Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Mother of All Board Gaming Events

Connecticut gaming kingpin Mark Casiglio organized an all-day game day on Saturday, widely advertised and open to all comers. It was held in a large meeting room at a church in Shelton, Connecticut. Mark toted over a good portion of his game library, provided lots of drinks and snacks, and charged no admission. Is this guy crazy or what?

I arrived at about 2:00 and there were already a few games underway; one table had a four-player game of Through the Ages going which continued on for about six hours (unless they played two and never got up between games). A bunch of other people were looking for a game, and if I were a completely selfless person I would have suggested something for everyone to play, but I was too eager to try out Tzaar, the game I mentioned in a post last week. I suggested it and a nice guy named Mark took me up on the offer.*

We played two games, each of us going first once. Mark turned out to be pretty damn cagey; he beat me in the first game by whittling down my Tzarras and then setting up a fairly convoluted but devastatingly effective attack against my last Tzarra piece. The second game went a little longer; and we were both under heavy pressure at various points; in particular Mark had constructed a three-stack piece which was very menacing, but I had a hunch that I could get him to run out of captures first. He didn't see the danger and eventually I abandoned most of his pieces to one side of the board except for a little herd which I was able to harvest at leisure.

The game was a joy to play. Through the haze of inexperience I began to perceive vague regions of strength and peril on the board, that intuitive element that I enjoy so much in this type of game. The push and pull of the two different victory conditions was also fun and interesting. I felt like could have played five more matches right there and then, but there were a lot of people around and it didn't make sense to keep on playing a two-player game.

Afterwards I ended up chatting with Alan Stern, Don Sutherland and Matt Daigle (organizer of the upcoming Connecticon), and we agreed to give Don's copy of Airships a spin. Airships is a new dice game from Queen Games and Rio Grande Games. It is a bit more involved than yacht or liar's dice, but still fairly simple and accessible. The goal is to score points by rolling certain totals on certain combinations of dice, the targets mostly being dictated by a deck of cards. There are three white dice which have the numbers 1, 1, 2, 2, 3 and 3 on the faces, three red dice which have 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, and 5, and three black dice which have 4, 4, 6, 6, 8 and 8. However, players only start out with the ability to roll a very limited number of dice and so they must first upgrade their rolling power by earning cards. These cards are also earned by rolling totals on dice, so the players roll dice to earn increasingly more powerful cards until they can gradually work their way up to being able roll dice to earn points.

The game was breezy and fun, though there are definitely some interesting decisions to make. Chiefest among those is deciding when to stop upgrading one's dice-rolling abilities and instead focus on earning points. I ended up winning the game, simply because the rest of the table went on too long trying to improve their dice mojo. They were ultimately able to win some big prizes but I had taken too many little prizes and the game ended before anyone could seriously threaten my lead.

Two more folks had become free at this point, and rather than try and figure out a six-player game we opted for two groups of three. Alan, Matt and I chose Saint Petersburg. I had played this one a few times before face-to-face plus a lot of games on the computer. Matt was also an old hand at the game, but it was Alan's first try.

Saint Petersburg is actually somewhat similar to Airships in that you start off the game trying to build up your power base but must eventually switch over to trying to earn victory points. There are no dice in the game, however; instead it is simply a question of earning and spending money. The game is fun to play, though perhaps a hair on the dry side. In particular I love the setting and artwork, and all of the cards have some little detail highlighted in gold foil, which is a nice touch.

Now, ordinarily I like to play games with the rules as written and avoid house rules and variants, but in this case there is a common house rule that I am in favor of. There is a particular card, the "Mistress of Ceremonies," which, if it is bought on the first round, is a little bit too powerful; the house rule is that if it comes up in the first round you shuffle it back into the deck and replace it. In our game the card did indeed come out in the first round, and I had first crack at it. I asked Matt if he wanted to shuffle it back in, but judging from his reaction I would guess that he is even more averse to house rules than I. "You sure?" Yep, he was. Not being a fool, I took it. Add to that the fact that I got an Observatory on the next turn and you can probably guess who won. Amusingly enough, using the Observatory in the second round I got the second Mistress of Ceremonies, though of course I didn't have the cash to actually use it until a few rounds later.

The other thing that was strange was that no one was able to collect a large number of nobles; the game went quickly and we pulled a lot of duplicates. I think Alan had the most with five different nobles, whereas I ended the game with only four different ones.

As I said, I enjoy Saint Petersburg. I wouldn't put it among my favorite games only because it tends to be a little samey from game to game; the details might differ, but you're basically trying to hit the same marks every time. On the other hand, this sameness makes it very easy to slip back into a comfortable groove.

Some games looked to be breaking up at this point so we decided to play something quick until it was time to shuffle the gamers into new hands. Matt picked No Thanks and we were joined by Pat McKeon and Adam Skinner. No Thanks is an incredibly simple game but still rather fun. There is a deck of cards numbered from 1 to about 35 or 40, and each player also has a supply of "no thanks" chips. The goal of the game is to finish with the lowest score. One player will turn over a card and players must choose between saying "no thanks" and placing a chip on it or accepting the card and taking any chips that have already been placed on it. If you have no chips left you are forced to take the card. Cards are worth their face value in points, while chips are worth -1. What makes the game interesting is that if you have a run of cards (i.e, 19, 20, 21), only the lowest card in the run counts against you.

I must confess that I did not do very well at the game. I let my supply of chips get too low and I ended up having to take a bunch of stuff which was, shall we say, "not conducive to a winning score." Adam won with only a smattering of points. Very likely I came in last.

Afterwards Pat, Matt, Adam and Alan started up a game of Key Harvest and I joined Mark Delano, Don Sutherland and Lisa in a game of Galaxy Trucker, a game which I had not played before and which is quite popular at the moment.

The concept of Galaxy Trucker is pretty clever. In the first half of the game, players must build a spaceship from a pile of face-down tiles in the center of the table. This is a bit tricky because there are various restrictions (lasers must face outwards, rockets must face the rear, et cetera), there are three different types of connector, and, most importantly, you have to do all this before a timer runs out. When the time is up, the players must send their spaceships out into the void and race to planets where they can pick up important interstellar cargo for sale back home. Of course, there are a few hazards involved with space travel as well. After all, this isn't some quiet, peaceful 2001: A Space Odyssey-type outer space. There are meteor showers, there are space pirates, there are random laser blasts from unspecified sources, and if any of these hazardous elements get through the defenses of your hastily built and barely space-legal ship, chunks sometimes go flying off and get left behind. If you have to ask why THX-1138 isn't at his post, chances are he had a brief encounter with an asteroid and is spinning off towards towards the galactic rim at 900 miles an hour.

Sound fun? Well, many people certainly think so, but I have to admit that I found myself a bit flummoxed, perhaps even discombobulated. The game is fairly involved, and all the necessary brainwork gave me a craving for something strategic when really the game is more of a smash-up derby. I'm sure I'd get better at it with experience, but I'm not sure that that would entirely eradicate the little bit of frustration I felt with the game.

Of course, you'll have to take all this with a grain of salt because I fared quite miserably. My ships made it through their trials okay—a little bashed apart but mostly intact—but I did not earn very many points. I came in dead last with a score in the thirties. I forget who won, but I think their score was more in the neighborhood of eighty.

It was getting on towards seven or eight o'clock, so I had one more game left in me before it was time to go home. We were joined by Luz, who I had not met before, and we settled on the old Alea game Chinatown, which I had always wanted to try.** Chinatown has an interesting history in that it was the third game released by a then-new publisher, Alea, but it ended up being not terribly popular and so began to sink into obscurity. Not long after, however, Alea came out with a string of hits, most notably The Princes of Florence and Puerto Rico; gamers also finally warmed up to two early releases which initially had been received with a mixed reaction, namely Ra and Taj Mahal (which incidentally are two of my favorite games). So, all things Alea became very popular, and many board game aficionados began to want to collect their entire catalogue to impress their friends and scorn their enemies (especially because the Alea games were always very nice productions and were numbered, a quality which is for some reason irresistible to collectors). The only catch was that by this time Chinatown had gone out of print and copies were hard to find. At their peak copies still in shrink wrap were fetching over $100, though the demand is easing now that the game is being reprinted, albeit by a different company.

Amazingly, Mark Delano had purchased a copy of the game back when it was originally published, though he had never punched out the pieces or opened the plastic wrap on the cards because he had always played the game using other people's copies. We were playing with a virgin copy that had only had one owner. Golly!

Anyway, Chinatown is essentially a game of wheeling and dealing. It has one resemblance to Monopoly in that players are trying to put together collections of matching properties on a board, but the similarities end there. There are no pawns that travel around and you don't have to pay other players rent. Essentially players receive random lots and random businesses to put on the lots; if you can put down a contiguous collection of identical businesses on the board, you'll earn money, but this is almost impossible to do without trading lots and businesses with the other players.

I was able to complete one small set and one medium-sized set of businesses in the first half, but I didn't have any decent prospects after that. For the rest of the game I spent my time bargaining for straight cash with the other players. My biggest deal was with Lisa; I sold her two businesses for $12,000 and two other businesses. Had she been able to immediately turn around and complete the set this would have been a decent deal for her, because she would have paid out $12,000 but earned $42,000. It was not to be, however; she couldn't come to terms with Mark, who held the final business that she needed. It was a calculated risk on my part and it paid off.

In the end I won with $111,000. Don came in second with $101,000. Chinatown ended up being my favorite of the games played besides Tzaar. Really, the only game that I wasn't that keen on was Galaxy Trucker, but the company was good, and that is what is important. Thanks to everyone who sat across the table from me, because I had a really good time. My only disappointment is that I never got around to playing anything with the Paradis family, the Shea family, Joe Lee, Keith Corbino or the often hilarious Dustin Gervais and Rich W.


* At large game gatherings like this one has to strike a difficult balance between selfishness and generosity when it comes to picking games. On the one hand I want everyone to have a good time and be included, but on the other hand if you never speak up and make your preferences known you sometimes end up spending the day playing extremely light or bland games with large groups and feeling like you've wasted your precious gaming time. For this reason I usually set aside one game in my mind that I will push to get to the table and otherwise try to be as agreeable and inclusive as I can.

** And, coincidentally, I had re-watched the film of the same name the day before.

Airships game box photo courtesy of Rio Grande Games

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