The Marriott is a nice hotel. Not a super-swank hotel, but a nice one. I’m sure the non-convention guests at the hotel found the overall caliber of the environment a little less than they expected or hoped for what with herds of sweaty gamers waddling through the hallways and covering every available flat surface with assorted chits and dice and stacks of strangely decorated cards. For one such as myself, casting a gaze across the terrain and declaring myself among kindred, it was an experience matched by only a handful of previous conventions.
A huge part of my enjoyment was based on the pre-planning that went into the weekend. Unlike my previous convention schedules, I had determined weeks in advance that there were certain events I was certain to participate in. These both dictated the flow of the activities as well as ensured that some games would get played. In contrast, earlier events had been based on “gentleman’s agreements” in which we would lay fantastical stratagems woven into narrative tapestries which would be promptly unwoven by the twin calamities of attending wives who disfavor certain game genres and the Dealer’s Room whose treasures often foist urgent demands on our playing schedule.
Now we had framed particular activities into obligations and it made the difference in a marked manner. I confess that there could have been a better time designation: Both Thom’s Friday night Blood Bowl game and my own Saturday evening Arkham Horror session were set to start right at or before the dinner hour which made the attending wives unhappy. But that’s a mistake that is easily corrected next time. Likewise my own game could have been more artfully selected; I’ve played enough of Arkham Horror to know how it goes, but my month-prior refresher solitaire game was not enough to provide my aging brain the fuel it needed to run a game correctly. I suppose having an entire table of new players made the point relatively moot, but on the very unlikely chance that any of those players reads this: I’m sorry. Please don’t base your opinion of the game on my running of it. It actually takes much longer and is much more balanced when you play it right.
Next time I think I’ll be sure to play a game I understand thoroughly (such a feat is, I suspect, practically impossible with Arkham whose vengeful complexity is both part of its charm and its greatest weakness). As a rookie convention game master I’m delighted to have had the experience if only to get a chance to learn from my mistakes. Next time I’ll be running something more akin to Catan Card game or Werewolves.
My most pressing delight for the weekend was that I was able to play some games I’d really been looking forward to: Blood Bowl tournament, many rounds of Pandemic, Arkham Horror, Power Grid, Race For the Galaxy. I’m not sure this would have been possible without the pre-planning steps we took. And as a secondary thrill I was able to make some exciting purchases: I came away with a new copy of Werewolves (the old copy had been the victim of water damage on some critical cards at a Werewolves party) plus the New Moon expansion for it; Nik found a copy of Zombie Fluxx; I also picked up Race For the Galaxy and a bunch of new dice for various Blood Bowl purposes. As a secondary bonus whose delight cannot be properly expressed, I also returned home from the con to find my NAF Blood Bowl Block dice waiting for me in the mailbox. I was skeptical about the yellow-blue color scheme but they turned out really sharp and it will be great to have an extra, non-white pair so I can keep them separate from my opponents’.
It’s sometimes hard for me to enjoy the moments of my life as I experience them. I found several times during the weekend I could sense the fun I was having like a film enveloping the surface of my body. It was unfamiliar but sublime and I wanted it to last and last.
- Blood Bowl – Despite the three-game marathon impending on Friday night I still attended League night Wednesday although I only helped Thom out by playing his Human team against his own Goblin team. Ironically I finally defeated Thom fair and square and it wasn’t even with my own team. In an effort to save my pride I played him first on Friday night with the new female Elf team against his Ogres and emerged once again victorious proving that at least some of the time I can actually conquer the Everest that is Thom in Blood Bowl. My next two games against a nice guy named Jeff’s High Elves and Aaron’s Dwarves weren’t so hot but I made costly early mistakes because we were trying a bit to rush through the games so we could make it to the flea market that started just six hours after the tournament began.
My final impression after three games with the Elves is that they are a fun team to play especially because they offer so many chances for spectacular plays. With easy dodging, agility-based skills and high movement rates, they make for an enjoyable counter-point to my usual “hit anything that moves” style. Having to try to dance around the pitch was a trip, but not an unwelcome one.
- Zombie Fluxx – Nik found this for me and purchased it without consulting me. I’m glad she did, and it shows how well she knows me. I love zombies and Fluxx is a great game that I think gets overlooked a lot in our gaming group because it’s pretty arbitrary and we tend to gravitate toward themed games that offer a lot of strategic opportunity. I don’t know how strategic you can get with Fluxx, but the zombie theme certainly works well in this context and I had a lot of fun playing it with her. The minor Fluxx formula revisions add a much needed spice and the art is hands-down fantastic. A great pick-up.
- Pandemic – I already knew that Pandemic was a fun game but it wasn’t until Thom’s scheduled Pandemic blow-out that I really fell in love with it and began to understand why it has captured the gamer world’s attention so quickly. The co-operative nature of it is rare enough to make it feel unique and I already enjoyed that aspect of it, but playing with a group of people I met for the first time over the game made me realize it’s a great ice-breaker game since you’re forced to interact (contrast that to a game such as Magic: The Gathering where you may play against a stranger but never really engage them in any meaningful way). I also discovered how well balanced the game is to make it so that a group of competent players can manage the four-epidemic threshold handily but struggle with advancing the difficulty to five epidemics. We managed to win our three initial games though one came on the last possible turn and frankly we cheated by misunderstanding a rule about how city cards could be transferred from one player to another. But then we shuffled the participants a bit and won a five-epidemic game without cheating and it felt pretty good to do so. I hope Z-Man games gets the next printing shipped out soon, my only complaint about the game at all was how the buzz surrounding it focused primarily on how difficult it is to find and only secondarily how fun it is to play.
- Dados – Thom, Nik and I were compelled to test this beta version of a game when they offered us a free copy to play and provide feedback. It’s basically a bidding/trick-taking game with dice mechanics instead of cards. You get 36 dice and roll them four at a time placing each one onto one of 24 face-down tiles arranged in a grid. Once there are two players’ dice on a tile the tile can be claimed by any player in lieu of rolling on their turn provided their dice value is greater than any other players’. The catch is that the tiles are a gamble: Some provide heavy bonuses to the scored value (the base is the total value of the dice on the tile) others reduce the value or modify it in some other negative way. Then there are a few special tiles which are kept until later in the game and can be played to influence the game.
Overall I thought it was a pretty fun game except it was billed as a light strategy game and I don’t think you can have a game with that many random elements be considered strategy. It’s more of a calculated risk game. It doesn’t diminish the game’s value, it’s just that I came in expecting one thing and found it to be something else. So I guess when the game is published we’ll all get free copies. Hey, if nothing else it should come with 144 six-sided dice, so you can’t go wrong there.
- Pikomino – While Thom and Carl played a quickie version of Legends of the Old West in the lobby, Nik and I tried out our new copy of Pikomino purchased in the dealer’s room. It’s something of a different game when played with two people because stealing is more difficult with fewer options on top stacks. We also scored significantly higher as a result of being more prone to stacking rather than being stolen from. It’s still a fun, casual game though and I’m glad we picked it up.
- Arkham Horror – So this was the game I had volunteered to run. It was a popular choice on the sign-up sheets, but I felt quickly that as a first-time game master I got in over my head. I hadn’t refreshed on the rules recently enough so I fumbled through game mastering it without playing and inadvertently ran an abbreviated session by running a Mythos phase between every single player’s turn. It did accelerate the game rather profoundly which was probably for the best since I had stupidly scheduled it right at dinner time on a busy day where we really needed a dinner break. The game started at 17:00 and ended about two and a half hours later and while the new-to-the-game players seemed to have a good time (they ended up winning by defeating the Ancient One in combat) I regret somewhat that they didn’t get a really good sense of how the game actually plays out.
We also had to run a second game which I wasn’t involved in (but was managed by a devoted AH enthusiast so it let a few extra people play without really needing my attention) and there was some confusion trying to get another full copy of the game with the King in Yellow expansion. Aaron came through in the end but it was a little frustrating to have the second group getting antsy and testy with me because there wasn’t enough player space. I felt like I was being blamed for having so many people sign up, which was ridiculous but everyone ended up playing and having a good time anyway so it worked out in the end.
After the first set of games I set it back up and we waited for Thom and Carl; they joined Nik, myself and another new acquaintance. We played correctly this time and the game lasted several hours which I think were enjoyed by all. We had several chances near the end to win but Thom ended up devoured three times in the course of the game and was really unlucky with his Other World Encounter card draws which directly lead to a confrontation with the Ancient One that… didn’t go as well as the previous game’s. Carl forged through the impossible odds till the bitter end anyway and I guess it serves as a small consolation that we were able to generate 35 successes out of a needed 60 to win.
- Power Grid – Sunday morning I got in on a full-fledged game of Power Grid. As I suspected I enjoyed it much more than the introductory seven-city teaser and found it to be a fascinating light simulation of economics as well as a grand strategy game. My biggest complaint is still in the decision to use paper money and one-dollar increments instead of something more manageable (like base $5 increments or money chits as in Arkham Horror). Not because I have some weird aversion to paper, but because in this context it isn’t exactly fast and easy to calculate or distribute the appropriate funds. Still, it’s a minor quibble and I very much enjoyed playing.
- Race For the Galaxy – This was my “big” convention purchase and while there wasn’t time to play it at the con, Nik agreed to join me in a game once we got home. Race is one of those games that’s frustrating to explain because it involves a lot of concepts that aren’t easily distilled into a single sentence and everything is kind of interconnected. When I’m teaching a game I prefer to start with base mechanics, build out to a general flow of the turn progression and then cover objectives. I usually let exception cases and special events wait until they show up mid-game and cover them then to avoid confusion. Every once in a while though you get to a game like Race where none of that works: There are no base mechanics, the mechanics are dependent on the turn progression. But it’s hard to teach turn progression because that is dependent on the phase selection mechanic. And even once you get to that point, every card in the game is practically an exception event; add to that the fact that the design of the game is great provided you already understand the game premise and just need an easy reference, but the myriad of icons and subtle distinguishing characteristics make it a poor self-teaching game so the first few hands of it feel like you’re playing a card game in a different language.
Despite the challenge of teaching it, Nik won the game so I guess it went better than I thought it was going. I’m not sure that she’s dying to play it again, but hopefully my assurances that it makes more sense the more you play it were resonant and she’ll humor me with at least a few more rounds before we move back to something she’s more comfortable with.
- Bionic Commando: Rearmed – Despite all the board gaming, I did also sit down for a few minutes and play through the cursed Stage 9 boss. I don’t know why I had such a mental block against that guy; he was a re-tread from an earlier boss I defeated on my first try. But somehow I couldn’t pass him. I finally made it happen and then promptly got humbled by Stage 7. I like that the game retains its sense of challenge even though they’ve instituted a save system that prevents you from having to backtrack. The original game was conquerable but hard, this game feels the same way even if they’ve granted nods to the busy adult gamer who can’t sit for extended sessions to play a game in a single sitting.
I’m still in search of a suitable Ghoul model to round out my Undead roster and now that I’ve gotten enough Elves done to field a base team I’m starting to look to the future for my next projects. I need to save up some money so while I do that I have a Necromunda team to decide on a paint scheme for at long last, I have four reserve Elf models to finish and I need to get that final Ghoul for the Undead. But after that? Here’s what I’m considering:
- Human Blood Bowl – I have 11 plastic human models: Two Throwers, two Catchers, two Blitzers and five or six Linemen. As hinted at last week I’m thinking of ordering the Shadowforge Female Human team to round out the roster with five more Line(wo)men and two each of additional Catchers, Blitzers and Throwers. Granted the Throwers would be extraneous since you can only have two on your roster, but the theme of the team would be co-ed Blood Bowl so I’d probably end up using one of the female Throwers anyway. I also saw that Impact! Miniatures has a great Heresy Deathball Ogre model that I’d like to pick up instead of using either Morg ‘n’ Thorg or a GW Ogre. I actually like the Heresy models so much I’d love to pick up enough for a full Ogre team, but they’re pricey models ($15 a pop) which would make a full regiment of six like $90. I do like the official GW Human models and the set comes with a full compliment of 16 which is vastly improved over the other official sets, but since I’m buying models to fill out a set I already own, I can’t justify the cost difference: Buying the Heresy Ogre and the Shadowforge females is the same collective price as the GW Human set sans Ogre. So yeah.
- Dwarf Blood Bowl – Some Blood Bowl tournaments require official GW BB models. I have an official Orc team and an official Undead team but my Elves are obviously unofficial and if I add the Shadowforge and Heresy/Impact! models to my Human team that makes them unofficial as well. I’d like to have a third official team to choose from bringing my total to a nice round five, but in a testament to the sorry state of the Specialist line, the cheapest any team gets is $60 because you have to add boosters at a minimum. The teams that look most likely to work with as little additional expense (and that I’d be interested in owning or playing at this juncture) are Vampires, Dark Elves and Dwarves. I settled on Dwarves as my pick among those because I like the models the best and because I think it would give me a nice cross-section of the major fantasy races (Elves, Humans, Dwarves, Orcs, Undead/Other). My $60 would get me 10 Blockers, two Runners, two Troll Slayers and two Blitzers which is 16 players but I’d have to pony up another $35 to get the Deathroller should I choose to build in that direction. Still, it’s somewhat better than the Dark Elves which, for $60, gets you seven Linemen, two Witch Elves, four Blitzers and two Throwers which aren’t even part of the LRB5 team listings so they have to be used as either Runners or Assassins… I’m not sure what they expect you to do about the other option since no models technically exist for either. I guess that’s where you’re supposed to dip into the WFB line and pick up Assassin models for $10 a pop adding another $20 to the total. Sigh.
- Pirates/Gunslingers – Aaron picked up the Warhammer Historicals rulebook for pirate skirmish battles and it got me all intrigued about painting some pirate squads. Foundry has some marvelous miniature sets for just such a game and while I’d have to see the rules before I decide which set to pick up, I think the prospect of this kind of game is even more intriguing than Legends of the Old West and I have to say I’ve been on the razor’s edge of buying a posse of gunslingers for a minimum of three years now. I have some ideas in store for how this might go down, but a gang of fun historical minis, a gang of Necromunda SciFi minis and plenty of Blood Bowl teams to choose from… well, that sounds like I’d be ready for fun no matter what.
The one part of ConQuest I felt could have been better this year was a general sense of organization. They had to contend, I concede, with a strange hotel layout but I’d argue that other than the Hyatt where they hold KublaCon, few hotels are really meant to have this much related activity in one central location. Most conventions have less wandering around and seeing what’s happening than gaming cons and since few are big enough to sell out massive convention centers the way GenCon or PAX are, they have to make due.
But the situation wasn’t helped by having the dealer’s room offset from what seemed to be the con’s focal point: The board/war/miniatures game area. Also tucked over in that side hallway was the small open gaming area and the role-playing room which meant that a lot of the impromptu games had to be organized in high-traffic hallway areas or the common room off the main lobby. It’s not that the non-conventioneers were problematic but I think it’s difficult to run an effective RPG if you have to contend with gawkers and passerby. I think my experience is that ConQuest is generally more board- and wargame friendly while DunDraCon has a bigger RPG/LARP contingent and Kubla goes full force with the miniatures. All are always represented, but that seems to be the focus shift.
But aside from accommodation challenges, there was a sense that I don’t usually get from DunDraCon or KublaCon that the organizers… didn’t. There was a lot of times where I’d ask a volunteer where or what something was and they’d fix me with a blank stare before giving a vague wave and a cryptic reply. When I asked a staffer where my Arkham game was being held she said, “You kind of have to wander around and find it.” That’s not really my idea of great planning.
I also felt from a game master’s perspective that there wasn’t a lot of support provided to me. I asked someone what to do since there were more signups than my game allowed. The best response I got was a shoulder shrug and a “Try to work it out if you can. Do you have an extra copy of the game?” Listen: The game is $60 so no, I don’t have an extra copy. I was able to find one, but I had to do that on my own. No one came by to check on my game after the first five minutes and no one was around when it was over to collect my game master’s sheet. I was never made aware what the purpose of the sheets were anyway except someone said, “So we can keep track.” Of what, I never became privy.
It was really the little things that stuck out to me: The flea market was laid out in a tight circle with relatively narrow aisles between the outer tables and the inner. Con flea markets are almost always frustrating affairs, especially for mostly meek, smaller geeks like myself but this was so much so that I never seriously felt like I had a chance to make a purchase. I didn’t even attend the second night’s market. Even things like the signage with it’s arrow-adorned logo that contrasted with the intentional arrows meant to guide guests to registration and other key locations—a holdover from two years ago when I last attended ConQuest—showed lack of foresight and planning.
I rank the Con as one of my top gaming experiences overall, but I think there is definitely a lot of room for improvement.