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Thursday, June 10, 2010

UK Games Expo'10 #1. Friends old and new

Rattle and hum: the convention circuit with added cyberware
As many of my readers will know, one of the special charms of any convention is meeting new people with an ease all too uncommon in everyday life. The simple foreknowledge of passions shared with those you encounter, coupled perhaps with something of a 'hothouse' environment as people try to squeeze as much as possible out of the convention experience, creates a drive to turn chance encounters into memorable moments. This pleasure grows when continued convention-going turns these passing moments into casual acquaintances and more enduring friendships.

This already familiar experience has changed in recent years thanks to the intervention of the internet, and of social networking in particular. People you know online become candidates for organised rendezvous at the earliest opportunity; those you meet at conventions are added to your online network so that it's easier to meet up in the future. And so the hobby community is enriched as a whole- by the growing networks of its members; and for each of those members- by their increasing ability to participate in and contribute to the life of the community of their shared interests. (Image via Online Teaching Resources.)

UK Games Expo 2010 was exemplary for yours truly in this respect. Sure, I'd already had some flavour of convention befriending from my years going to DiceCons East and West; and organising CC@UK Expo'09 had also given me a taste of the potential of the internet to pull strangers together in the real world of convention life. Such foretastes notwithstanding, these and other threads of the web-enhanced convention-going experience came together last weekend in Birmingham to give me 3 days the like of which I've never before enjoyed in some 4 decades gaming.

Undoubtedly this was partly down to this being my second visit to the Expo, familiarity helping me to make the most of what was on offer. A change to my convention schedule was important too: I didn't take part in Barry Ingram's Commands and Colours: Ancients tournament on Sunday.

I had really enjoyed this last year but decided this year to give myself the Sunday wandering the trade halls in the Clarendon Suites so that I could check out demo games and other stuff. Armed with version 2 of the instrument of Blatant Self Advertisement (name and email address included this time!) which I had first deployed at Conpulsion back in March, I thus found myself networking when in the past I might've been simply at a loose end.

Also significant I believe was the fact that I'd travelled alone to the Expo this year, the main effect being to motivate me to escape solitude as the weekend wound down, but I'm getting ahead of myself now.

And so it begins: Wars of the Roses
The first people I met when I headed for Friday morning registration at the Clarendon Suites were Lawrence, Mike and Paul: veterans all of CC@UK Expo'09. We passed the usual travellers' chit chat; discussed our upcoming tournament; then talk moved on to the subject of playing a game: a feature new to Expo'10 was that open gaming at the Strathallen Hotel was available all day Friday. This was agreed and we soon installed ourselves at one of the tables reserved for CC@UK Expo'10 later that day.

We played Z-Man Games' brand new Wars of the Roses: Lancaster vs. York. For gamers of a certain age- eg. yours truly, this game inevitably has to stand comparison with the venerable Kingmaker. I have to say that Wars of the Roses comes out on top. To begin with, it enjoys the same top notch graphic design and production values- eg. the board (below left), about which I enthused back in January in respect of Z-Man's Pandemic.

Expectations of visual and tactile excellence fulfilled are not in and of themselves sufficient to usurp the throne so long occupied by Kingmaker. What is it then that I found so appealing about WotR's gameplay? In the first instance: it solves the perennial problem of Kingmaker- turtling tactics leading to games dragging on for a tedious age; by the simple expedient of lasting only 5 turns. The intense strategic decision-making this highly compressed timeframe entails is ratcheted up further by the rest of the rules, key among which are:
  • The players are divided into 2 teams- Lancastrian and Yorkist, naturally enough, who must:
  1. Cooperate to gain bonus VP- 'nuff said.
  2. Stay ahead of their ally because victory goes to a single player- there can be only one King after all.
  • Core VP are allocated to the players who hold the most and second most Control Points in the different regions:
  1. There are cards (samples right) granting control of the Control Points, revenue and/or military power- nobles, towns, bishops, ships, mercenary bands and so on; these are drawn randomly each turn, that turn's set of cards being put on plain view in front of everyone.
  2. Players take turns choosing which cards to pick; first one way around the table- trailing player first; then again round the other.
  • All decisions about movement, buying armies and attacking are preplotted in secret; this is tracked on a handy reference card which is hidden behind a screen (see picture below) which also displays useful rules references:
  1. Players are allowed to discuss strategy while cards are being chosen.
  2. No discussion is allowed while players are plotting their turn.
I'm sure my readers can begin to see for themselves how these systems combine to create subtle problems of resource management in the face of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; nail-biting strategic/tactical dilemmas as you deploy your ever-inadequate resources to marshalling your armies to defence and to the attack; and the prospects of sneak attacks when your ally just happens to be in your way (will Paul ever forgive me I wonder?).

The rest of the rules consist largely of simple mechanics which resolve movement and battles as quickly as possible so that these parts of the game don't get in the way of the strategic decision-making which is at the core of gameplay.

Lawrence, Paul & Mike at our Wars of the Roses

After all I've already said you'll be imagining, dear readers, that I liked Wars of the Roses, and you'd be right. There is a part of me- the aging grognard, which recoils from games with so few turns as this one. I find myself imagining that they'll prove too short to be eventful enough to keep my interest. I ought to know better I guess: Conflict of Heroes is a game with similarly few turns and it's never lacked for excitement when I've played it. Key here I reckon is that each turn must contain plenty of decision making; and that the decisions are of serious consequence. This is certainly true of Wars of the Roses, as I've suggested.

The limited number of turns is also crucial to making Wars of the Roses playable in a reasonable couple of hours. Between this- and the tense gameplay I've tried to highlight, the game strikes me as having a lot of replay value. Definitely worth a look, although you might want to try before you buy.

Oh, and BTW: I came last. Paul won if memory serves (and I'm sure someone will correct me if it didn't!). :-(

Facebook, always Facebook: Dungeon Lords
I signed up for fB a couple of years ago to follow Matt Forbeck when he announced he was going to join for networking purposes. My account lay fallow for a long time after that. Another friend had just started sending me friends invites when I decided to go ahead with CC@UK Expo'09. Time for some networking I decided. So I trawled 3 different gaming groups and sent out invites to everyone listed as a UK resident. A woman called Louise was the first person to respond. It turned out that we had more in common than just our gaming interests so we ended up chatting now and again.

And so it was that Louise and I arranged to meet up and play a game at this year's Expo. This was a fB first for me: actually arranging a rendezvous with someone I'd hooked up with via social networking.

Louise arrived with a big rucsac which I imagine was full of games. She suggested we try Dungeon Lords, another Z-Man's publication. I'd seen enough on the web to be interested in the theme of Dungeon Lords: dungeon-bashing seen from the side of the dungeon-building Overlord; in which players compete to build a dungeon and stock it with traps and monsters before parties of pesky heroes arrive for the random episodes of murder and pillage usually justifed as 'saving the village' or somesuch similarly self-serving excuse.

Dungeon Lords: basic layout & parts

Gameplay in Dungeon Lords is procedural; that is to say there is no moving pieces around a map: the game consists entirely of moving markers along tracks and of competing for the resources- gold, food, imps, corridors, rooms and so on, you need to build and populate your dungeon. This is done via the play of actions- 3/turn, and there is some nicely fraught planning here as the order in which these actions are resolved determines whether you get more or less- or none at all, of your chosen resource; so you have to set your priorities carefully. There is also a neat trick with the evilness points: doing certain vital things accumlates these points- so you can't avoid them; but you don't want too many of them because those pesky heroes' idea of glory is to attack the most evil Overlord, naturally enough. In fact, become too evil and you'll face a mighty Paladin (sample above right; I had to face this one: frankly, he scared the shit out of me). All rather neat really.

If I don't have much more to say about DL it's not because I didn't like the game, not at all. The design is logical- everything works nicely, and I had fun playing it. It's just that I'm not a big fan of procedural games of this ilk because moving pieces about is one of my favourite parts of boardgaming. That said, I can see how the procedural approach was a logical design decision in this game: I'm not at all sure if moving pieces about- eg. in search of resources and so on, would actually have worked; it'd've certainly extended the playing time, which is nicely judged. It also has to be said that the game's expression of its theme- the Overlords building their underground realms in preparation for the inevitable attacks by those pesky do-gooders; this probably wouldn't've been helped by a different design approach: what self-respecting Overlord would actually care from whence came all that she'd demanded of her loyal minions?

Me & Louise

So I'd certainly play Dungeon Lords again, all the more so to gain the vengance which will be mine (yes, I lost again); and it'd be nice to play it with the full 4-players, where the opportunies for screwage the game offers could be exploited to the max (ie. against Louise!). In any event the game wasn't really the thing last Friday, it was Louise's and my meetup, which was lovely. We talked of boardgames, roleplaying and of other matters we have in common. Without going into a blow-by-blow account I can say that I enjoyed Louise's company and I'd like to think we're both looking forward to the next time. I for one would particularly like to join Louise in some roleplaying in future; after this Overlord has attended to certain other matters, naturally enough. :D

Happenstance: Dominion
Sunday afternoon saw me wandering the trade halls at a bit of a loose end. I found myself in the Gold Zone, which is the main thoroughfare giving access to all the other trade halls. I happened to spot someone sitting at a table upon which rested a copy of Rio Grande Games' cardgame Dominion. Published in 2008, Dominion was an instant smash and 3 expansions have already been published with a 4th slated for release later this year. I actually bought the game at Expo'09 because the internet buzz had been so enthusiastic. Once home I sleeved the cards and the game has languised on my shelves ever since. Why? Because I couldn't face the rules.

The Gold Zone

You can imagine then that I was keen to give Dominion a try and it wasn't long before 4 of us were sat round the table getting wired in. Dominion is a game of deck-building with a unique twist: you build your deck as you play. The game works something like this:
  • There are Treasure cards- Copper, Silver and Gold: you use these to buy other cards.
  • There are Victory cards: Estates- 1VP, Duchies- 3VP and Provinces- 6VP; these are added up at the end of the game to determine the winner.
  • There are Kingdom cards: 22 different kinds of which 10 are used each game; these have various abilities enabling all sorts of fancy tricks in a way which'll be familiar to players of any CCG.
  • The basic turn sequence is:
  1. Do 1 action: play a Kingdom card.
  2. Make 1 purchase: you can buy Treasure, Victory or Kingdom cards; all cards you buy are put in your discard pile, not your hand.
  3. Discard all remaining cards in your hand.
  4. Draw a new hand of 5 cards from your draw pile; your discard pile is reshuffled to create a new draw pile when you have to draw from an empty draw pile.
It's really as simple as that. Of course your Kingdom cards 'complicate' matters by giving you extra actions, extra purchases, free treasure and other tricks; but the cards are so clear that this is very easy to keep on top of.

What an amazing game! I was utterly hooked in less than 10 minutes. With gameplay which turned out to be so easy you can be sure that I soon commented upon my experience with the rules and wasn't the slightest bit surprised to be told that the best way to learn Dominion is to be taught it. I was however quite astonished to learn that my opponents had all only played the game once before themselves, earlier that same afternoon. Now I'm as big a fan of thorough rules-writing as anyone- and more than many I'd guess; but I have to say that there's something a bit off about a rulebook which so intimidates a veteran gamer like myself that he can't even be bothered to learn such a truly simple game. Maybe it was my fault? I don't know.

Colin, Marly, Jock & I playing Dominion

I had an absolute blast playing Dominion for the first time. Colin, Jock and Marly were great fun to game with and we ended up in quite a tight game: Jock and Marly shared the honours while Colin and I were equal last. Ho hum. Still, I left resolved to bring Dominion to the table in Glasgow at the earliest opportunity. :-)

Diehards: more Dominion and other surprises
Some pleasant diversions- of which more anon, helped pass the next few hours. Eventually I found myself in the Strathallen Hotel again. I decided to check out the bar. Sure enough, there were some of the diehards I'd expected to find.

Diehards deep in the game


The five gentlemen above were kind enough to let me interrupt their game of Kingsburg (English edition by the increasingly ubuiquitous FFG) so that I could take a picture. I handed out my card and we had a nice chat about the Expo and gaming more generally.

Talk of the Expo brought up considerations of its success, as you'd expect. Among other things the guys were critical of the Saturday morning queue SNAFU, in which people with tickets in hand were misdirected to queue with those who had pre-bought tickets yet to collect. Getting caught up in this hadn't endeared our gentlemen to the organisation of the Expo, naturally enough. I have to say these guys were unlucky: I too joined the queue but was redirected within a minute or two just to head right on in with my ticket. I can also reassure them that Richard Denning- whom I follow on fB, has already acknowledged the need to reorganise queuing to avoid a repeat of this in 2011.

Saturday morning queue madness

We also talked about whether or not the Expo had grown. The guys were sceptical of this, largely on the strength of traders' comments that the Sunday turnout was well down relative to that on Saturday. Again, Richard Denning has confirmed that the overall attendance was up on 2010.

One particularly satisfying feature of our conversation was that Andy (second left) recognised my grinning greenie from my avatar at the BoardGameGeek. This wasn't the only time I enjoyed that experience during the Expo.

Leaving these chaps to their game I headed out to return to my hotel there to end the night working up my notes of the Expo for the bloggery which was to follow. Pausing for a quick fag I noticed a couple of young guys who were obviously more diehards. Introducing myself I was soon invited to a game of Dominion. I needed no second bidding.

Brian, Chris & Ben at our game of Dominion

We played this game with the recommended beginners' setup. I loved it every bit as much as before and its addicitve nature was commented on more than once around the table. I also enjoyed getting more of a hang of what the cards could do, not to mention not coming last!

As if all that wasn't enough, it turned out that Ben, Brian and Chris share yours truly's games designer aspirations. Ben and Chris have gone further than that. They are part of Tied to a Kite, a small company which has produced an abstract boardgame- Numerix, and Backswords & Bucklers- a 'white-book retro-clone' (ie. an RPG based on the original D&D boxed set) set in a fantasy Elizabethan world.

Something clicked when I heard about these. Tied to a Kite had had a stall at the Expo. I'd seen Chris showing Numerix to someone while passing by; I'd actually gone to their stall on Saturday in search of a stamp on my 'Expo Passport'- a prize draw scheme which entails visiting several stalls; and I recognised the cover of B&B (heh!) from the Expo programme, where it featured because it was a nominee in the 'Best New RPG' category in the Expo Awards (it didn't win, but more of that anon).

It was inevitable then that the night would finish with Numerix. I don't normally go a bundle for abstracts I must confess. I love backgammon to bits, but I can't think of any other game in my collection which isn't themed, however lightly this theme is applied. So I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed Numerix.

The rules are very simple (check them out on the website where you can also download the rules and the board for free) but the strategy and tactics appeared to have quite fiendish potential, especially with 4 players, which we tried for our 2nd game. I also enjoyed the tactile qualities of the full production game with its wooden board and stone pieces. It was easy to imagine myself a Roman legionnary sitting next to the campfire whiling away the hours until it was my turn to go on watch. All very nice. I didn't win either game, naturally enough. :-/

Score
The quiet man
1
The Overlord? 1
The terrible twosome 1
Stone cold killer 1
The dynamic duo 1
A bad day at the tables 0
:-(

Ben with our game of Numerix

Brian, Ben and Chris proved excellent company for whiling away some wee small hours at the dog end of the Expo. My already delightful end to a great weekend was made all the better when Ben and Chris gifted me copies of both their games. They were only cheapass editions- the top of the range B&B had in fact sold out, but their generosity was much appreciated. I hope we all meet again. ;)

Related@RD/KA!
UK Games Expo'10
- #2. Once more unto those hex-and-counter battlefields
- #3. Games to the left of them, games to the right of them
- #4. Winding up and wending home
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