A goodbye to a fellow board gamer

Image by Shin Yoo. LSE, 2010.

I was terribly sad to hear this week that a well-loved stalwart of many a UK gaming con, Keith Rapley, had passed away. I’d spent time with him, and lovely wife Mary, at events such as LoBsterCon, SorCon and HandyCon over the years. He’ll be greatly missed.

I’m not sure I’d be comfortable calling him ‘friend’. We spoke and played together on many occasions, but always at gaming conventions. We never had a bad word, yet I couldn’t tell you where he lived, what he’d done in life (I’d heard he was an accomplished academic), or anything else non-game related.

But at the same time, he felt more than an ‘acquaintance’. I’d smile when Keith walked into the main gaming room of a con, always started up a chat, and invariably enjoyed my plays with him. He had an infectious manner and a sharp wit that was easy to be carried along by. Sure, he played pretty slowly – but he often played very well. And as another slow player, it’s nice to share the blame with someone else at the table!

The gamer’s greeting

I guess that’s often the way with gamers. There are people I’ve known for more than a decade I fall immediately into conversation with the few times each year I see them. Conversations invariably begin with the typically polite, “How are you? Hope all’s well” etc. Then, after a brief awkward pause it’s, “So, played anything good recently?” Then the conversation begins to flow.

It’s a mutual understanding that while the feelings for each other go deeper than the usual ‘acquaintance’ level, we’re there to feed our shared addiction. And when we head our separate ways at the end of the weekend, we’ll do it in the knowledge we’ll look forward to seeing each other again – at the next gaming weekend.

For these reasons, I was surprised quite how hard the news of Keith’s passing hit me. As Sarah said to me yesterday, sometimes its simply the fact of realising that person isn’t on the earth anymore. You’ll never see them again. It’s a reminder of our mortality and of all those other things we push to the back of our minds so we can get out of bed in the morning. That’s part of it, sure. But it was more than that.

A sociable gamer

I’ve spoken before here about anxiety. About how, as I move further through life, I struggle more in social situations such as gaming cons. What I tend to do now is line up as many things as possible beforehand: arrange a whole morning or afternoon with a particular group or other couple (if Sarah is around). I rarely play with strangers, as I find the initial stages very difficult.

Keith was the model social/con gamer. He’d wander the hall, looking/asking about games he’d pass; or asking to join if there was a spare space and people were about to get underway. I saw him play all kinds of things. And you just knew it was thanks to a deep love of the hobby, and everything that came with it. He oozed an ardour but also a level of inclusivity many younger gamers could learn from – not something many expect to find in the older generation. No cynicism: just wide-eyed, boyish enthusiasm.

And he showed age wasn’t a barrier to cons. Friends and I have often joked we’ll all end up in the same nursing home, gaming together and having the time of our retired lives. Thanks to him though, I’ll know I can comfortably keep attending conventions – and playing with people of all ages and walks of life – for as long as I can still role a dice. As I push 50, that’s a thoroughly uplifting and comforting thought.

Game on

The last few times I’d seen Keith, he’d looked conspicuously, disproportionately older. There’d been a clear physical change in his appearance and he didn’t look as steady on his feet. But when you sat down with him to play, that glint was still very clearly in his eye – and his impish smiling and joking were very much in evidence.

The last game we played together was Tales of Glory, at SorCon back in February. He joined a table of five of us as one of three players needing a rules explanation. I’m pretty sure Keith slept through most of the rules, and the game ended up being twice as long as it should’ve because of it. I didn’t mind at all – it was still great fun and meant I could be slow without getting all the blame. And despite spending half the time trying to work out what the hell was going on, Keith still won a tight game on 57 points.

My most enduring memory will be from a LobsterCon a good few years ago. There were only four or five tables playing games in a smaller room, several of which had become quite boisterous. But in one corner sat Rocky and Keith, learning the rules to boxing card game Jab. Keith was asking questions, obviously having to raise his voice over the din (he was a very well spoken man).

For a second, all the noisy tables happened to quieten at once. And cutting through the silence came Keith’s eloquent voice [sic]: “So what you’re saying is, I can just punch you in the face?” Rocky is a proper salt-of-the-earth lad, which made it even funnier. The whole room fell about laughing.

RIP Keith x (Posted with the consent of his wife, Mary)

Just One board game: A four-sided review

The Just One board game is a short, light, word guessing party game for three to seven players. While the box says 20 minutes, you can forgo the scoring and play as long – or short – as you like. The game was published in 2018, going on to win the coveted Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year) Award in 2019.

Despite its small box, the contents still struggle to fill it. Along with the slim rulebook you’ll find seven dry-erase markers, seven Scrabble-style plastic component holders and a deck of 110 cards. But at less than £20, it’s still OK value.

The component quality is fine, if lacking in style. Unfortunately the publisher chose the ‘colourful yet bland’ style of party game design. But while uninspiring, it doesn’t detract from the fun. The card layout is simple and clear, which is the most important thing.

Teaching the Just One board game

The game’s so simple that, as long as one person has played before, you can simply start playing. You shuffle the deck the draw 13 cards (the rest won’t be needed). One player draws the top card and places it in their card holder so everyone but them can see it. On each card are five words, numbered one to five. The player who can’t see the card picks a number: that’s the word everyone else will try and describe.

Every other player now thinks of a single word – without conversing – to describe that word. Think quiz crossword clues. So the word can be pretty much anything, with a few small rules exceptions. In secret, each player writes their one word on the back of their scrabble holder. Once everyone is done, and without yet showing the words to the guesser, the other players show each other their words.

And so to the clever bit. Any duplicated words are discarded. Unique words are then turned around for the guesser, who has one guess at what their word is. If they get it right, you collectively get a point. If they get it wrong, that card – and one more from your stack – is discarded. You work your way through the 13 cards in this manner, giving you a final score somewhere between 13 (perfect!) and zero (try again…).

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Six of us played this late-night at a board game con. One clue was ‘climb’. Three of the five people choosing words wrote ‘Tichu’! Only gamers lol. Just one example of a memorable moment, clearly remembered six months on. And I expect most people who’ve played will be able to tell you a story about it. What more do you want from a party game?
  • The thinker: This clever game works incredibly well. Strangers may be a little more limited, as they won’t know their fellow players’ strengths. While mates should be able to do well thanks to that extra knowledge friendship brings. But either way, it’s a compelling exercise. My one suggestion would have been to grade the cards, making simple and advanced sets. I guess the inevitable expansions will be themed, so maybe they were waiting for that opportunity.
  • The trasher: While good fun, it’s a shame Just One only comes with just one rule set: co-op. BGG already has user-designed ‘variants’ including both competitive and traitor (?!). And there’s also ideas for teams, taking the player numbers well above the seven catered for in the box. Why be so limiting in the box, when the incredibly simple rules made it so simple to expand in this way? Very odd.
  • The dabbler: This is great fun! Simply sit down and begin, whether you’re with the kids or grandma – or both. But then gamers like it to, so win-win. Sure, the art is pretty dayglo ugly. But then it at least has a bit of colour and no stupid pasted on theme that would just put some non-gamer off. We had a few games that got a little ‘adult’ too, while others (with younger players) which almost felt educational. Not many games can be both filthy and educational!

Key observations

Just One is already ranked in the Top 10 party games on Board Game Geek, and is comfortably in its Top 500 games of all time. But yup, you guessed it – it’s not for everyone. The claim it’s “barely a game” and “a bit pointless” seem to miss the point. It is what it is and does what it set out to do. It’s fun. That’s all you can hope for.

I’ve already addressed the fact it’s only a co-op – a valid point, which seems an odd oversight from the publisher. And even this scoring feels bolted on and rushed. But who cares, really? The fun here is in the playing, not the ‘winning’. I can only presume ‘official’ sanctioned rules for other game settings (team, competitive etc) will come along in due course. I just hope the publisher doesn’t try to charge for them…

Player count is an interesting one. While definitely better with more people, it can still be fun with less. We played with just three people and if anything the tension is ramped-up. You know that if you go for the same word, that’s the end of it. Still fun, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re only ever likely to be playing with three (four is pretty good).

It is potentially a little pricey for what you get in the box – especially when most gamers could fashion a working copy out of word cards/dry erasers from other games. But the components seem durable and there are plenty of words to play through.

Conclusion: Just One board game

With Codenames taking the Spiel des Jahres just a few years previous, it was going to take a special word game to do it again. But it’s easy to see why Just One came along and did just that. I don’t see it as a controversial pick at all and I’ll certainly be keeping my copy for the foreseeable future. Yes, this is an incredibly light and simple game. But surely every game shelf needs a few of those?

* Thanks to Repos Production (via Asmodee UK) for providing a copy for review.

* Follow this link for 150+ more of my board game reviews.

Board game Top 10: Essen 2019 wishlist

Essen 2019 is almost upon us. If you’re not aware, Essen Spiel is the annual release fest for board games. Every publisher worth its meeples is there, along with tens of thousands of gamers.

I usually spend the two months leading up to the event slowly going through the 1,000+ releases, slowly building my anticipation. Not this time. A two-week holiday to America, plus a bunch of real life stuff, has forced my research into a tiny window. And I mean tiny. I forced my research into a week. And I’m actually pretty fascinated to see if it makes the slightest bit of difference (guess: probably not).

I probably wouldn’t have spent as much time as usual whatever the circumstances. My patience for the ridiculous amount of games debuting each year is giving me serious release fatigue. And it’s not just me: I hear that more and more, from everyone from publishers to gamers. Yet the steady influx of newcomers to the hobby is proving too tempting for said publishers to resist. And while those same suckers – sorry, punters – continue to fund dross on Kickstarter, that number is unlikely to decrease.

How can I possibly sift through 1,000 new games?

Glad you asked. Using the Tabletop Together website and its fabulous Essen tool, that’s how. You can use it to view all 1,000+ games and watch videos, look at stats and link through to rulebooks etc.

Once you’ve done that, you can take your nerdiness to the next level. Print hall maps showing which hall your chosen games are in, rating them from ‘need’ (cos we all need games) to ‘ignore’. Now you can also share your list with friends, look at the top games (as chosen by all the other users) or look at game stats. These range from what these picks will cost you (ouch) through to how many games you’ve picked in a number of categories. You can really geek out.

It’s also worth mentioning Board Game Geek has upped its game in this respect. It’s own Essen list now has some pretty good functionality, but is largely still less useful (for me) than the TT one. However, the BGG list is worth looking at if you want to do pre-orders, as many games can be booked directly through the one site. This is a great innovation and has proven very popular with Essen attendees.

Essen 2019 – Top 10 anticipated smaller releases

This list excludes games that will probably end up on a table near me soon (big publisher releases, Knizia games etc). These are games I think I may miss out on if I don’t check them out myself (links go to my reviews – or each game’s BGG page):

  • It’s a Wonderful World (1-5 players, 30-60 mins): This sci-fi themed euro sees you card drafting and tableau building, setting up an engine to complete projects to get more powers and points. Simple and short, but using a lot of mechanisms I really enjoy. Nothing new, but enough big ticks to hit my list.
  • 1987: Channel Tunnel (2, 45 mins): 1906 San Francisco was a surprise hit for me last Essen. In the same series, this two-player game action selection game looks to have some interesting mechanisms. There’s mini tech trees, upgrades and some interaction – much more than you’d expect from a small game.
  • Outback Crossing (2-6, 30-40 mins): This fast-playing abstract game has lovely cartoony artwork and simple game play. On turns, you either draw a tile or claim a row/column to score at the end. So it should have a nice tension: claim lines (max three) to try and build them up later, or place and hope to claim them later.
  • No Return (2-4, 30 mins): Another underused mechanism is variable phases; where players decide at which point to move from phase one of the game to the second. This does it in a simple abstract mathsy game, where you draw tiles and place them on your board – before later trying to score them.
  • A Fistful of Meeples (2-4, 30 mins): I like a good mancala/rondel game and this looks to have boiled things down into a simple yet interesting puzzle. Different coloured meeples interact with the spaces in different ways, leaving you plenty of options in how to score your points.
  • La Cour des Miracles (2-5, 40 mins): An action selection game with a twist, as your ‘workers’ have a hidden number – which is revealed when an error fills up. The player with the highest numbered workers getting an extra bonus. This sounds like a really nice twist on a genre I already enjoy.
  • Robin of Locksley (2, 30-45 mins): New publisher, old designer (Uwe Rosenberg). A two-player race to complete tasks by claiming and manipulating tiles from a central display. If he’s got it right, this could be the perfect game for Sarah and me to play at the end of an evening.
  • The Magnificent (1-4, 60-90 mins): I enjoyed Santa Maria from these guys, even if it was rough around the edges. This looks similarly interesting in a ‘loads of euro mechanisms in a box’ way. You power can increase with each action in a turn, leading to interesting decisions on when to trigger your various powers.
  • The Artemis Project (1-5, 60-75 mins): Dice for worker placement is usually fun and here there’s a clever use of limited resources. Lower dice are brought nicely into the mix, as you get less stuff, but definitely get it. Add tough competition for upgrades and engine building, and I’m definitely in.
  • Sierra West (1-4, 40-60 mins): An interesting action selection system looks to elevate this game above most of the competition. While a scenario-based set-up also promises extended replayability. Already receiving positive reviews, so now firmly on my radar.

Essen 2019 – also on the radar

  • Expansions: Both Welcome To… and Terraforming Mars are favourites and the upcoming expansions for them look interesting. Welcome To… has ‘thematic neighbourhoods’ – from zombies to egg hunts. While TM: Turmoil offers further strategic depth via global events.
  • Oldies: A couple of reprints have caught my eye. I kickstarted Egizia already. I also have my eye on Bus, the classic Splotter Spellen route-building, pick-up-and-deliver and worker placement game. As well as Die Macher; German election game I’ve played once and loved it.

Final thoughts

What was refreshing this year was how much information was available about most of these games long before the show itself.

Lack of information pre-Essen has been a bane of planning up until now. This is the first year almost all games have a video, rulebook or review well in advance. So well done to the publishers for that.

But it’s also worth noting how many games looked fine – but not original in any way. I guess its inevitable, with so many releases and so many new publishers/designers. And sure, the older I get the more cynical I am. But it still feels like a largely disappointing Essen 2019 crop at this point.

For older musings on Spiel, check out my previous Essen related posts.

Tabletop Gaming Live 2019: London, September 28-29

It’s going to take a lot to topple the UK Games Expo as the UK’s top board gaming convention. But if anything is setup to tackle Birmingham’s finest, it’s the capital’s young and upcoming upstart, Tabletop Gaming Live 2019.

Last year’s event was a little sparsely attended (check out my coverage here). But it showed an awful lot of promise. For me, it got the important things right. There was loads of space to sit down and play games. Plus you could play a lot of releases planned for release at Essen a few weeks later – giving it that exclusive feel. Hopefully attendance will be well up this time, so hopefully they can keep that feeling.

I also love the fact it’s at Alexandra Palace at what should still be a weather-friendly time of year. The views across London can be fantastic, so it has that novelty factor of being in a place that’s a pleasure to visit (which is definitely one over the NEC!).

Tabletop Gaming Live 2019

So what can you expect if you head down this year? First, it’s important to say it doesn’t just cover board and card games. There’s plenty on show for war gamers, RPG fans and tabletop mini lovers too. Plus CCGs and some other cool nerd/geek stuff (T-shirts and the rest of it).

  • Demos: This was a real highlight last year, with Asmodee UK and Fantasy Flight bringing fresh releases. You’ll also be able to try out RPGs like Starfinder, RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu. New minis game If England Were Invaded 1910, plus Wings of Glory and Dark Side of the Moon. And up to 20-player team bluffing game Blood on the Clocktower.
  • Shopping: Expect some of the biggest names in the business, including Fantasy Flight, Ravensburger, Iello, Czech Games Edition, Oink, Z-Man and Asmodee.
  • Tournaments: Get competitive in a selection of regional and national qualifiers. Including Pandemic Survival, Catan, Dragonball, Kingdomino and King of Tokyo (note – you’ll need tickets for these events).
  • Workshops and talks: Get hands-on with minis painting or game design. Or check out talks and discussions from designers and journalists including Ian Livingstone CBE (again, some of these events are ticketed).
  • Open gaming: Bought something new – or brought something with you? Sit down and game to your heart’s content.

Check out the official website for tickets (from £16 for adults, with under-10s free) and loads more information – including the really rather good magazine that gives the con its name. I’ll definitely be there at some point (I’ll tweet when, I expect) – so hopefully catch up with you there.

Board game Top 10: My favourite low ranked board games

After a discussion with fellow blogger (and top man) Peter over at Tabletop Together, this idea popped into my head. We were talking about ridiculous BGG rankings, and how people are handing out 10s like sweets. What it got me thinking about was: what are the low ranked board games in my collection?

I used the ‘average’ (not ‘Geek’) rating, to ignore the bias of having few/many reviews. And I left out weird/promo games and anything on my ‘for sale/trade’ list. So all the games below are ones I want to keep and want to play. In fact I’ve played most of them recently. While only two are in my current Top 50, I’ll never turn down a game of any of them.

It was no surprise to find most of the games were smaller box fillers. These tend to get lower rankings, just by dint of not being as visually exciting, epic etc. They do exactly what they’re meant to and can be great fun – but just not as much as a big box experience, in terms of giving them a number.

My Top 10 Low ranked board games

  • Wyvern (5.2 rating: 1994, 2 players, 30 minutes)
    This Mike Fitzgerald-designed CCG enjoyed brief popularity in the post-Magic boom, and I still really like it. The dragon art is lovely, the game play simple and it has a great tactics-to-strategy ratio.
  • Empire Engine (5.8: 2013, 2-4 players, 20 minutes)
    Haha! Yes! One of mine! I think a rating under 6 is harsh, but it was sold as some kind of sequel to Love Letter – and despite having just 18 cards, it’s a very different beast. I’m still really proud of it, you heathens!
  • Romans Go Home (6.0: 2013, 2-4 players, 30 minutes)
    I do like a bit of programmed card action, and this game does it well. It’s a slightly later and more complex version of BraveRats (see below), where instead of just fighting you’re trying to collect towers for points.
  • Im Auftrag des Konigs (6.1: 2004, 2-4 players, 30 minutes)
    I got this little Adlung-Spiele game at my first Essen and still enjoy it a lot. A clever little euro-style game in a very small box, where you collect sets and draft cards to go on quests and battle at tournaments.
  • Sarkophag (AKA Little Devils) (6.1: 2012, 3-6 players, 15 minutes)
    Incredibly simple little trick-taker. There’s just one suite. The second player chooses whether to go higher or lower than the trick-starter, and the rest must try to follow. Most cards have points – and you don’t want points (like 6Nimmt).

Knizia, Kramer, Kiesling…

  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (6.2: 2003, 1-4 players, 45 minutes)
    Free dice-chucker from one of the world’s leading designer. Play each event to get the highest score, with clever mechanisms that do just enough to mimic runs and throws. And did I mention it’s free (click link to download the rules)?
  • Monopoly Deal Card Game (6.2: 2008, 2-5 players, 15 minutes)
    I know! But this is fast and silly fun. It keeps all the meanness of the original, but distils all the crap out. Ridiculously luck based, but at 15 minutes long that doesn’t matter at all. A great little filler you can always find super cheap.
  • Artus (6.2: 2011, 2-4 players, 45 minutes)
    Brilliant, unique little thinky abstract from little-known design duo Kiesling & Kramer and obscure publishers Alea and Ravensburger. Just goes to show they can’t all be hits, no matter how successful you are…
  • Pizza Box Football (6.3: 2005, 1-2 players, 60 minutes)
    This will never win over the purists, and it looks a bit shonky. But if love your NFL and some daft die-chucking antics, this is a real winner. Bluff and counter bluff your way to glorious victories (or in my case, dreadful defeats).
  • Game of Trains (6.3: 2015, 2-4 players, 15 minutes)
    This is a gloriously clever little maths puzzler with super cute artwork. Use special powers to put your numbered cards in order, while trying to stop your opponents doing the same. Better with more players.

Also on 6.3 were Lembitu and Dice Heist. Entdecker, Plato 3000 and BraveRats (AKA R) are all on 6.4 – while everything else I own is at 6.5 or above.

But what about you? Which of your games fly in the face of popular taste? I’d love to explore some more Top 10s on the topic. Let’s give these ‘lesser’ games some love!