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!

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