It’s back! I don’t think I’ve done any Cephalofair Awards since last BGG Con, but that’s because BGG Con is the only convention where I seem to get the time to play lots of new games. A lot of them came out at Essen, but as we learned last time, I only got the chance to play about two new games at Essen.
BGG Con was great, by the way. My wife came with me and we had an absolutely fabulous time playing games more-or-less non-stop all weekend. Occasionally she went up the our hotel room, which was just an elevator ride away, to take a break. The proximity of the hotel room allowed use to be independent of each other, so I could go crazy and play every possible game I could, and she could play games in more moderation.
I think, overall, it was pretty much the best convention experience I’ve had. I know I seem to say that a lot, but they just keep getting better. I got to meet up with a lot of old friends and play games with them, and also meet some brand new friends to play games with.
But, anyway, let’s get on to the completely arbitrary awards that have no meaning!
Best Use of Dice: Let’s start this list off with Rajas of the Ganges, which was a pretty solid worker-placement game in which you used dice as resources, but they were also kind of like your workers? I mean, you also had workers, but most things you did also required you to pay a die, so you constantly had to work on grabbing new dice in order to continue taking meaningful actions. It took me a bit to wrap my head around the importance of always having dice on-hand, but I guess I figured it out because I ended up winning? I thought my friend John was going to win because we was building way more buildings than me, but, well, I don’t know what happened. Except I know I had fun.
Best Use of Sand Timers: So my wife was very interested in playing another, very different worker-placement game. A real-time, cooperative worker-placement game called Kitchen Rush. On the surface, the game is very simple. You run a restaurant, you place workers to collect food orders, put food on plates, and then cook the plates to completion. Except that your workers are sand-timers. The whole thing is timed, and you can’t have your worker take another action until their sand runs out.
At first I played this with just my wife, and at two, it is almost a manageable experience. You can communicate with each other and the board isn’t too cluttered. At four players, though, the game becomes a mess. A glorious, glorious mess. Arms everywhere, trying to grab sand timers or handfuls of ingredients to fill their orders. Other people trying to see through the mass of arms to keep track of when their workers will run out of sand. It was a lot of fun. But stressful.
Most Comfortable: When I think back on my experience with Nusfjord, I have a hard time pinning down why I liked it so much. It is not that innovative of a game. If you’ve played any Uwe Rosenberg game before, you know the deal. Place workers, collect resources, build buildings. Still, I don’t know, maybe it was because my actions felt more focused than they have playing more recent Rosenberg games like Feast for Odin, Fields of Arle, and Caverna. Nusfjord felt like a step away from those sandbox games, and toward the more focused experiences like Agricola and Glass Road. It was just nice. It felt warm and comfortable.
Biggest Upset: So after Nusfjord, the same group sat down to play Heaven and Ale, a game about monks brewing beer. This was a much tighter, more stressful experience. You had very limited opportunities to push these bits up on this track, which would eventually score you all your points at the end of the game. There was a constant balance between getting money and getting these point advancements that felt very hard to know how to do right. I was getting the hang of it, and felt like I was in a good position, but then in the middle of the game, I found out about a significant disaster with the Gloomhaven second printing fulfillment and had to rush up to my room to put out some fires. My wife was there to take over the game, but she wasn’t able to quite bring home the victory. I would have liked to finish out the game myself, since I think it would have given me a much better idea of how to balance your actions, but oh well.
The Game My Wife Was the Best At: Though my wife let victory with Heaven and Ale slip through her fingers, that doesn’t mean she is not good at games. Take, for instance, our play of When I Dream, a game where someone puts on a blindfold and the rest of the table starts giving them one word clues about a specific word they want the blindfolded player to guess. Except not everyone wants them to guess the right word. Some players get points for every word the blindfolded person guesses wrong. The highlight of the convention for me was when my wife took a turn with the blindfold and got, like, eight correct guesses in a row. Every single word. We were all very impressed.
Best Key Game: Okay, look, the only other Key game I’ve played is Keyflower, which, while I respect the design of the game, I’ve never had much fun playing. Well, okay, I also played Key to the City: London last year, but that was pretty much the same thing. But anyway, I liked Keyper more. It still had the same old business of getting resources and then using those resources to upgrade buildings and earn points with sets of resources, but I thought the worker placement aspect worked much better, mostly because I don’t like auction games very much. Instead you place your guys out on there four shared boards, but at some point during the round, you claim a board for your own, and then the next round your workers will be whatever was placed on that board. I thought it was a cool concept, plus those foldable boards are legit awesome. Richard Breese really, really, really needs to hire a graphic designer, though. They’re worth it.
Most Improved: I have previously expressed a disinterest in Unlock. And, I don’t know, maybe it was because I was playing a library copy and didn’t have the baggage of having to plop down $15 per adventure, but I quite enjoyed the second set of Unlock games. Still not more than Exit, but they were a very fun use of time. I played the two easier ones just with my wife, and then took the hardest one about pirates to a larger group, and we all had a great time with all of them.
Most Visually Pleasing: So I don’t really like area control games, so it’s not like Petrichor was the most pleasing game, but it was very nice to look at. In Petrichor, all players are clouds, trying to get the most rain onto the most lucrative crops below. It was a fairly simple thing, but it was just nice to look at. You had these little cloud baskets to store rain in, and then they would fill up and you would dump out all the rain onto the tile below it. I don’t know. It was nice.
Largest Appeal to Non-Gamers: BGG Con was all abuzz with Cat Lady, so when I got the chance to sit down and play it on the last day, I absolutely took it. It is a simple card game, but that is part of its appeal. The decisions are simple, but also meaningful. And who can’t identify with the theme of old cat ladies who just keep taking in strays without a definite plan on how to keep them all fed? Because you have to take all the cards in a row or column of a 3×3 grid, a lot of times it is hard not to take more cats into your tableau, even when what you really want is to get food to feed the cats you already have. Your house just keeps filling up with cats, and you can’t do anything about it! It’s great.
Closest to Being a Toy: Oh, my word, I am so over “deluxified” Kickstarter games. Like, there are components that improve the function of a game, and then there are components that just make a game more expensive for no reason. I’m not sure Chimera Station could have easily made workers that functioned as well as the ones in the box, but they really felt like over-produced children’s toys. The whole thing with Chimera Station is that you’ve got a stable of workers that you can splice different pieces onto to make them more effective. You can give them plants so they don’t need food, tentacles to grab extra resources, brains to get more points, and claws to push other people’s workers out of spaces. Specialized workers are awesome. I would love to see more games allow you to customize your individual workers in unique ways, but this game still left me a little cold. Maybe it was the toy-like worker pawns, or maybe the game play just wasn’t as exciting as it should have been. Or maybe it was the glaring omissions of important rules in the rule book. Anyway, I guess it’s time to look forward to the next customizable workers game.
Worst Terra Mystica Spin-Off: While I may have stated some reservations about Gaia Project in my previous post, I will still admit that it is an incredibly solid game that probably has better game play than Terra Mystica. I’m sure I will enjoy it immensely once I get over my nostalgia for the original. Unfortunately, I can’t say any of those things for Clans of Caledonia. It’s possible that I should have tried it with more than two players. It’s possible that the utter brokenness of the whiskey brewing clan soured my whole experience because they made the game so easy, there was never any tension. But still, my first impression was not good. Where Gaia Project might be a little too complicated for its own good, Clans of Caledonia went the other way. Have only one real resource – money – made all the decisions just feel basic. I never had to make a hard choice, which was disappointing.
Most Mediocre: While Clans of Caledonia wasn’t really my bag, I must say that the most aggressively mediocre game I played at the con was Pioneers. It was so unmemorable, I’ve been thinking the game was called “Stagecoach” until just now when I had to go look it up for the link. It is a game that exists, and that’s really all I can say about my play.
Biggest Waste of Cardboard: And yet still, I will take a mediocre game over a train wreck of design any day. And there was one game I played at the con that was exactly that: Lagerstatten. Lagerstatten is a very basic worker placement game where you are digging for dinosaur fossils, trying to find complete sets of skeletons. First of all, everything in this game is a slog. You’ve gotta get the skeleton cards, then you’ve gotta flip them over, but before you flip them over, you may have to discard some cards to increase your limit on how many cards can be flipped over, and then, once you have a complete skeleton revealed, you can fulfill a contract to earn points. All of those things requires an action. Everything is so procedural and un-fun.
What really kills it, though, is that it is a set collection game where getting the cards to complete your set is entirely random. Generally, cards that you can draw are dealt face-down. There is an action you can take to look at the face-down cards, but even knowing what they are, it just gives you a false sense of power because you’ve now wasted an action looking, and so the next guy is going to take that card that is perfect for you right before you can get to it. It’s like, you can wander around in the dark, hoping to find that one tiny thing you need in a sea of rusty nails, or you can turn on your flashlight, which makes you feel powerful for a second until the wolves see where you are and come devour you. It is just so impossibly hard to get the cards that you want and so easy for other players to screw you up to the point where you get absolutely nothing meaningful in your hand of cards after playing for two full hours. It was a nightmare.
Best Game of the Con: But let’s now move past all the games I didn’t care for, and give away the big award. My favorite game of the con was Agra, a beautiful worker placement game set in India, tasking wealthy landowners with producing good and delivering them to various notable people and guilds to amass the most money before the ruler’s 30th birthday party. There was a lot to the game, but once we got going, the many different systems worked very well in harmony. There were so many different ways to use the resources you were producing, it felt like you never had enough, and never had enough actions to produce more because there was always something more interesting to do.
It also had the best “kick out” mechanic for workers I’ve ever seen. You see, workers stay on the space they are placed until they get kicked out by another player’s worker who wants to use that spot. If that happens, it’s totally fine, but the player who owns the kicked out worker gets a benefit. Unless that worker was meditating – then no bonus is awarded. At the beginning of a player’s turn, they can choose to have any of their workers out on the board start meditating to get them extra actions. It’s a huge part of the game, but by meditating your workers, you are giving up the other bonus for them getting kicked off. It is a fine balancing act, decided when and where your workers will start meditating, leading to interesting choices. I’d love to play it again.
And that about wraps that up. This has gone on way too long, but that is just a testament to the vast number of (mostly) memorable games I was able to get played at BGG Con. It was truly great, and I can’t wait to go back again next year!