designers.

The different decks of townsfolk really help make each game feel different, as you can mix and match; some add a bit of randomness, others interactivity etc. The varied player board characters encourage different types of play style. You get two to choose from at the start of the game, but each also has a standard pioneer on the back (always a solid choice), so you can still opt for a balanced game if that’s what floats your boat.

October 2017

A limited supply of copies arrived at Essen Speil via aeroplane. Opening the first copy to find a beautiful game – but no dice – was a little terrifying! Especially as we opening the next, and the next to find the same thing… But a few phone calls later and we knew (prayed) they’d arrive the next day. They did – and the limited copies soon sold out, leaving us waiting on the rest to arrive by boat – perhaps even in time for Christmas?

***********

But once again, in a fitting nod to those hardy pioneers of old, transportation of the game across the seas hit rough waters. But despite what clearly must have been a succession of black-dice-level disasters, we never lost hope – and in Spring of 2018 Pioneer Days finally completed its troubled journey to the USA. We hope you like it!

Exploriana: A four-sided game review

Exploriana is a push-your-luck and set collection gateway level game for two to five players (I’d say three to five – see below) that usually plays out in around an hour.

The box states 10+ for the age range and that feels about right. While the game has very familiar mechanisms for gamers, there is quite a lot going on throughout.

The game is not yet published, but can be backed on Kickstarter now from £30 (which I think is great value). If you want to be kept up to date on its progress, and the Kickstarter launch, you can sign up for updates on the official Exploriana website.

While not a particularly thematic game, the central tenets of exploration and discovery, risk and reward, do shine though in the gameplay. As intrepid 19th Century explorers the players will be heading off to South America, Africa and the Far East to unearth ancient civilisations and exotic animals (gather cards for victory points): anyone familiar with games such as Archaeology and Thebes will find themselves in familiar territory.

The version I received was pre-production, as it is due on Kickstarter soon. But I hope they keep the gorgeous card art, which has a unique and compelling style. I also presume the component list won’t change much: central board (plus five player sheets), around 80 cards, 40 or so counters and some currency (I had cardboard coins). I have no idea about pricing options, but this is a medium sized game (the prototype was in a Carcassonne-sized box, which I see no reason to change).

Teaching

Prototype image

Exploriana is a super simple game to teach gamers, as everything you do feels completely familiar. And it works through three very distinct (yet simple) phases, so with less experienced players you can easily walk through one round of these to familiarise everyone, then rewind and start playing properly.

The game is played over several rounds (the amount varies on player count and potentially end-game conditions), each of which plays out in the same way: item auction, worker placement, exploration. The auction lets you gain equipment (for one-shot benefits and to bolster end-game scoring); worker placement sees you choosing which of the three areas you want to explore; then exploration sees you pushing your luck (or not) to collect cards from those areas – either for victory points, money (auction funds) or renown (for turn order and some end game scoring).

The auction couldn’t be much simpler, or much quicker. In turn order, players choose one of the available pieces of equipment (2-4 are made available each round) and put it up for auction by making a one-time bid for it. Each other player (in clockwise order) then either drops out or raises the bid until you’ve been around the table – and the winner takes the item. This clearly puts the opening bidder at a disadvantage (unless they have the most money), but of course they can choose an item they don’t want to be in better position later for the ones they do. Unlike a game such as Power Grid, there’s no limit to the number of auctions you can win – so going heavily for cash (over victory points) in early explorations to get lots of items is a legitimate strategy.

Prototype image

Each player has two workers (or thematically, explorers). The board has three areas depicting the three continents you can explore. Each area has space for 3-4 explorers (again, dependent on player count) which are placed, one each at a time, in turn order.

This is a very quick phase, but not without its interesting decisions. Being first into an area is only going to be good if what you want is already on show, or if the path forward is looking fairly risk free (see below) – while following a player who is taking a different path to victory than you could be equally beneficial.

Exploring is done from the top worker on the board to the bottom. There will always be at least two cards in an area when your explorer starts his turn, although there could be up to four. The active explorer has four choices: flip over a new card (if there is less than five on view), hire a helper (once per explorer), use a piece of their equipment, or stop exploring and cash out. If you cash out, you get your choice of one prize (normally one card) from that area – unless you have managed to turn over five cards in the area, which allows you two picks. Double the prize is clearly a strong incentive to keep pushing; but fail and you’ll get nothing.

So how do you fail? Each card in the exploration deck has a good chance of having one of three symbols on it, representing a disaster that may befall your intrepid explorers. If the flipped cards in your area ever have either one of each symbol, or three of the same ones, its curtains for you (you do get some coin back for your trouble). The three areas have increasingly higher chances of including those symbols on their cards, but – you guessed it – also have more valuable rewards. The rewards themselves are your bog-standard selection of set collection style scoring systems, while some give immediate boosts to your renown or cash pile. If a deck of cards for an area runs out, the game ends prematurely. Either way, the player with the most victory points will be the winner.

The four sides

Prototype image

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

  • The writer: In an age where a ridiculous number of games are released each year, it’s hard to get behind an elegant game which brings nothing new to the table. That said, there’s always a place for games that put existing mechanisms together in a satisfying way – and Exploriana does just that. The auction and worker placement are both satisfyingly interactive without any ‘take that’ or blind luck spoiling them; while the push your luck is just that – but with a bit of mitigation available to smooth the edges.
  • The thinker: There’s little here for the serious strategist, but the game doesn’t pretend otherwise. If a player simply flips cards and gets lucky, taking two prizes per turn but with no investment in mitigation, they’re likely to come out on top. But the game plays quickly and does exactly what it says on the tin, so no complaints from me. You can go for money and try to get items that help mitigate the luck – but frankly I’d rather just play something else.
  • The trasher: I rather enjoyed Exploriana. It’s fun trying to out-think your opponents in the auction, trying to work out what they’re holding their money back for; while good placement of your workers can make a real difference. And even if you think you’re losing, there’s nothing to stop you just going for it! There are different paths to victory to: go for money early to invest in items, stick straight for points, get turn order, or mix it up. All have their merits, making for a wealth of tactical decisions.
  • The dabbler: This game is right in my wheelhouse. The exploring theme works well with the push-your-luck idea, while the auction and card-flipping lend themselves perfectly to a bit of table talk. The different character sheets also add a little theme, while the card art is gorgeous (at least in the version we played). Add in the short-ish play time, simple set up and straightforward rules and you have yourself a winning formula for more casual gamers. And you get loot! Who doesn’t like loot?

Key observations

Weirdly, when I play Archaeology: The Card Game, I don’t feel the weight of our colonial past on my shoulders – but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a small but constant niggle here. It wouldn’t stop me playing, but I can see it putting some people off. The fact you’re so clearly taking treasures from places you shouldn’t reminds me of the Bugle Podcast gag: The British Museum is the biggest open crime scene on the planet.

As with so many 2-5 player games, that player count stretches reality a little – and this time, as in so many auction games, it’s the two-player version that suffers. It employs a clumsy mechanism in the worker placement phase that does its level best to imitate more player’s playing, but frankly – if you specifically want a two-player game, there are loads of good ones out there. Move along, nothing to see here.

Replayability is also a potential concern. I’ve enjoyed my five plays to date and am certainly not bored by any stretch, but I’d have liked a bit of variety squeezed into the box. This is very much a matter of opinion, as there’s a lot to be said for exact information in a bidding/push-your-luck game. But I’d have liked something: more items, perhaps another continent deck, individual player powers – take your pick.

Conclusion

I don’t often take games that are offered to me that are ‘coming soon on Kickstarter’, but with a long enough lead time to get a good number of plays in – and on reading the rules – I gave this one a punt. And I’m glad I did.

You can’t escape the fact Exploriana is purely a rearranging of the game design toolkit. Basic bidding, basic placement, and the ‘two picks for five cards’ push your luck element from Port Royal – job done. But you’d have to be pretty cynical not to be able to see past that when there’s a really solid execution underneath, as there is here.

I’ve had to pass this copy on to another reviewer, but when it (hopefully) comes out the other side of its Kickstarter adventure I plan on adding a copy to my collection of gateway games.

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

Board game Top 10: AireCon highlights

This is a bit different from my usual top 10s, but seemed a good way to talk about what was a fabulous weekend away in Harrogate. So expect an eclectic mix below including everything from prototypes to people to pork pies…

It was my first visit to AireCon and only its second year in its new venue. But with dates already announced for next year (March 8-10, 2019) and a big bump in attendance numbers this year (which more than doubled to more than 1,500 unique attendees) it feels as if it’s here to stay. And I feel as if it is now one of the first things I’ll be adding to my 2019 calendar.

So without further ado, and in no particular order, here’s…

My top 10 AireCon highlights

Monumental: Now on Kickstarter, designer Matthew Dunstan had a copy of his latest prototype with him. It’s a card-driven civ building euro that plays fast (60-90 mins), but you get a satisfying feel of progression throughout. You start with a couple of unique powers but through deck-building soon diversify more – and a clever system of activating a row and column from a 3×3 card grid offers strong replayability. The modular map has you bumping heads too, giving that proper civ feel.

Harrogate: As towns go, they don’t come much nicer. Despite being way oop north it’s an easy destination to reach by train – and once you’ve arrived, it’s very compact and pleasant to wander around. It’s got a lovely, oldie-worldy feel that reminds me of Edinburgh; lots of solid grey Victorian (that’s a guess) buildings and they’ve done well to keep the old town looking great. As it’s a big conference and tourist town, there’s also loads of variety in terms of hotels, bars and restaurants – including plenty of independent places. And better still, the prices are largely reasonable too. And better still, it’s only about a 20 minute walk to get out into the beautiful local countryside.

Yokohama: Despite years of practice, I’m still rubbish at picking out the best euro games from the huge annual list of Essen releases. This is another case in point: a game that passed me by in 2016 that, after two plays this year, I have totally fallen in love with. It has a similar modular board and route building mechanism to Istanbul, but there’s so much more complexity here. The theme and components add little, but the efficiency puzzle (as others players get in your way) is delicious. Add lots of ways to score, plus plenty of items to add variety, and you have a real winner for point salad fans such as myself.

Fine dining (beer, pie etc): Conventions of any kind can be a nightmare when it comes to the food and drink on offer, often leading to low quality and small portion sizes for a high price tag. AireCon fell down a little on variety, but what it did have was lovely. Both the small pork pie stand and craft beer stall had really nice offerings, while the pizza van also served up great pizza. Beyond a coffee/snacks stand there was only a typical burger van for variety – and anyone with food allergies was poorly catered for. But from a purely selfish (and unhealthy) perspective, the beer, pizza and pork pies were magic!

Mini Rails: One of the real arts of board game design is cutting through the excess nonsense to distil a game down to its pure essence – while retaining enough game to keep it fun. Admittedly this is after only one play, but Mini Rails seems to have nailed that concept. Buy stocks, build track, screw over the competition: this is a classic train stocks game in a small package that plays in under an hour, for three to five players. Mean, thinky and fun.

(Oh what an) atmosphere: What makes a good con atmosphere? Friends and/or friendly, happy people – check. Welcoming but unobtrusive staff/vendors who all actually seem to be enjoying themselves – check. Loads of space, for both walking around and gaming, meaning you never worry about finding somewhere to set up a game or having to push through crowds – check. Even at peak times on Saturday, there were always free tables in several areas, which makes such a difference. There was also an area set aside for quite gaming, one for RPGs, ones with a view of the outside world etc. All this was hugely conducive to having a stress-free weekend.

Pioneer Days: Despite 150 air-freighted copies of our latest release making it to Essen last year, Matt and me were yet to play hadn’t played the finished version together. But with the shipment having just arrived in the US this was a timely opportunity for us to have a game – and who better to teach it to than special con guest Mr ‘Watch It Played’ himself, Rodney Smith? Luckily he really enjoyed it (fingers crossed for a video in the not too distant future) and it was a good close game, with all within 10 points of each other. In a store new you soon folks…

The unexpected: While you make grand plans to play all kinds of games at a con, you invariably end up playing a bunch of things you didn’t expect to. Often they’re horrible dross that should be burned – but even the worst of my experiences here were OK. The best were Aquasphere (a Stefan Feld I’d been put off of by the gaudy artwork, is a solid puzzley euro); Nyet! (a trick-taking game with an interesting twist) and Dice Throne (the Yahtzee mechanic used to good effect in a fantasy combat game). All three games, while I won’t be seeking out for my collection, I’d be more than happy to play again.

Orleans: I don’t have much of a list of game I’m desperate to play, but Orleans was on that list: a game I’d earmarked to grab at Essen 2014 but that hadn’t quite made the cut – and that I’d tried and failed to play ever since. Having recently been a little underwhelmed by its successor Altiplano I had lowered my expectations – but as it turned out, I far preferred this bag-builder to its more recent companion. The fun is in the puzzle of trying to work out what your opponents are trying to do so you don’t get beaten to the punch, while creating a strong but lean selection of tiles (as in any deck-builder – the bag is purely a gimmick). It also looks good and plays smooth.

Zizzi: You know the stars are aligned when you’re wandering around feeling a bit hungry, spot an above average chain restaurant on the horizon, wander in – and they’ve  essentially creating the pizza you’d always wanted despite never having heard of it before. Pulled pork, fine – but crackling too? And sweet chilli jelly? Oh my…

AireCon misses

Of course it wasn’t all hearts and flowers – and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t put at least a bit of a negative spin on proceedings. But I actually struggled to find bad things to say about my weekend.

The hotel I stayed in (The Crown) had a good breakfast and friendly staff, but it was really noisy and the pillows were crap – but nothing some ear plugs and my own pillow wouldn’t fix! There was also a gaming pub quiz on the first night which was kind of fun, but totally shambolic with several really stupid (and not in a good way) rounds. A good idea but poorly executed – and hopefully it’ll work next time.

And yes, those really were the low lights. As I wandered out of the convention centre late on Sunday afternoon, relieved to have booked an extra night so as not to have to leave early, I was powered by the warm glow of gaming goodness. Maybe in the morning I’d also have enough time for one last walk out into the Yorkshire countryside? Either way, a weekend well spent. See you next year!

Board gaming and anxiety: My pros and cons of cons

So this may surprise people, as anxiety isn’t something I’ve talked about openly before. I’d think most of my friends and acquaintances see me as an affable gobshite who tends to relish social situations as part of a never-ending crusade against growing up. But while some of that may be true, it just goes to show – there is often a bit more going on behind the curtain.

I chose to write about board game conventions because they have been a big part of my social life over the past few years. I’m at my second of the year this weekend (AireCon), and the fourth in as many months. But I find them a mess of contradictions in terms of anxiety issues, so I thought I’d give a bit of a breakdown of my experiences – including the goods and bads that work for me (I know this may be totally different for others).

I’d love to hear your comments and experiences too – and I plan to write some more posts (including a more general ‘why gaming is good for me’ one) on the topic, so all feedback/ideas etc welcome. That said, pressing ‘publish’ on this is proving ridiculously difficult, so we’ll see how that goes…

Staying on and off site

One of the beauties of a con such as LoBsterCon or SorCon is the fact you have a hotel room in the same building as the gaming area – and what takes LoBsterCon to the next level in the last couple of years is the fact everyone staying in the hotel is at the con (so no awkward “what are those weirdos doing” looks from other patrons).

The big plus for me is having somewhere close to escape to that’s totally your space – as well as knowing that if you forget anything etc, it’s just a few floors up in the lift. For this reason I often book an extra night after the con, because otherwise – once I’ve checked out – I can start to feel a bit trapped and edgy. If I don’t stay that extra night, chances are I’ll leave soon after check-out and miss a day of gaming. I also like to arrive an evening early where possible, to get settled in and to be mentally ready for day one.

But of course, this locale bonus also relies on the hotel being somewhere you want to stay. Taking UK Games Expo as an example, the benefits listed above were largely negated at the Hilton last year: ridiculous room prices, even worse bar prices and a steady stream of rude and incompetent staff negated pretty much all the pluses (good breakfast though, in fairness).

‘Gamers needed’ flags

This may seem like a pretty minor issue, but these things are an absolute godsend: they should be made con-pulsory (ho ho) as far as I’m concerned. For the uninitiated, these are little flags you can put on your table as you’re setting up a game to indicate that you’re looking for more players to join you.

Firstly, this is great when you look around a room (especially a larger one) to try and find a game. Just because someone is setting up doesn’t mean they’re looking for players, so it avoids potentially awkward situations and pointless, stilted conversations. Plus, it saves people having to walk around the room trying to find players – which again can lead to some super awkward conversations.

But the unexpected extra bonus for me is people don’t (well, less often at least) see an empty chair and decide to come and impose themselves on you. I really don’t care if the game goes to five players: I’ve sat down with two good friends I rarely see to play it while we have a nice chat and a catch up – I’m sure you’re a nice person, but adding you would totally change the dynamic, so no thank you.

100 people good, 1,000 people bad

This may sound odd, but I very much feel that – despite 100 people being a lot – I gravitate more towards smaller cons. Walking into a room with 100 people isn’t daunting for me: it’s not as if we’re going to have a Slaughtered Lamb moment where everyone stops talking and looks at me. But at the same time, you immediately take in a bunch of faces you know you’re likely to be seeing regularly over the next few days.

I like that sense of belonging that comes from a smaller, more recognisable group: it’s probably why I never have a problem walking into my local pub even though I have nothing in common with many of the people that drink there – but when I’m having a bad day, I can fail to turn up to a gig by a band I love because I can’t face walking into a venue full of thousands of probably like-minded strangers.

I’ve failed to book a hotel for UK Games Expo so far and I think (along with the price etc problems mentioned above) this is a big part of why. I don’t really want to go, despite the fact I do want to go. It’s too big for me, too impersonal, too shambolic (you can struggle to even find a table to play on at times in recent years) – but at the same time too enclosing and too in-your-face (especially in the vendor area).

 

So… why the hell do you like Essen?

Essen Spiel is unique. Over 100,000 gamers uncomfortably packed into a bunch of convention centre halls which have zero open gaming space – meaning everything there is geared towards selling you product. On top of that, unless you’re royalty you’re looking at a 15-60 minute walk – or a packed public transport cattle experience – to and from your hotel. Everything I hate, right?

Wrong. Unlike every horrible sales pitch infested expo you may have attended before, you rarely find any hard sell here (unless you find yourself in the most outlying hall where terrible games go to die). In fact, if you see a stall worker that isn’t occupied they’re more likely to try and avoid your eye than get it – they’re probably taking a quick five-second breather from the retail carnage.

Add this attitude to the virtual sea of seemingly millions of excited gamers and what I find myself experiencing is strange kind of peace: I’m with my people, immersed in the best my hobby has to offer, but absolutely no one is paying any attention to me. I can just bimble around people watching, game watching, researching, without a care in the world. Everything I want to see is there, but the level of interaction is in my control – something I find increasingly important nowadays.

Later, when you get back to your hotel, you’ll probably find 90+% of the residents are fellow gamers – and the hotel (which are all well used to Essen Spiel by now) will have a small con-sized gaming area full of those familiar faces I spoke about before: people you’ll be in the same space with on the evenings for the week. Weirdly, somehow, that all makes sense. What can I say? That’s just me.