June 28, 2004

Origins Notes, Part 2

I went to sleep earlier than my compatriots and I never sleep that well in hotels anyway, so I got up relatively early to find Chris sleeping on the floor instead on the half of the king bed that we'd saved for him. He just didn't want to disturb Mike since he didn't come in until 5:30am. The hotel room had free broadband, but there was one Ethernet cable for the three of us (hello Airport Express?), so I just checked a few quick things before hopping in the shower and going down for the free breakfast. Pretty solid perks for $130 a night, not to mention the great location.

Catan Came to Origins with the express goal of checking out the German board games, and I'd played way too much random crap yesterday. Today I was going to play what I wanted to play, instead of what they wanted me to play. Settlers of Catan was the seminal title that launched the German import-games phenomena in the US, but I've never got a chance to play it, since everyone else I meet in a gamer crowd have played it to death already and would rather play newer games. So I went over to the board gaming play area for a designated plain-jane (as opposed to Cities & Knights, Seafarers, Starfarers, or Stone Age Settlers, can you tell it's been a popular franchise?), low-key game of The Settlers of Catan. One of the players was a lady who was nice enough to explain the rules to the newbie, and there really wasn't that much to it (part of the reason for its popularity), but it had the appealing mix of strategy (resource allocation amongst divergent victory conditions) and luck (initial terrain layout, roll of the dice for your resource mix) that is the hallmark of German board games. Liked the group and stuck around to play a second game, which I even managed to win, thanks to some lucky Development Card draws (which I did have to allocate resources to pay for) that jumped me up in Victory Points. It was an interesting contrast between our genial four-player game with a woman and a girl, compared to the loud, cut-throat, backstabbing going on in the other Catan game with four gamer guys. Oh yeah, women like Settlers, too. Amazing how doubling your potential market helps sales.

I think I got good value out of that $1.50 event token. Thought about picking up a copy, but the three-person minimum is a real dealbreaker. Now it was already almost 12:30 and I rushed off over to the Hyatt conference room for the "CCGs And The Artists Who Love Them" seminar. The old-school Magic artists were well represented by folks like Mark Tedin, Liz Danforth, and Ed Beard Jr. There's also a new guy named Raven who's not in Magic, but did work on other WotC products. I was the only audience member not wearing all-black with multiple piercings. Mr. Beard drove the seminar, trying to drum some business sense into the young artists in the audience (i.e. not me). Many stories of dodgy contracts from fly-by-night companies, hardball contracts by the corporate giants, and sometimes just a low-ball offer out of the blue with no contracts at all. Unfortunately the problem seems to be a fundamental supply-and-demand curve, as there's much too many decent, even good, artists out there who are willing to work for peanuts just to see their work in print. Mr. Beard's fervent call for a sort of an illustrator guild sounded like utopia was within reach, but even he sounded a little resigned to the dog-eat-dog-ness of it all. Mr. Beard had just produced a (non-collectible) card game based on the Arthurian legends, and he got some gorgeous art by treating the artists fairly and calling in every favor he could. But in the end no matter how awesome the effort (e.g. Raven, who computer-illustrated megapixel-sized pieces of chainmail armor one link at a time), the art is still reduced to a few square inches on the card, and they absolutely had to get the game printed in China as American printers couldn't even come within order-of-magnitude. A minor rant at the end about outsourcing efforts (complaining about how Japanese artists have cheaper cost-of-living? what the hell?) and the manga/anime influence (hey, that's life as a commercial illustrator, gotta go with the flow). Nevertheless, a very informative and interesting seminar by cool people who love what they do.

It was already mid-afternoon by then, but I headed over to the North Market anyway to see what's left after the lunchtime rush. Wasn't excited by steam-table Chinese food. The deli was out of hot sandwiches, but the meat-loaf sandwich was good, and not something you can get at Subway. Now it was back to the demo room for some hard-core playtesting. Knocked off another Looney game or two at the Lab. I love how they come up with a million ideas using their stackable pyramid pieces, but I find that it would be more fun to program a computer to play some of the abstract games (I'd have to look up some tree-pruning algorithms, of course) than playing them myself. Went to the Rio Grande booth, who tends to carry more hard-core games. Puerto Rico had been their flagship title this past year, winning raves from all the board game geeks, but it was complex and required more than two players, which was not what I was looking for. Rio Grande had Andreas Seyfarth there at the booth, though, and I couldn't resist buying Puerto Rico and San Juan (the less complicated, card-game cousin of PR) so I could get them signed by the designer. Did get a chance to play Attika as a two-player game, which was alright, but it required matching lots of similar-looking tokens with hard-to-read names, plus they didn't have any copies for sale at the con. Oh well.

Hit up some artists to get Magic cards signed, including my beta Ancestral Recall. Sure, some might consider it marring a near-mint card, but I don't care that much about resale, anyway. Headed over to Mayfair, the other giant in the import-boardgame biz, anchored by the Catan franchise. In fact their booth folk wore cool University of Catan t-shirts. Played Dos Rios, which had a good mix of strategy, luck, and mutual backstabbing, as you moved campesinos around the game board to harvest fields that produce money when one of the two rivers flows through. The trick is that each player has dams that can alter the course of the river each turn to redirect the water to their own fields. Unfortunately, the game took a long time and there was a significant amount of downtime between turns. It was getting close to closing time in the exhibit hall by then, but we still had time for a quick game of Theophrastus (faster to play than to spell?). Apparently Theo (short for Theophrastus von Bombast der Hohenheim) was a real alchemist way back when. Anyway, the card-matching game played well enough, as a secret formula is built up in the middle and the players attempt to play matching alchemical elements in a limited number of actions. There are numerous strategic tradeoffs, such as playing a card face-up for less action points but informing your opponents, or play face-down in secret but then you may not have enough action points to complete the formula. You can also peek at face-down cards to find out pieces of the secret, or play cards to screw other players, at various expense to your action points. It's good enough, but I wasn't feelin' enough love to reach for the wallet. The demo guy also explained Alibi just before closing time. It's like Clue except you have cards in hand instead of a board, and there are about a hundred times more possible conditions than Clue. I guess I'd be more excited about it if I'd played Clue more than twice in my life. Hey, it was good for another Mayfair Demo Buck (a dollar off for each demo, up to 10% of your purchase).

LotR Minis You know somebody loves his job when he works voluntary overtime. After the Exhibit Hall closed, the Rio Grande people took their demo games over to the Open Play area for more play time. I wandered over after I took some pictures of the crazy-detailed Lord of the Rings miniature battles. Would've loved to participate, but one battle would've taken a whole day by itself. Been hearing good things about St. Petersburg, but Rio Grande only had one demo copy and people are lining up to play. We got a game of Marco Polo started in the meantime. It's a relatively simple racing game where you advance by melding cards, either matching colors or types, and each space requires a different melding criteria. You can also advance multiple spaces by jumping over people in front of you, so there's a lot of back-and-forth. We all wanted to get to St. Pete, though, and it was worth the wait. Each round, cards representing Workers, Buildings, or Aristocrats are turned over, and each player can pay money to buy cards. Workers tend to provide more money, buildings tend to provide victory points, and aristocrats can provide both. It's important to build up a base of workers early so you'll have money later on to buy VP-scoring cards. There's also a balance between buying cheap cards early, or saving up for an expensive but more point-per-buck card later. There are also discounting mechanisms if you're willing to wait for cards to come around the table again. I was able to win my game by buying multiples of the same Worker type (taking advantage of a discount for multiples), and then buying into slightly more expensive buildings that provided money along with VPs so I could roll into the Aristocrat phase with more money to spend than my opponents.

By the time we were finished it was well past 10pm. The meat-loaf sandwich was filling, but not that filling, and the other games looked like they were multi-hour affairs. So I headed across the street to Barley's Brew Pub, which was packed with convention-goers. My timing was good, and I scored a table without waiting. Mike had recommended the Scotch Ale, and it was tasty, with a light caramel color and a hint of the caramel flavor from the toasted malt. It was a good way to wash down the average burger-and-fries, anyway. Wanted to go back for more gaming, but the lack of sleep and lack of alcohol tolerance caught up with me and I staggered down the block back to the hotel to crash instead. I'm such a wimp.

Posted by mikewang on 01:33 PM