Origins game con

We played a bunch of games at Origins Game Fair, most of which we liked. Here's my summary of them, in order of play:

  • Oceans (sequel to Evolution): This game fixes the biggest issues I have with Evolution. You are playing one or more species of creatures (ocean-dwelling this time), evolving them to add useful traits like the ability to gather more food or protection against predators. Some traits are symbiotic in various ways, so you interact with your neighbors. And everything's a carnivore, so anything can attack anything else for food (modulo those defenses I mentioned). The separate tracking for size and population is gone (it's just one stat now), and the traits seem more coherent and not as numerous. With some actions you can adjust the food supply to your creatures' liking. Oceans is a Kickstarter slated for publication later this year.

  • Spirit Island: You are playing the spirits native to an island that is being invaded by colonists. They keep coming (and building towns and cities); your goal is to drive them off the island before they taint too much of it. It's a cooperative game, with each spirit having some different abilities and some different action cards. We had four players and that worked well; I'm guessing that you remove map segments with fewer players so the balance should stay about the same, but I think it would play differently on a smaller map.

  • Albion's Legacy: Another cooperative game. You're playing one of the major characters from the Arthurian legends (there were seven or eight to choose from), each of which has different abilities, and you have a common quest on a map that is progressively revealed as you explore the lands around Camelot. (Don't think too hard about why Arthur, Gawain, Lancelot, and others don't already know the lands around Camelot...). The play mechanics were fairly straightforward but the board is busy and hard to see, you depend a lot on the right map tiles coming out (and they're random), and we spent a lot of the game not knowing what to do. Unnecessarily complex; thumbs down.

  • Arkadia: I liked this one more than Dani did. It's a worker-placement game where you're (collectively) building buildings and ultimately a castle. Buildings are commissioned by one of four guilds and workers are paid in guild tokens when buildings are finished (usually from a mix of players). The player who completes the building also collects another guild token and the right to place a castle piece. Each castle piece contains a guild symbol, pieces can cover other pieces, and the current number of a particular guild showing is what those guild tokens are worth should you choose to sell. You can sell during the game (a limited number of times but you decide when), so you're trying to manipulate prices to your own benefit. This game is probably under an hour without teaching.

  • True Dungeon Adventures: This is that LARP-style game I've mentioned before, where a team of players go through a series of rooms with puzzles and/or combats. This scenario was called Vault of the All-Father and involved cleaning up a trashed temple to the Norse gods. This year's puzzles were better than last year's: they were all solvable with enough time (which is limited) and cleverness, but they weren't too easy. (Last year one was definitely too hard.) I played the bard, which turned out to be underwhelming so next time I'll try something different. (I hope to write more about this separately. I know I said that last year too.) Followup here.

  • Dwarven Smithy: This was a nice game. Each player (max four I think?) is playing a dwarven smith (funny thing), who refines raw materials (like silver and gems), uses those materials to craft items either as tools (to improve future builds) or for sale, and is competing to build special secret items for the king. You only have so much room in your workshop for materials and the things you're making, though, so sometimes you have to push things out to your market where other players might buy them to use for their projects. Raw materials and things to build come from two different decks, and you decide how to allocate your card draws each turn. All four players were very close at the end, much closer than the person teaching us said is typical for beginners.

  • Endeavor: Age of Sail: You're playing European explorers out to explore and reap profits from foreign lands. The mechanic here is nice: each turn you gain some workers, build a new building, collect some previously-allocated workers (not necessarily all of them), and then use your buildings to take actions on the board. Common actions are to plant your flag (claim a land territory) or sail (gain presence overseas somewhere). Each foreign land requires several (I think five?) ships present there to open it up, at which point the majority player gains a bonus and anybody with sea presence can start claiming land. Another action is to take goods (in the form of cards) from foreign lands where you have presence; the cards usually let you advance on the tracks that control how many workers you get, how good a building you can build, or plain old victory points. The game felt well-balanced and, as is typical for worker-placement games, there's always more that you want to do than you have people for. All of the players (we had four; don't know if it can take more) liked this a lot.

  • Railways of the World: We played this last year too but haven't found it for sale at a reasonable price. This year we had five players (at least one of whom was hardcore) playing on a map of the eastern US. The map is large and we were playing on a large round table, which meant there was no place I could sit and be able to see much, which sucked. The game itself is fun but that session was not fun.

  • Get Off My Land: Meh. Four players are farmers on a 5x5 board, competing to clear forests, plant crops (or raise animals), harvest stuff at the right time, and defend your holdings. A few tiles have oil for extra bounty (not enough to go around of course).

  • Power Grid: We bought this game after playing it last year, so we already knew we like it. We had a four-player game this time, playing on the German map. One player was hardcore and it looked like he was going to win, but he didn't. The end felt rushed this time; the game wasn't rushed overall, but the pacing felt weird. Maybe that's the effect of having one player who knows the game inside and out and three more who don't. Still fun, just different.

  • AuZtralia: On a stylized map of (part of) Australia in the 1930s, up to four players build rail, establish farms, mine raw materials, build defenses, and fight Cthulhu, as one does. This was a lot of fun! On your turn you can take your choice of several actions; each action costs time, and you advance your marker on the time track to reflect that. Play proceeds from the earliest time on the track, so this means a player might go twice in a row, order tends to vary, and you can do that expensive thing but then you'll have to wait. The game starts with an additional marker already on the time track (maybe around a third of the way in?), and when the first player passes it it starts to move too, one space per move. That marker represents the monsters, who are progressively revealed (or occasionally spawned) and move to blight your farms and attack your ports. If any player's port (starting space) is lost then everybody loses; otherwise, players and the monsters score after every player crosses the finish line. We lost, so I haven't seen that part yet.

  • 878 Vikings - Invasions of England: This is a miniatures/military game. Four players play on two sides, English and Vikings; on each side one player's people are weaker but more numerous and the other's are stronger but less numerous. The English get some additional grunt labor when their towns are attacked. The Vikings keep coming, wave after wave. Order of play is randomized each turn (and not known in advance). When it's your turn you're playing your whole side, not just your pieces (in collaboration). This felt pretty brutal and we ran out of time before finishing. Neither of us enjoyed this.

  • Railroad Rivals: We had signed up for a different game in this slot, but there were two games with insufficient players so we joined this one instead. On each turn you take a city tile and a railroad stock tile (in turn order, which is bid each round). Each city tile has connections on its sides (not necessarily all four) that are the names of railroads. You play a city tile (not necessarily the one you just drew; you have a hand) next to another city such that the railroad names match, mark the connection as yours, and place a specified number of goods on the new city. After everyone has done this you each deliver one good from one city to its neighbor; the owner of the connection gets a point, and the railroad involved has its stock price go up one. Final score is based on the value of the stocks you hold. I think I've played this game once locally but don't know who owns it. We both liked this.

  • Mare Nostrum - Empires: This is an ancient-Mediterranean civilization-building game. Players claim territories that produce goods, improve them so they produce more goods, build military units to defend them, and sometimes attack because your own lands never seem to produce quite enough. There's a novel trading mechanic and then you use the goods you have (each turn) to build stuff -- those improvements or units, or maybe a wonder or leader that grants special powers. This isn't quite the ancient history we know; while the usual suspects are there, when we showed up I was assigned Atlantis. Atlantis, in case you're wondering, is just through the strait of Gibralter to the west, near both Spain and north Africa. Each position has a special ability; Atlantis's is building triremes for cheap. Rome has a different military advantage, someone else is good at trade, and I don't know what the others are. The game was interesting but the end-game was rushed; in the first turn after the first significant military action, Egypt built the pyramids and won. I expected there to be more of a middle game between initial expansion and the end. (I don't know if our game was typical in that regard.) Putting this in a three-hour slot (especially with having to teach it) was optimistic, I thought; we were out of time when Egypt won.

  • Railroad Revolution: Another worker-placement game, and fun. You're building the American rail and telegraph network. On your turn you can build rail, build a station in a city that your rail connects to, build part of the telegraph network, or use certain special abilities. Builds other than rail produce various benefits, an important one of which is giving you specialist workers. There are four types of workers plus the generics, and the actions I just listed are modified if you use a specialist (depending on which one). One of them tends to make things less expensive, one tends to give you some additional benefit (like building an extra track segment when you build rail), and so on. This is probably a 90-minute game if you already know how to play. It worked well for three players.

  • Skylands: Each player has a mat with place to put tiles; each tile has (usually) a piece of (usually) two city types, and you place them to complete cities (Carcassonne-style). Complete cities can be populated and you can then use the people to build other tiles. One type doesn't get population directly; instead you move people there from elsewhere, which generates victory points. On your turn you can choose to draw and place a random tile, buy a tile from a limited set, populate a city, or move people to the special cities for points. You can't keep choosing the same thing; you have to vary your actions each turn. Like in Puerto Rico, when you choose an action everybody gets to do it but you get something extra (like a second random tile). The game is very pretty in a way that doesn't interfere, which is a rare compliment from me. We liked this a lot. (I recognized this when I saw the game but don't know where I've seen it.)

  • CATS: a sad but necessary cycle of violent predatory behavior: The title is funny and appealing; the game wasn't. It's a simple-minded card game where you compete to catch and eat birds (optionally playing with them first for extra points). Other cats might try to steal your prey. Each round you secretly choose a target location and a target opponent and then choose two actions to be taken in sequence; everything is revealed and resolved simultaneously.

  • Unearth: Players compete to collect cards (sets are worth more) and harvest resources from those cards that let you build wonders (for points or game benefits). Two mechanics are interesting here. First, the way you claim a card is to keep rolling dice (and placing them on cards) until the value of the card is reached. You have one d8, one d4, and three d6 available; on your turn you roll and place one die. Cards have values ranging from 11 to 17, so it's always going to take multiple dice and sometimes several. If you roll 1 through 3 (on any size die), you collect a resource from the card (or a random one if the card has been emptied). When the total card value is reached, the player with the highest value on a single die gets the card. You can have dice on several cards; each action is independent. (If you run out of dice you reclaim one from a card.) The second mechanic is with the resources and what they can buy: the resources are hexes and you play them in (interlocking) rings; when you complete a ring of six you can build any wonder for which that ring meets the build costs. (There are some generic "any six resources" options so you're never completely screwed.) I would play again.

  • Call to Adventure: This was a "learn to play" session and we didn't finish. You're playing fantasy characters and trying to accumulate traits like strength and wisdom, which you do by using the traits you already have to complete challenges. There's a "light side/dark side" aspect to the game, and if you're too good or too evil some options become unavailable to you. It seemed ok but nothing special.

That's a lot of games. They were fun but our pace was too aggressive for me. We need to adjust something next time; I think I want shorter days rather than fewer of them but I'm not sure. We did have some gaps during which we sat and read, but I was still tired -- too many people, too-harsh lighting, general wear and tear, maybe other things.

There's a club that runs most or all of the train games, and unlike with all the other games we played, they don't necessarily teach or, IMO, do even the basic level of support that you expect from a program slot with an admission fee. Some people acted like it was an imposition that we didn't already know games. In the case of Railroad Revolution, we were told that nobody was available to help us because they were having a tournament, but the game's over there and feel free to figure it out yourselves, so we lost the first hour to figuring out rules and setup. Now this would be fine if they were doing their own thing (and notified people), but these games are part of the general list of games you can play and must pay for at Origins, and the baseline expectation of Origins slots is that games will be taught if necessary unless stated otherwise. And the club chose what games to offer when, so it's not like their own tournament was a surprise. I'd like to either see the club change their approach (in any of several ways, their choice) or see Origins break their lock on this class of games. Since I doubt either will happen, I need to remember how this works for the future.