Geekway to the West has become something of a comforting ritual for me. This year was my fifth, and it is such a wonderful experience to drive down there, see all the friends I’ve made over the years, many of whom I only see once a year at Geekway, and play games with them until I collapse from exhaustion each evening.
So I got to play a lot of games, and a surprising number of them were pretty great. Plus the company was great, so, overall, I couldn’t really ask for a better experience. It is such a nice way to kick off convention season, and I am already looking forward to heading back next year.
Let’s talk about those games, though. I don’t do awards anymore, but I just want to ruminate on my experience with all the new stuff I tried.
Solenia: So I got the chance to play Black Angel a while back at RobbCon and thought it was pretty fantastic. Then afterwards, I started listening to the Game Brain podcast, where I heard the designer of that (and Troyes) had taken one of the side mechanisms in Black Angel and made a much lighter Euro out of it. So then, well, I had to try it. The idea is that there is a ship moving through a scrolling landscape, and you can place cards around the ship to get benefits, then when the cards fall off the map due to the scrolling, you get more benefits. This mechanism fuels a very basic resource collection and delivery sort of deal and that is pretty much it for the basic game. There are some more advanced rules that offer some asymmetric powers, but yeah, the game was nice. I think it was ultimately too light for me to go out and buy, but I had a good time playing it.
Tiny Towns: Oh, man, this game was getting some major buzz going into the convention, so I had to give it a spin. I only played the version where players take turns calling out the resource they want everybody to take, and, while it was fun for a couple plays, I do think it lacked the depth of play to keep me coming back. I think the main issue (with the variant I played, at least) is that once a player cannot place any more cubes, they also cannot call for resources, which highly incentivizes players to be the last one out, because then they can collect whatever cubes they want. This incentive, however, severely limits the play space, making a lot of buildings (like the Starloom or the Trading Post) overt traps that you should never build. Kind of disappointing.
Res Arcana: This was another game talked up by Game Brain that I maybe should have tempered my expectations for. I enjoyed the game a lot, but maybe not as much as I expected to. It is a very clean and fast engine-builder, but I think I would just prefer something more meaty, which I understand is not what this game was going for. My main issue here was just how quickly the game was over. It typically lasted 4 or 5 rounds, which means you may not even get to see all 8 of your cards before the end of the game. It felt like if you didn’t draw a decent starting set to get your engine moving right away, you were not going to be able to compete with the players who did. There just wasn’t enough mitigation for the luck of the draw.
Museum: This was another game that I felt suffered from the randomness of players’ starting positions. This was basically a set collection game, but your main set of cards came from one of four decks of cards that also contained another two sets. So if you decided to go after a set and dig through a deck that another player was also digging through for a different set, you were going to do much better than someone who had to dig through a deck by themselves. The entire time I just felt like the game was playing me, which is just not an experience I prefer.
Thrown: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Thrown, which is the first game I ever won from a Play and Win (which is a system where you check out a game, play it, and then get entered into a drawing to win the game at the end of the convention). It was certainly not my choice to play the game, and I wasn’t exactly thrilled that I won, but it did have some interesting stuff going on. It was basically a trick-taking game, but you used dice instead of cards, which was certainly novel. There were some other rotating abilities that changed up the game every round, which was also welcome. Ultimately, though, the production quality was…lacking, and it just wasn’t really my type of thing.
Blood on the Clocktower: I got invited last-minute to play a scheduled game of this, and I jumped at the chance, being just as curious as everyone else as to why Shut Up and Sit Down declared it their favorite game ever. It was fun. It was very stressful, and I imagine it would have gone a lot better if you played with the same group multiple times. Most of us were new to the game, and there was a lot to take in and make sense of. We were slow on our feet for a lot of the votes, and the bad guys ultimately won. Honestly, it didn’t seem like some great innovation to me. It was basically an incredibly complicated version of Mafia/Werewolf, and I have played plenty of those before. The main twist that I liked was that dead people could still participate in discussions and even had one last expendable vote they could use whenever they wanted. I also liked that the moderator had the flexibility to help or hinder a team through various means, depending on what would make the game more interesting.
High Rise: So I started off this post talking about how I liked all the games I played, and then I just ended up criticizing them all. That’s just how I roll, I guess. I am a very critical person. But let’s end this list with two games I can recommend whole-heartedly without reservation. Both of which just sort of happened randomly as I was wandering around the main hall of the convention. The illustrious Gil Hova was running demos of High Rise, which recently ended its Kickstarter run, and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time after someone else didn’t show and a seat opened up. I saw this played at Dice Tower Con last year and was very much intrigued, and getting to play the final version was just a great experience. There are so many design choices to like here. The game played quickly and smoothly, but there was plenty of depth to the decision-making. I hope this game does really well when it is released, because it is great.
John Company: And then, on the last day, when everyone is tired and everything is winding down, I was deciding what to play with my friend Ben, and he said he had John Company, and I enthusiastically said, “Yes, let’s do that.” This might be an embellishment, because anyone that knows me knows I don’t do anything enthusiastically. At least not outwardly. I have been wanting to play John Company for a while now, since I’d heard so much good buzz about it at HeavyCon last year. It is a highly complicated simulation of the East India Trading Company back in the, you know, whatever years it was operating. Players are all wealthy families putting their various members into all the various positions of power within the company and attempting to operate the company in whatever way benefits them the most. You could almost call it semi-cooperative, in the sense that in most player positions, you will do well if the company does well, but that just makes it all the more surprising that I really enjoyed the game, because I normally hate semi-cooperative stuff. It was really all about finding ways in which you would end up with more benefit than anyone else, and then once you are in a position of strength, tanking the company to end the game before anyone can catch up to you. It is kind of brutal and not necessarily fair in a lot of cases, but still a very enjoyable experience. I don’t know, it was very confusing, because on paper it has all this stuff that I would normally hate, but somehow I really enjoyed it. I really need to play it some more to reconcile all these strange feelings.
I played some other stuff, as well. A new Unlock adventure that was enjoyable. A lively 5-player game of Kemet which, as always, affirmed that I should really get that game to the table more often. I also ran a play test of What We Found There that went pretty well and gave me some new ideas to fix some problems I’ve been having. An, of course, many games of Time’s Up, both with and without alcohol.
It was a great time, and certainly a high water mark that other conventions will have a difficult time topping. I’m headed to HeavyCon in just a couple days, and I expect some good competition.