Well, I just got back from PAX Unplugged, officially marking the end of conventions for the year. I’ll be convention-free for the next three or four months, up until the return of RobbCon, I believe, and of course, such a sentiment is bittersweet.
I love conventions.I’ve made some truly great friends over the last few years, and conventions are a chance to hang out with them and do the thing I love most – playing board games. Conventions are also a great way to ruin your work flow, knocking out at least half a week, and then when I get back, it usually takes me at least a day to get back in the swing of things. For instance, all I did yesterday after getting back from PAX was sit on the couch and play Slay the Spire. That may be a problem specific to me, though.
Anyway, so I am both mourning the fact that convention season is well and truly over, but I am also looking forward to getting some work done uninterrupted by travel. What I wanted to do now, though, was just reminisce a little bit about the last three conventions I went to – Spiel, BGG.Con, and PAX Unplugged – and talk about some of the Spiel releases I got to play at those conventions.
I’m not doing any official Cephalofair Awards – I might be done with those – but there will still be judgments, because I am a judgy person.
I know I have recounted horror stories of Essen in the past. Working myself to near death, losing credit cards, locking myself out of rooms, all of that good stuff. I am happy to report, however, that Spiel this year was chaos-free. No disasters whatsoever, at least in Germany. The day after I left, there was a huge windstorm at home that knocked over a big tree in our backyard, destroying our fence, but that is a different story.
Nope, Essen was pretty great, thanks in large part to the Cephalofair Games community manager, Price, who organized the whole thing. Organizing this sort of stuff is not my strong suit, as I have come to realize after experiencing so many disasters, so handing it off to someone else was really a great move. We were fully staffed and had a great space. All I had to do was show up, shake people’s hands, and take pictures with them. These are things I am capable of.
Seriously, though, I can never express enough how much joy I get meeting all of the fans who come to the booth to tell me how much they love Gloomhaven. It is always great to hear, and I am so flattered that it has influenced so many people’s lives in such a positive way. I did get some games played, as well, so let’s get to that.
Forum Trajanum: I was supposed to play a game of Blackout: Hong Kong with Paul Grogan Wednesday night, but apparently the shipment of the English version was delayed, so we had to settle for Forum Trajanum instead, the heavier of Stefan Feld’s new titles. It wasn’t that I hated it, but nothing about the game excited me. Because the resource collection is more-or-less random, I found it very difficult to do what I like to do most in games – make a plan. You just sort of had to go with the flow of what you ended up with and try to make it work as best you could.
Underwater Cities: I actually have gotten to play this one twice so far. Once in Essen, and then again at PAX. It is definitely more to my liking, but I can’t help but compare it to games I like better. There are obvious comparisons to Terraforming Mars, of course, with its engine-building card play, but Underwater Cities downplays the resource feedback loop that is so pleasing – opting to only give you income every 3 rounds or so. But at the same time, it manages to drag out the length of the game to a somewhat uncomfortable degree. I think my game at PAX took, like, 5 hours. And when I compare it to Vladimir Suchy’s previous and much faster games like Pulsar and Last Will. Well, I would much rather play those, I think. I could get a good Euro experience without losing my entire evening.
So then we were off to BGG, one of my absolute favorite conventions, because it is a time to just play lots of games with lots of awesome people. Unfortunately, the whole trip got kind of cut in half, as we weren’t planning on flying out until Thursday morning because of my wife’s schedule, and then our plane got delayed by 8 hours, so we didn’t actually get into Dallas until late Thursday night.
I barely made it to the live play of the Gloomhaven community campaign, but I did make it, and it was probably the highlight of the show. I don’t know how enjoyable it was to the audience, but I got to play my creation with Tim Schafer, whose is also a super nice and awesome guy, so what’s not to love about that? Really, this convention was just great, and my only complaint was that I couldn’t have been there for more of it.
Captains of the Gulf: It also doesn’t help when you end up in a game that wasn’t very interesting and takes many, many hours to get through. I was really excited about playing this, because I had heard many good things, but Captains of the Gulf was a slog. On many occasions we considered ending the game early, but we powered through to the very end, mostly out of stubbornness. I felt like the idea of the game – go out, catch some fish, return to port, sell the fish, use the money to improve your boat, repeat – was fairly straightforward, but the whole mechanism with the rondel of actions just kind of bogged everything down, lengthening the time it took to work through this very basic cycle.
Cryptid: Wow, I have been pretty down so far on the games I have played. Sorry about that. Let’s change things up and talk about a game I really enjoyed. Except, actually I should probably talk about Treasure Island first – a game I was excited to play after No Pun Included’s review, and I did actually enjoy it. It is very beautiful, and I had a lot of fun drawing lines and circles trying to hunt down that treasure, but doing that also made the game kind of slow. And it didn’t help that for more than half the game, you are really just shooting randomly in the dark, waiting for Long John to give you more hints about where the treasure is. Cryptid cuts out all that fluff and gives you an interesting puzzle to solve from the very first round. Each decision you make, each question that you ask, has a real weight to it, and valuable information comes very quickly, allowing you to pinpoint the location of the treasure (or cryptid or whatever it is) within 20-30 minutes. There is a lot of information to think about, though, and I can imagine it creating a large amount of AP that could bog the game down, but I had a great time with this one.
PAX was kind of a mixed bag for me. I greatly enjoyed hanging out with all of my friends in the evenings at a nearby hotel, but the actual convention during the day was a bit of a let-down. There were just so many people, it was hard to really do anything. The First Look area with all the new games was always slammed, and on Saturday, it was really hard to find a table even in the free play area. Add to that the inexplicable inclusion of metal detectors at the entrance of the convention hall, which turned getting inside into an hour-long inconvenience, well, I found myself getting frustrated at how much time was being wasted. It is a new convention, and it is growing rapidly, but I hope they are able to work out some of the kinks in future years.
And all of this isn’t to say I didn’t have an amazing time. It was great. I even found an opportunity to briefly talk with Jerry Holkins, one of the creators of Penny Arcade, which was a pretty surreal experience. At this point I am used to hard-core fans approaching me and being all nervous about talking to me, and I just want to say, “Hey, I am just a normal person. It’s all good.” But in that moment talking to Jerry, I found myself on the opposite end of that. Penny Arcade has been a fixture in my life for over 15 years and has a major influence on the creation of Gloomhaven. Talking to one of the creators, I immediately got extremely nervous and flustered. It was a weird experience, but I think I got through it all right. I may have blacked out.
Blackout: Oh no, what a terrible segue into talking about more games that I played! Nothing to do now but accept it and move on. I really liked Blackout: Hong Kong. There was a lot going on and a lot to think about, which is always good. Lots of opportunities to create plans and pull off cool combos. I’d really like to play it again to form a complete opinion, though, because that first game when you don’t fully understand the implications of how everything works together, you can easily make simple mistakes that can ruin your game. For instance, I ruined my ability to make money and spent about half the game trying to claw my way back from not being able to afford new objectives, which meant I wasn’t building my engine at all. It’s a little bit brutal, but I don’t mind that in a game.
Reykholt: This was the very last game I got to play on the last day of the convention, and I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. I really wanted to get it played, but after watching Tom Heath’s game play video in preparation, I got a little apprehensive, thinking it would just be a watered down version of At the Gates of Loyang. Still, I finally found a free table and tried it out. Once you are in the weeds with it, there is quite a bit to enjoy. It is light, but it takes the planting and harvesting aspect of At the Gates of Loyang, which is my favorite part, and really just leans into it as much as possible. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I wouldn’t mind playing it some more.
So I think that’s enough of my curmudgeonly rants about all the latest games. What truly makes a game is the company you play it with, so I just want to give a quick shout out to all the awesome people I’ve gotten to play games with over the last couple months. Robb, Christina, Marcel, David, Elisha, Paul, Ella, Noel, Julie, Jason, Brendan, Byron, Jon, Randy, Frank, Clay, Tim, Patrick, Ian, Leo, Theo, my wife, of course, and everyone else. You are all awesome!