Boardgame Babylon v110 – Q&A with John D. Clair

The show is back. Since John D. Clair, local hero SoCal designer of Mystic Vale, Space Base, Dead Reckoning, and the new hit Ready, Set, Bet, joined us as the Guest of Honor at Strategicon‘s Gamex 2023, I recorded a podcast Q&A session with him. John’s a good friend and we talked about his process, his history, and the exceptional games he’s added to the world.

I’m now using Soundwise, a new platform, so if you experience issues, please send me an email or comment here. Thank you!

Paperback Adventures: The Best Word Game You’ve Never Played

Wordsmiths and wordnerds alike are sure to enjoy Paperback Adventures from game designer Tim Fowers and his own Fowers Games. While the recent smashing success of the 10th anniversary and updated version of this game’s predecessor, Paperback, shows that when plenty of people love this game engine, they may not all have found out that Paperback Adventures (available as a board game or on Steam) is a magnificent evolution of what the designer did so well with the original.

In this review, I’m going to review both versions of the game since I’ve spent a lot of time playing it in both formats recently. Perhaps that’s a spoiler alert moment: I really love this game. Playing it first on Steam was enjoyable and I thought it would be my go-to version of the game. Yet, when I got my hands on the physical version, I switched allegiances – or at least I have done so lately. I’ll come back to that subject a bit further on but let’s talk about the actual game first, shall we?

Solo Word Nerd Heaven

Right off the bat, this is a solo game using the mechanisms of Paperback with a lot of new ideas and a campaign element. Sure, you can play it with two people with a variant included with the game, but I’m reviewing it as a solo game, which is probably where it sings best. I have not tried it for two yet and if I do, I’ll update the review.

I played the game as a Steam download for my Mac first. I’m not a huge fan of playing games on my computer for the simple reason that I’m sitting and typing on my computer most of the day….and just about every day. When I want to play a board game, I want to look away from the screen and talk to people. Since this is a solo game, I gave it a try. I do sometimes play board games on my iPad, but it’s rare. Only a desire to explore what Tim Fowers and his co-designer Skye Larsen had cooked up with the Paperback engine got me to reinstall Steam. I’m glad I did.

What’s It All About?

If Paperback is a gamer’s version of Scrabble, then Paperback Adventures is a solo gamer’s dream evolution of Paperback. The game has you taking on the role of one of three pun-ified heroic folks (Ex Machina, the Damsel, or Captain PlotHook) all created by our fake writer “Paige Turner” whom we all know from Paperback and its sequel, Hardback (so this is the third evolution of the game?). Regardless of which character you choose, you are trying to defeat three pairs of underlings and big bosses (well, variants in some cases) while collecting treasures and power-ups, all while building a deck of letter cards to create words and get to the end of the game by vanquishing your foes.

Mechanism-wise, it’s like Paperback in that you are building words with a deck of letter cards of various values, with special powers on the cards. The original Paperback was a combination of Scrabble and Dominion (the category-defining deckbuilder), Paperback Adventures also tosses in a Rogue-like adventure experience that many have likened to Slay the Spire, a popular deckbuilder adventuring game for one that you can find in various electronic forms.

If you’re like me, you may be saying “Slay the What?” So, I acquired and played that game specifically to compare it with Paperback Adventures. They are different games, but I see crossover in the best possible way. While both games have some elements that offer you insight into the other one, they both have unique elements that offer distinct game experiences. Spire is a solid game, but Paperback Adventures is more my style.

Paperback Adventures in Roguery and Diction

If you’re a fan of Slay the Spire, the “Rogue-like” format and combat system in Paperback Adventures will be familiar but also new. Sure, you take turns drawing cards from your deck and use them to fight the minions and bosses, defend against enemy attacks, and use special abilities to gain advantages in battle. Of course, instead of low-res beasties like in Spire, Paperback Adventures gives players a host of literary enemies with jokes and word nerdery all over the place, like the Chekov’s Gun, Plot Armor, and the Spinning Wheel.

Your character and the bad guys all have a health number to track how much damage each of you can take before defeat. Energy and health are precious so be careful to maintain your strength enough to go the distance. Thankfully, you do get rewards like new letter cards, items to use with your energy and supercool “McGuffins” that give you boosts to help you along the way. The combat is the bulk of the game and you win by getting through the gauntlet of six battles, although you can easily house-rule to finish earlier if you like.

Splay the Spire?

Playing Paperback Adventures feels like most deckbuilders on a basic level. You have a starting deck of letters with various values in the currencies of the game. You will acquire more to optimize and build out your deck purchases and bonuses. On your turn, you draw four letters and have access to a perpetual wild card to make words that would be usable in, well, a Scrabble game.

The big new concept for Paperback Adventures over previous games in the series is how you splay out your cards determines the rewards you get. So, if you splay the cards from your hand going left to right, you will see the icons for what you get from your cards on the left – and vice versa. See the picture below for reference. This interesting mechanism adds a little more strategy to your word choice because you may want to change it based on how well your letters will pay off.

What will those icons do? Mostly, they are Attack or Defense icons that will help you in battle, but some just give you extra energy. Depending on the number of those icons on the card side splayed, you will collect that number of hits, blocks, and energy bolts to apply to your enemy, protect yourself when they strike back, and add to your energy level. The cards kind of lean right for attacking, and left for defending so you can react to the anticipated response of your enemy (something you generally know).

Each card also has actions and your choice also designates either your first or last card as being in full view, which means you can also use the special power of that card immediately. This also exhausts the card, meaning it will be put into an exhausted stack until the end of the current battle. It’s a clever wrinkle for deckbuilders, and one I admire since it gives you more than just raw points or power to consider. Lastly, you can also upgrade cards, which means flipping them over and using the backside, which increases some number of values on the card. This also helps improve your deck as you proceed, giving you more power to your punch as you face more daunting versions of your foes.

Word Monsters

Each adversary has its own unique abilities and strengths, so it’s essential to strategize carefully how you’ll handle them. While the core component of the game is still coming up with words from your letters, use of special abilities with your Energy allotment and which way you splay will vary depending on the foe you are trying to defeat with your wordsmithing.

Paperback Adventures retains this essential element that made word game fans love the original game so much. Like Scrabble, each letter has its own set of icons and power, with more challenging letters like Q, J, and Z holding more power. But it’s not just about those icons – Paperback brought in special powers on the letters that would allow you to get more cards, add points to other cards, and even change adjacent letter. Paperback Adventures builds on that concept hugely, giving you a varied and fun experience exploring the possible items, power-ups, and letters to acquire and upgrade.

A Spellbinding but Challenging Experience

The game is not easy! Players must carefully balance their deck, choosing which cards to keep and which to discard in order to create the most effective word combinations and maximize their attacks and defenses. Plus, the individual characters you play have their own cards, strengths, and styles of play. While I’m still exploring them, they offer enough variety into the game that it’s adding a lot of gameplay value into the mix; that is, you get a lot of hours of fun and exploration with each character, so adding another one to your collection once you’ve fully explored the first one will still reward you with a new kind of play.

I’m a big fan of that experience, where I can get more gameplay out of a game with the introduction of new characters, as in Marvel Champions. That speaks to the strength of the design that changes in cards can give you such a fresh experience, and I think Paperback Adventures is right up there in design sophistication without adding endless exception rules like some collectible card games do.

Moreover, you get to battle characters twice in the game (as in Marvel Champions, too), which means you learn more about how to handle them and can apply those skills this time, rather than hoping you remember what you’ve learned for the next time the game makes it to the table.

There’s so much more, too, but not in complexity. There are just a lot of options, additional items and power-ups to acquire – all with that trademark Fowers Games wit that gamers (myself included) have found so appealing. Grab the Cooking Herbs, acquire the Magic Beans, or add the Eye Patch to your inventory. Readers will certainly enjoy these little asides to those who love words on a page.

Paperback Adventures IRL

Post-pandemic, there’s a real battle between online play and getting back to the table with friends. If you are anything like me, you supplemented what in-person play you could during the lockdown with online play on platforms like and Boardgame Arena. My frequency of play skyrocketed during this time, as did my play in apps on my phone and iPad because I could only bribe my wife and kids to come to the game table so often. Now that the pandemic has been declared ‘over’ by the WHO and the US government, I’ve been slow to return to much organized play and still game online a lot. Thus, playing PA in digital form first just made sense.

Yet, I’m glad that I stopped and shifted to the physical game. Not only because of the gorgeous job that Fowers Games did on the physical components of the game, but also because I find it much healthier to get away from the screen to enjoy board games. For me, board games are my self-care and an ideal way to unwind.

There’s something to be said about the peaceful experience of simply opening up a game, setting it up, and working through the puzzle of play. I take pleasure in the setup, the placement of the cards, the market, and each component. Even sorting the cards to get the right mix of cards for the game is enjoyable because I’m touching physical components and not just reacting to pixels on a screen.

I believe one of the best things modern board games can do for us is to provide an indoor outlet for getting away from screens. This can be much more satisfying than another night staring at Netflix or, heaven help you, TikTok.

Components and Artwork

While I’m mostly focused on gameplay when I think about a game, I’m not some philistine who doesn’t care about the materials and look of a board game. Fowers Games always has truly wonderful artwork that is ideal for my taste. Ryan Goldsberry taps into a mod-60’s look that always reminds me of one of my favorite artists, the California-based Shag. There’s even a touch of monster-loving Tim Biskup, another SoCal artist whose work I love. Fowers Games’ commitment to the exceptional artwork would keep me interested in their titles even if they didn’t make great games. Thank goodness that’s not a concern.

The components in Paperback Adventures are similarly stellar. The box includes cards, premium sleeves themed to the game so you can upgrade your cards with a simple flip, and plastic player and minion/boss holders that you use to track the health, energy, and other elements of a character. Players even get nice metallic score-tracker pieces. Notably, when some of the original players expressed concern that the metal tracker pieces didn’t fit perfectly into the plastic character holders, Fowers Game came to the rescue with a free upgrade. If you order the game from them now, you’ll get a pack of the updated metal pieces that fit perfectly at no additional cost. Indie game companies know how to take care of their customers!

The Final Word: Play Paperback Adventures Digitally or IRL

Paperback Adventures is a must-have for any solo board game enthusiast seeking a wonderful blend of theme and mechanisms that makes for a great gaming experience. Adding this Rogue-like game experience to the word deckbuilder might not have been the Reese’s experience I would have expected, but the result is a small wonder that I know I’ll be playing for a long while. With its high replayability and structured challenges, I expect to go through the whole of the characters on my own. My wife is currently playing the Damsel on her own campaign, which is delightful to see and shows me that even more casual players can get into Paperback Adventures and discover the rewarding experience it has to offer.

If you buy the physical board game online, be sure to buy the Core Game and at least one of the characters. This page helps you buy a copy of the core game as well as one of the characters. While I am glad to have all three characters, Ex Machina is the easiest starter character from my experience, but you’ll probably enjoy having them all. If you prefer your Rogue-word experience in a digital format, here’s a link to the excellent Steam version, which is compatible with Macs and Windows machines.


Disclosure: As with many companies and designers featured on Boardgame Babylon, Tim Fowers is a personal friend and my creative game agency 3SidedCard has helped with promotion and playtesting of Fowers Games for years. A physical copy of the game was provided for independent review.

Five Quick Questions About A Brazen Crown: A Mörk Borg Card Game

Editor’s Note: As an avowed content geek, I try new formats. People seem to love our 5 Quick Questions interviewette for tabletop designers that is a quick read. We promise no TL;DR. Let’s see how Brendan Evans, mysterious game designer and MÖRK BORG lover, does, shall we?

BGB: Attention is money, my friend. What is the elevator pitch for A Brazen Crown from Longtail Games?

Brendan Evans: Do you love the world of Mörk Borg, (the grimdark OSR fantasy RPG)? Do you think that actually getting a chance to play TCGs is fun, but you’d happily just buy all the cards once if they came in the box and be done with it? We did that. We made the perfect TCG, we steeped it in a metal-art-punk aesthetic, and then we put it in one box. That’s a single box, as in if you get the box then you have a copy of all the cards that exist, and you have them in the proper amount.

BGB: Making games is hard work, so you best have a great reason for making this thing. What inspired this game?

Brendan Evans: I spent my 20s collecting Magic: the Gathering cards, and specifically drafting them (think sushi go!, but after the sushi train stops you compare your meal for hours on end). I can’t keep up with new Magic sets anymore, and apparently a lot of people feel that way too … so why not just make a game in a single box that has the good gameplay of TCGs but without the gross monetisation (“blind booster packs, monthly releases, set rotations”)?

BGB: There are too many games out there. What hole in my game collection does this fill?

Brendan Evans: The box is aggressively yellow and the cards are a unique art punk aesthetic. You don’t own anything that looks like this. If you could draw a line between Sushi Go or Smash Up as a casual drafting game and Hearthstone or a Fantasy Flight card game, we’d be in the midpoint. You don’t own anything that plays like this.

BGB: This is Boardgame Babylon, so out with your dirty secrets. What DON’T you want to tell me about this game?

Brendan Evans: I said earlier that everything that Long Tail Games has made for A Brazen Crown will come in a single box. That’s true, but the secret is we think there might be a way for more A Brazen Crown to happen… without us. Hopefully, that reveal is a good one! We want to release an Open Gaming License for A Brazen Crown so that you can make and distribute your own cards. This means I am just the first designer of the game but I’m hopefully not the last or even the best person who does the job.

BGB: Love that idea! Thanks for telling us a bit about A Brazen Crown. Let’s wrap up with the key specifics (play time, number of players, and the link to the game) and also, since I think you can tell a lot about a person by understanding their sense of humor, what’s a good joke to close this interviewette?

Brendan Evans: A Brazen Crown – 2-4 players, 30 minutes + 15 minutes per player – check this out for an overview:



Two kids are playing with trading cards. One says “Hey, how much did that dragon cost you?”


“Pffft. I’ve seen a version of the same card that costs $50.”

Gathering of Friends Report, Part 6

3-D printed hypersleep chamber, where we all started by finding a deceased colleague.

As much fun as this has been, I must wrap up. While I’ve loved going through happy memories of playing board games with friends after a year and a half away from conventions, both a collection of short stories and a non-fiction memoir of my tabletop gaming life are deep in development. I need to return to that work after this brief interlude talking in too much detail about games, even though I’ve really enjoyed it and hope you did, too.

If you missed previous parts, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 can be found by clicking on those name-links. For now, let’s finish up with one of the big event board games I played during the Gathering, Nemesis.

One of the tough things about arriving at GOF later than the start of the show is that you need to endure social updates about what’s being played. While straining to finish work and life commitments before heading off for a week of board game bliss, you can see your friends having a blast before you even get there. One of the pics that caught my eye was Scott Ferrier playing his copy of Nemesis, a popular sci-fi board game from a few years back that took great inspiration from the Alien films. I wanted to play it immediately.

We’re in Space and I Can Hear the Screaming

I have always liked the first two films in this series, particularly the more action-oriented “Aliens.” 100 years ago, we used to play the old Games Workshop board game Space Hulk, which tried to capture this experience (and succeeded, in my view). I never tried classic Leading Edge version of an official Aliens game (editor’s note: Just rectified that) or any of the RPG products, but I find the IP to be entertaining even as the films went downhill fast and largely picked up speed over the last two decades.

But now in 2021, players have the opportunity to play a licensed board game based on Aliens from Gale Force called Another Glorious Day in the Corps, as well as a ‘family game’ of the R-rated first film, Alien: The Fate of the Nostromo. Or you could ignore the official IP and look at the gorgeous, Kickstarter-driven Nemesis.

In truth, the cat-and-mouse experience of the first film is different from the brutal warfare of the sequel. Separate games make sense. But Nemesis wants to check both boxes, giving players a massive ship where you can fight the battles of Aliens and play that hide-and-seek situation of the first film.

Thankfully, Scott spotted my FB comment about the game and was kind enough to reach out to me to play a game on the last Sunday of the Gathering. We managed to bring in a couple of additional guys, Joe and Jeremy (both excellent to have at the table) in to join us.

Scott had a gorgeously pimped out and painted his copy of Nemesis. This included not just the fantastic models from the board game, but also beautiful 3-D printed pieces purchased from Etsy artists. The joy of these pieces did not end with their detail and presentation. These pieces were highly functional as well. For example, the magnificent engine pieces he acquired were built to encase the randomizers from the regular game components that determine if the engine is working. My OCD product manager spirit soared with joy as I helped set up these pieces. Form and function both maxed out? This made me so happy that I worried it would color my opinion of the board game.

As Scott explained the rules, I noticed the game drew a lot from recent similar outings. Players had a deck that had some deck builder elements, relatively simple rules for movement, and combat that resolved quickly. While I took issue with some rules that made little sense logistically (I can only search a room if I have a search card in-hand? What?), the game generally seemed like it was built to play quickly turn-to-turn.

As we picked characters and outfitted them, the Alien feel was strong. In addition to the varied character roles, I was surprised to find out that every character had multiple objectives to select from that could put them at odds with others characters. Instead of assigning a ‘traitor’, Nemesis gives everyone a chance to be one since they can opt for a benign goal that works in a cooperative situation or a more direct goal that might involve killing another player. I love dynamic of this concept, but I also look forward to finding optional rules for a purely cooperative experience. While this massively increases replay value, I do think players need to agree on the type of experience they want.

Joe rolling the dice to fight an ‘Intruder’ as they call the aliens in Nemesis.

As it was, one of the other players selected a goal of killing me personally. A second player had also chosen a goal that required he be the sole survivor, which – of course – also meant making sure I was mincemeat. I didn’t know this but, as the game progressed, I could kind of tell that multiple people were seeking my death. I had selected a co-op-friendly goal of analyzing the aliens’ attributes. My innocent scientist just wanted to gain some knowledge. Isn’t life cruel?

Amusingly enough, the other players completed my goal entirely without my participation, though not without my effort. That early success meant that I was open to an opportunity halfway through the game where you can get back into the sleep pods and be fine as long as the ship actually makes it back to Earth. Despite a last ditch effort by a Breeder Alien to stop me, I managed to get in for my long sleep. This also meant that an option to set the ship on self-destruct was disabled, which certainly frustrated those who would wish me harm.

While I found this concept brilliant, I also expected it would be accompanied by a game clock being set that prevented the game from going on too long. No such luck. While I safely (and, dare I say, peacefully) slept in my cryo-chamber, Scott was trying to escape with an alien egg and the other two were trying to destroy the ship and save their own hides in escape pods. Good stuff for sure, but the game went on for another FEW HOURS. I enjoyed the company of Scott, Joe, and Jeremy but this was a lot. I sat, taking my Yucata and Boardgame Arena turns, along with doing some work while they played the game out. It was still fun to see them struggle within the constraints for the game, but this was not ideal.

Instead of winding down quickly, the board game continued through its full 15 turns, with Scott managing a victory by jettisoning away with an alien egg. Joe and Jeremy instead worked to destroy the ship. While they managed to do so by the end through setting the place on fire, neither of them managed to get into an escape pod. All three of us died in the explosion, handing Scott (who had been waiting for a few rounds, too) a solo victory.

Despite this issue and my quibbles about the basic rules, I enjoyed the play of Nemesis enough to pick it up when Gamenerdz had a crazy deal on it a couple of weeks later. I’ll look to both upgrade the game with painted 3-D prints and house-rule a few things to make it a bit more fun. In the end, the storytelling inherent in the genre was enough to carry the board game for me. I recently watched the Alien films back-to-back and it only served to further inspire me to break out the game with family and friends soon to try and capture some of the excitement of that experience.

Nemesis ate most of my final day, but I was happy to jump in on a few other short board games thereafter to balance out my 5-hour commitment to Nemesis.

Dicey Business

Dice Realms: Insta-buy for me when it arrives in 2022.

Not long after Nemesis, we stepped into a game of Dice Realms, the new Tom Lehmann dice-building board game that I’d had the good luck to play a couple of years back in a session that also included Res Arcana. Both board games blew my mind, and I’m thrilled that this one is finally coming out.

I’ve been a fan of Tom’s work since way back in the days of Fast Food Franchise. I even caught a game of that classic pre-euro on the last day of the con. While Res Arcana captured the joy of early Magic: The Gathering tournaments, Dice Realms delivers an awesome tableau builder with dice that can be upgraded as you go.

Having designed To Court The King and built expansions for Roll Through The Ages, Tom clearly used that insight in crafting Dice Realms with its multipurpose die faces that can change, much like Stephen Glenn’s early dice-crafter game, Rattlebones.

The big difference is in the variance of dice types. Some help you with building materials, some victory points, and some help you upgrade your dice. The options are massive, allowing for tons of replay value, and the easy way in which you can change up the dice makes this one a winner for me. Like a Dominion with its numerous possibilities and open theme, Dice Realms seems destined for many expansions and massive replay numbers.

This is a big win for Tom and one that, despite a $100ish price tag, I think will be a huge success. What can you do about pricing these days? There are a ton of components inside for the dice, the changeable faces, and even the little tools to easily pop the faces off a die when you upgrade. Plus, you’ve heard about the shipping challenges the industry is facing, right? I believe players will feel the game is worth it after they play the game 100 times or more. I know I will.

Jane Austen Goes Cardboard

Earlier in the week, I had played another game that might just find its way into my collection. Obsession, from designer Dan Hallagan and publisher Kayenta Games, was described to me as “Downton Abbey: The Game.” Indeed, the theme has each player managing an upper class English family and their staff, trying to score the most points by hosting parties, increasing their collection of distinguished guests, and upgrading their manor.

Ryan Bruns, a fellow you can’t help but like, was kind enough to teach the game to Anne-Marie De Witt and me. It’s not a complicated board game, but it does includes a few elements that work out well together. Your family are represented by cards, as are the gentry (people) whom you attract to your circle. Each turn, you select an Activity among those available on your estate. However, each Activity also requires some staff in addition to gentry. Staff are represented by colored and specially-shaped meeples that represent a butler, housekeeper, valets, etc. The combo of both hand and Meeple management gave the game a planning element that made me smile.

Of course, you need to raise your reputation to get some of the more ‘noble’ gentry to your place and to host some events. Each player has a Reputation dial, which allows you to increase your reputation for each time you add enough to circle the steps of the dial. This works well within the game where an invite of a gentry member might raise or lower your standing (some offer other benefits, like money or they bring gentry with them). It’s a pretty tight design.

Pride and Prejudice: The Board Game is another worthwhile nickname.

The game takes place in either 16 or 20 turns, which are generally quick. As you go, events give you a chance for more points, or other opportunities to act. In addition, you are given a set of goals at the beginning of the game. As the board game progresses, you discard goals that don’t seem as likely to earn you points. Another excellent mechanism in a game full of simple, good ideas well-implemented.

Fantastic Factories has that LEGO aesthetic going.

In the end, a full game of Obsession might feel a trifle repetitive if you don’t buy into the theme. The story develops a bit, but you may need bad English accents and amusement at the concept to properly appreciate Obsession.

Another game that I got a chance to play which had not been on my radar was Fantastic Factories. I had a good pleasure to meet the head of Deepwater Games, who published this game, and he was kind enough to teach it to our table.

Fantastic Factories draws its design aesthetic from Legos. The people in the game look like Lego people and the graphics match them. The game itself is an engine builder with various buildings and different workers to acquire. The mechanisms are fine, with a couple of different currencies and plenty of variation from the different types of buildings and a simple drafting mechanism. I found the game perfectly acceptable but didn’t find a spark. However, the good company meant that it was still a good time since we were enjoying discussing the art and some of the implications of the way that we were configuring our factories. I’d play again but it’s not some thing that I am rushing to add to my collection.

I feel the exact opposite way for Belratti. This wacky little party game is something that we need and we need right away. My understanding from the woman who taught us the game is that Rio Grande games has acquired the rights and they’re planning to bring it out soon. I am happy to hear that because it is a charming and fantastic take on the select and judge mechanism we see in games from Apples to Apples to cards against humanity to Dixit. Belratti adds some twists.

Stop the Evil Rat Artist

In Belratti, players alternate between the people that put together the things that are going to be judged and the people that are the judges. It’s a cooperative game and you are trying to clue to the other players the connections between the art that you lay out and the art that players are selecting each round.

Funnily enough in this version of the game, Belratti is a fake artist rat (and who hasn’t known a few of them) who is producing lousy work and you are trying to essentially fill up your museum before he gets too many cards into it.

Each turn, players alternate between being the owls that create the artwork and the cats who judge it. The owls try to select art that will show a connection with the artwork that is already displayed. But the display gets some random adds with work from Belratti. The cat players work together to guess the right art, giving the team points if they guess correctly. You win if you can select enough proper art before Belratti gets too many of his works in. It’s a wacky game that I can’t wait to have for our group where I think it will play really really well.

My last game of GOF2021 was a final call for Circus Flohcati. I was exhausted but when you have a table full of great people and a 15 minute Knizia game, how do you say no? I didn’t find a way.

Circus Flohcati is a classic Knizia press-your-luck game that I also find to be a good closer. It’s been published in many forms over the years but the one in my collection is the Star Wars: Attack of the Clones version. I acquired this one because of my son’s love of Star Wars, but it also has a small special rule to distinguish it. The version we played was a recent one that kept the circus theme alive. As always, the game was full of laughs when someone pushed their luck too far, the quick misery of a stolen card, and the surprise ending when someone quietly ran away with it. CF will always have a place in my collection.

I was going to add an addendum to this for Strategicon’s Gateway 2021, which I attended the week I returned, and talk about the games I played there. But we’re already over my planned word count so let’s wrap up with a few final thoughts bullet pointed out.

  • I expect some level of precautions for cons for the next year or so. Let’s be kind to those organizing these events and stick to the protocols. This is a health crisis, not a political argument. Let’s treat it as such.
  • I spent a lot of time at the Gathering just reconnecting with people whom I had missed seeing. That was magical time and hearing how people coped with the crazy world we’re still living in had a healing effect on me. I’m forever grateful to Alan and Janet Moon for pulling off this big change to help us all gather again. I needed it, and I really believe just about everyone else there felt the same way.
  • At one point in the con, someone loudly asked about a certain gamer and what he looked like. From the crowd, someone said, “He’s a middle-aged, somewhat overweight white guy.” Huge laugh. Okay, it was funny. But I’m also glad to see that this is changing and that our hobby is gaining more women, people of color, people of all genders, and that we’re thinking harder about our themes in games. At the show, I had the pleasure of playing exceptional prototypes from people from a variety of backgrounds. This is very healthy for the hobby and that extends to concepts far beyond ‘these games of ours.’
  • The pandemic has reminded me how much I love board games. They were a way for me to stay connected with friends while we could not see one another. We played online and although it wasn’t as good as being at the table, it helped. Plus, more play with my family brought us closer together. The hobby helped me cope big time and I am so happy to have all this cardboard, plastic and wood in my life.

Okay, that’s it. Thank you all for taking this journey with me. I hope you’ll check out my tabletop gaming memoir that I expect to publish via Kickstarter next year. It’s called Optional Rules: Stories and Lessons from Tabletop Gaming or some such title. Why am I writing it? Well, it’s for me to explore how tabletop games have affected my life but it’s also about telling some of my favorite stories of my four decades or so in this hobby. I hope that some gamers will have fun with it, too.

Until we talk again, remember, it’s only a game.

Gathering of Friends Report, Part 5

Hello again board game fans and thank you for joining me on my memory journey through the Gathering of Friends 2021. I know this has been going on for some time but I’m enjoying writing them so I hope you enjoying the reading.

If you missed the previous parts, they’re here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. Plus, it appears that I will have six parts to this odyssey because I’m trying to keep the posts short enough to read reasonably in the small amount of time we all have these days.

In this part, I want to talk about a couple of prototypes alongside some published board games I got to play alongside some published board games. Let’s start with a reassessment:

Be Careful With “One And Done”

Expectations are tough. Since I’m a Cult of the New player, I tend to play board games pretty early in the cycle of their lives. In the best cases, I get to play them before the general consensus has been set. However, there are always games that slip through the cracks (Great Western Trail leaps to mind) and others where the buzz and/or hype hits so early that I inevitably play the board game with raised or lowered expectations. While I’ve never found the latter to be a problem (who doesn’t love to find a gem when someone told you it was a rock?), high expectations are a killer. Thus, I come to Wingspan.

By the time I played this award-winning board game, people were already falling over themselves about how wonderful it is. I read too many tweets, too many articles and far too many BGG comments about how revolutionary this release was. When I played the game, I thought it was good but I was turned off by the hype. After meeting the designer at the Gathering, I wanted to give it another go because the consensus was that this was a stellar game. I wanted to give it a fair shake. I was happy to find a table of lovely people playing it (including Alicia Zaret and Jonathan Yost – people whom I wish were 3,000 miles closer to me).

And what do you know: I liked it A LOT more than the first play. Looking back, my first play had an AP player who was also telling everyone what to do on their turns. He was also reading text from his card constantly during other players’ turns.

These details had faded from my memory, but they all came flooding back as I enjoyed the tightly-designed Wingspan. With five players, but all of whom were active, smart players, we polished off the game quickly and happily. I didn’t wait – I ordered the game while on the plane heading home. We’ve enjoyed it twice since then, including the lovely components, the detailed bird information, and the sly inclusion of unique mechanisms that are molded effectively into consistent actions. No small feat. Wingspan is an excellent gateway plus board game that I’m now happy to have in my collection. It’s also a reminder to not judge a game by one play, especially when so many people love it. Odds are, it actually is good. Being wrong sometimes is okay and actually pretty healthy.

Dungeon Crawls

Speaking of games that I need to give a second chance…Alicia had played a prototype with me earlier in the week as well. This one was from a designer who contacted me ahead of time after reading my lengthly article about Gloomhaven from a few years back. I’d played in a game of Gloomhaven at the Gathering and was left quite cold by the experience. It is chronicled here and, amusingly enough, this is the most popular post on my website by a fair margin. The challenge there: Most of the readers seem to hate me, or at least my take, for disliking their beloved Gloomhaven.

Now, let’s be fair: It seems that some rules of the game may have been improperly taught when I had my first foray in. This was a surprise because the person teaching the board game was a serious gamer who’d played many times. But it didn’t work out and I found the thoughtfully-designed game rather boring.

No pics of the secret proto. This was my lunch.

So, this new designer, Joe Bisz, contacted me after reading my article and bravely going through the nasty comments (I publish them all because that’s what one should do and some are quite witty). He had designed his own dungeon crawl game and wanted to ask my opinion about it. We convened with a group and spoke for quite a while before beginning. I found him to be a thoughtful, intelligent and imaginative guy, full of ideas but also humble while he talked about his ambition to build an amazing game.

When we got down to playing, I was taken by his story elements and world building. Gloomhaven is well-known for its execution here and this game seemed to capture that best practice. However, when we got down to the mechanisms of the game, I was less enthusiastic. While there were innovations and departures from concepts that I found stilted in Gloomhaven, the early stage of the design meant things went slowly. We didn’t get too far in before going into feedback. I think he got what he needed and we got to see the early stages of what may be the next great game in dungeon crawls. I look forward to playing this and any other games from this designer in the future.

Rock and Roll (No Writing)

Not a picture of Stage Left, but of the nearly final Final Girl from Van Ryder Games, which looks amazing.

Another key prototype that I played was later stage. That is Stage Left from designer and BGG personality Candice Harris. If you don’t know Candice, you should. She is full of energy and positivity for our hobby. Her board game is a big, multi-faceted euro themed to building your own music band. Personally, I love this theme and although I think Battle of the Bands is a fun take on this concept, Stage Left is a different experience and a welcome one.

Clearly drawing on her knowledge of the space, Candice gives you a chance to recruit members, sort of your influences based on who joins your band (love this), play gigs to get better and to earn money/cred, and producing songs that can help provide you bonuses as you play. Her prototype was gorgeous and well-designed to communicate about a lot of rules in a succinct way.

Adding to this fun theme, I got to play this with some great people including my buddy Ravindra Prasad, who is about as thoughtful and smart a gamer (and playtester) as there is. Ravindra had already played the game once so his insight into where the design could go was particularly astute. After we enjoyed the game (yes, Ravindra won, despite my early lead), we had a great session talking through the various mechanisms of the game.

Candice was wisely open to feedback and developed some of the proffered ideas into the play of the game the next day. Having watched the likes of Reiner Knizia, Antoine Bauza, and Vlaada Chvatil make similar quick changes to test while play testing with them showed me that Candice already had the goods to process useful feedback and improve her game. Stage Left is really fun and we had a blast playing it. I look forward to the finished board game.

Lighting Roundup

I’ll close this part out with a few more published board games. Wishland is another theme park board game among the way-too-many that are out there now. When I began my own design based on this theme many, many (and let’s multiple that ‘many’ by another 10x) moons ago, there weren’t a lot. Now, we have so many that I wonder if the market is interested in my board game. The only reason I continue with my design is because it’s exactly the theme park game I personally want to play.

Wishland is one of the best theme park games out there, but still not what I want.

Wishland is one of the best ones out there right now. Using worker placement and card drafting mechanisms that make sense but still have a sense of the new, it effectively represents the experience of building up a theme park of your own. Turn to turn, you cycle your workers and use them as a kind of currency to place in locations that are already occupied or for some other needs. This reminded me a lot of Colonia from Dirk Henn, although this theme is much better and Wishland is more fun.

The artwork is good, the game play is fast once you ‘get it’ and the production quality is very nice. I would fancy picking it up myself when it comes out formally in the US (I believe it’s currently import-only).

Another quick take: The new Oink Game Moon Adventure is good stuff. Now, this is a kind of sequel to one of their most popular and compelling titles, Deep Sea Adventure. Unlike The Crew, which went from space to liquid space, this second game is sending player to the Moon and turning the competition (nasty, at that) into a cooperative experience. Players are still making sure they have enough air, they’re still seeking valuables on paths.

From liquid space to outer space, Moon Adventure is a nice follow-up to Deep Sea Adventure.

But now we have things like a Space Buggy at the end of the line (if you get there), a robot that follows one of the players to help add to those extra jumps across the moon, and even oxygen tanks to refill this time. In most ways, it works Like DSA, but with little “fixes” that probably plagued some players of the original game (not me). We played it twice because, like DSA, we all estimated wrong initially. IIRC, Larry Levin (who was definitely missed at GOF) is quoted as saying that DSA ‘can really inspire smart people to make dumb decisions.’ It’s an astute comment and MA is no different.

While I love Deep Sea Adventure, I’ll probably grab Moon Adventure at some point to add to my Oink collection. While I love their designs, the games don’t always sparkle for me so I acquire them slowly, usually secondhand. My collector’s spirit (okay, my OCD) won’t let me have incomplete collections so I limit myself to just Alea and Oink. So far.

Prize Idiot

My first pick off the prize table on the last night of GOF was Calico, a charming Alderac board game based on quilting with a side of cats. I passed up bigger games both due to my desire for this game and consideration of my luggage. In retrospect, I could totally have shipped that Anniversary Edition of TTR: Europe that would have delighted my wife. Ah, well. I digress.

Yet another quilting board game. It’s a new sub-genre.

Calico is an enjoyable romp but others describe it as an intense brain burner. As I noted to a friend on Twitter, I was never more than lightly toasted during my first two plays. In it, players build quilts by collecting and placing patches of varying patterns and colors. While you have a design to follow, you are also trying to create color and pattern combos to gain points and attract cats

Play is quick if you let it be. You play a patch and draft a new one each turn. If it creates a pattern combo, you’ll draw cats. If you do a color combo, you get buttons. Points are awarded for these items plus how well you follow your design. With this theme, I know my wife will love the game. The game has just enough going on for gamers to get interested in optimizing, while casual players can enjoy the lighter level of basic combo creation. I’m glad to have Calico on the shelf.

Okay, I think that’s about it for now. Part 6 should conclude my report with Nemesis, Dice Realms, Obsession and a few more, plus some final thoughts about gaming in these times.

Gathering of Friends Report, Part 4

If you’re here, presumably you’re enjoying my long-form GOF 2021 report. Don’t miss Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3. Now, back to the board games…

Happenstance at the Gathering will get you into some good games with great people. As I was wandering over to the massive library that the fantastic Rodney Somerstein was kind enough to bring, I was stopped by Jason Schneider of Gamewright.

I’ve known Jason via email for many years, especially when I was curating the Strategicon Library and sending me review copies would get them a podcast review and inclusion in our growing board game library. He’s a responsive, generous and pleasant fellow who exemplifies Gamewright, a company I consider a real class act. They take chances on quirky games like Bring Your Own Book (out of print now, but delightful for bibliophiles) and have also plucked some excellent sellers from the work of top designers (like Forbidden Island, Sushi Go, and the recent Abandon All Artichokes) that have connected beautifully with family audiences. I thanked him for all his support and he invited me to join a game of Fort.

Fort has all the trappings of Leder Games

Fort is my Forte

I was in immediately because Fort is from Leder Games and their games are always interesting. That said, I like the concept of Vast more than the actual game play. Root is good game with charming artwork, but it’s difficult to get to the table (due to the direct conflict?). Oath, their recent KS, was delivered to my friend and one play in, I’m not sure it’s for me. I’m going to play it more because despite it feeling like it was abstracting abstractions, it was still intriguing.

My trusty friend ZIP always goes into my discard pile but Tiny and Smoke are left out in the yard, ready to be snatched by other players with promises of pizza and toys.

Fort promises a Leder Games experience in a shorter package. The board game is indeed a friends-in-the-neighborhood-themed asymmetric-but-not-really lighter game. Players are kids building the ultimate fort while managing their ‘deck’ of friends, knowing that any cards that aren’t used can be drafted. Is this a deck-borrowing game? Kind of, because you can grab those friends back on a future turn anyway.

Using the kid-currencies of toys and pizza, players select cards from their hand to acquire stuff to help mount their fort, set lookouts (which grant permanent bonuses), and then acquire new ‘kid’ cards to their deck. Again, the most interesting mechanism is that unused cards go into your ‘yard’ and they are available for other players to draft. There is some mitigation. You have a couple of ‘best friend’ cards that never go into the yard, so you can rely on them sticking around. But the concept of ‘play it or possibly lose it’ makes for some difficult decisions turn-to-turn.

There are more rules – some might say too many for a shorter game – but that’s the gist of it. The cards are nicely varied and I recommend the game. The only caveat is that players who dislike ’take that’ games may be put off by the frequent interaction. It’s no Munchkin, but it’s also not ideal for those who love the semi-solitaire experience of many deep-thinking euros. And, yes, the artwork is quirky and fun, like all the brilliant work of Kyle Ferrin. I won the game but it was an ‘asterisk game’ due to one rule (the number of lookouts) being missed.

Riff Raff Rumble

Riff Raff is nutty and wonderful.

Early in the con, I’d seen a copy of Riff Raff on the shelves and I wanted to play it. I love dexterity games. I’m not necessarily that good at them. In D&D terms, I’ve an 11 DEX tops, but I still have an enormous fondness for them.

Riff Raff has a huge box. That’s because it’s housing a tall pirate ship, the ocean beneath it, along with pieces that players need to balance atop the various planks and masts of the ship. Players get a set of those wonky bits and a deck of cards with numbers that correspond to spots on the ship.

Each turn, you simultaneously reveal a card and have to place one of your remaining pieces onto the ship. As you can see from the pic, some of these pieces are much easier to place than others. The same goes for the ship, with some relatively stable spots down low and much more challenging ones above.

Riff-Raffy Items to place on the Ship

That’s about it except for the cool ‘catching’ rule. If you should topple the ship, you’ll get stuck with the pieces that hit the water or the table around. However, if you can catch pieces, you don’t have to take those pieces. It’s a brilliant addition to this style of game and made me want Riff Raff for my dexterity collection. I know the family will enjoy the catching mechanism, especially since this is what people naturally when things start to unravel.

Panic at the Game Con

A few years back, two of my favorite people from the game industry, Justin and Anne-Marie De Witt of Fireside Games, started attending the Gathering and it was a real pleasure to see them back this year. While I got a chance to play a number of games with them, I was most excited to try their new expansion for Castle Panic, Crowns and Quests.

I’ve long been a fan of their castle defense game. It was one of my son’s favorite board games as he was growing up. Some times, we played it twice in a night. The cooperative element meant that the whole family could enjoy a victory against the orcs, goblins, and trolls from the original game. The expansions have all been must-buy additions for the Panic enthusiast. We’ve even enjoyed Dead Panic and Star Trek Panic as variants.

Coming off their successful kickstarter for a gorgeous Deluxe Edition of Castle Panic (late pledges still available), they had a prototype of the new expansion that came with it. For those who have the old game, it will also be released for the traditional version of Castle Panic. The new expansion has great new art that gives the board game a more inclusive feel. Both the game cards and the new expansion that gives each player a character with special powers now include more women and people of color. There’s even a character in a medieval wheelchair (no, it’s not Bran). I enjoy seeing our hobby make these steps forward and the new version is worth the upgrade for sure.

Prototype of Castle Panic Crowns and Quests – not final art

In addition to the special characters, which add a lot of intriguing abilities and some interesting distinction between players, the game now also features missions. The core game of Castle Panic is fun (and quick) enough to warrant hundreds of plays without losing steam. But Justin’s now devised new ways to make use of the circular map to add some variation and excitement to the game. I won’t spoil the stories but let’s just say that it’s a brilliant way to extend the interest in this game without turning it into another Legacy project.

Instead, the scenarios simply remake how you look at the standard Castle Panic board and offer new challenges. Best of all, from what I have seen, these missions are not one-and-done. They have the same Castle-Panic-goodness of replayability because of the method of implying a story through strong thematic elements without being so specific that you need novelty to make them interesting. I expect this expansion will be another must-have for fans.

Party Game Roundup

Earlier in the con, I’d also played some excellent party-game prototypes from a designer whom I didn’t get a chance to ask if I could mention his games so I’ll just say that Julio E. Nazario (designer of Holi and CTRL) has some amusing and clever board games coming our way. While at the table, we also played another Fireside Games party game that kind of got lost in the COVID shuffle.

Stringamajig is a charades-style game played with a circle of string used to convey to the rest of your team what you are trying to clue. It’s an amusing variation that I played first at Dice Tower West last year and I’ve added it to my collection of party games since then. With this crowd, it was a great time because people were so into it. Yes, I love serious board games but my passion for party games is equal. I think you get to know people really well when you play games like this, which is why I always bring board games to every company I join. Stringamajig will definitely be in the bag if I ever go back to an office job.

Wow, I thought part 5 would be it but I think that one will cover: Fantastic Factories, Moon Adventure, Wingspan, Wishland, and Obsession. And I expect my final part 6 will delver into Nemesis, Dice Realms, Obsession, Belratti and whatever else remains. I’m having fun going through the whole week and I hope you are, too.

Gathering of Friends Report, Part 3

If you’re taking my GOF journey with me and missed Part 1 and Part 2, well, click those links earlier in this sentence to find them. Onward…

I really hate Facebook and only my love of board games keeps me on this horrific privacy nightmare of a platform. Professionally, there’s also a reason why, but I also just loathe what they’ve done to electronic discourse over the years. The only reason I’m still on there is for groups, and there is a private GOF one. There is also a website and I wish it were more frequently used but this year, the FB group made it handy to set up games. One that I jumped on was the chance to play Android.

I’ve been interested in this Fantasy Flight (RIP) board game for a long time. In addition to seeing how the old FFG wanted to use the world of Android for a variety of games, including their take on the classic CCG Netrunner, I talked about it with designer Kevin Wilson at a past convention. He told me a lot about it at the time, but it’s been years. So, when Erik Arneson (whose fine book you should read and enjoy) suggested a game of it, I signed up immediately. Amusingly, we were also joined by another guy named Eric. Story of my life – there are three Erics in every possible situation (and that doesn’t even include W. Eric Martin, who pleasantly addresses himself as ‘Other Eric’ in email). And you wonder why my children have such unusual names. I digress.

The Android We Were Looking For

Android has a lot of locations to visit. Would love figures instead of standees.

Happily, the excellent Evan Derrick from Van Ryder Games was kind enough to teach us the game. A key perception he corrected for all of us before starting his explanation was to clarify that Android is NOT a deduction board game, even if it seems like it would be. Instead of a Clue-style specific set of details that you have to seek, Android invites the players to seek out evidence for the suspects they are dealt. Among the suspects you receive, there will be one that the player wants to be innocent and the other one should be guilty guilty guilty. This is a key way to earn points.

In addition to your suspects, players get a character card with a ‘cyber-noir’ troubled past to even out their heroic side. Players then spend their turns moving around the massive board, which has lots of pathways between the regions and locations. You visit these locales ritzy and shady (these get you extra card draws) to interrogate NPCs, collect favors of various types, and also to foil the actions of other players with cards that are specific to them. For this purpose, you draw and play from your opponents’ ‘dark’ deck. In it, each card of which highlights the quirks, limitations, and demons of the character, which can be played to hinder them.

Wow, I can only imagine what my personal dark deck would be like. The mind boggles. Again, I digress.

Ultimately, you complete tasks to put positive or negative evidence on one of the five main suspects, forcing the blame onto the one your starting card says should be guilty and setting up an alibi for the one you want to be innocent. In addition, there is a central conspiracy puzzle to which players can add pieces, earning various bonuses. This is literally represented by puzzle pieces that you build onto the theory puzzle to unlock scoring opportunities. I love this little mini-game and was delighted that my character (a hard-drinking PI) was optimized for this part of the game. That point was noted in the strategy tips for my character, which was handy.

Only Android I’d Consider Owning

The storytelling in Android is wonderful, which is no surprise from the masterful Kevin Wilson. The characters have strong, interesting backgrounds that you can enjoy if you are inclined to delve in (I do) and that’s probably why FFG used it in so many other games. I also really liked how quickly the game can move once you get into the groove. That said, there are SO MANY rules that can fall out of your head when taking a turn. I’m hopeful some industrious BGGer has created a good summary of reminders on the site so you can focus on just what you need turn to turn.

Early on wide shot. It’s a table hog alright, but also an intriguing board game.

In the end, evidence didn’t matter for my ‘guilty’ suspect because he was killed through a concerted effort by that other Eric, who made it his mission to kill that character since Erik and I were putting a lot of evidence on him. That was definitely a personal victory for him because it takes some effort to enact that kill. However, my innocent character ended up being judged the most innocent, so I got points for her. That was handy, but I really prevailed by earning the most points through dominating the conspiracy and stacking up favors.

Android is certainly a unique experience and one that I’d welcome the chance to play again. I can see how some would be turned off by the long play time, although I expect you can cut it down a lot once people know the game. I believe a friend has it and I plan to ask for it to hit the table again soon.

After Android’s marathon session, I needed to cool down with some lighter board games. I played Patchwork with my friend June and managed a win despite her formidable ability with the game. I got lucky on setup and grabbed the 7×7 in the end.We followed this with a group games of Codenames (still a favorite and we played twice) and Just One (how could you not like this game if the table is full of great folks – and ours was). These two games belong in every collection as ideal party games for those casual players who often show up to play with the ‘serious’ gamers. 😉

Finally, I was ready for another new-to-me game of The Crew, but the new version.

I will wait on this Crew until I finish the old one.

Now, I like The Crew a lot but haven’t played it all the way through yet. I need to hop to it, though, because there is already The Crew: Mission Deep Sea. If you have played the award-winning (and deserving) original, you know this is a cooperative trick-taking game that sees players trying to complete various ‘missions’ by playing trick-taking rounds with a goal in mind that isn’t just winning the most tricks. Sometimes it’s all about someone winning a certain card, or having more tricks than another player. Players can use tokens and cards from their hand to share limited information as well, and this is often key to winning a round.

It’s really well done. Mission Deep Sea doesn’t change what works, but it optimizes the goals to make them a little easier to see and distribute on some cards.

Clowder Time

Isle of Cats is one I’ve been curious about for a while. While the silly pun title appeals to my baser word-nerd instincts, I was mostly intrigued because my wife enjoys polyomino games and we are both devoted cat lovers. We have three of these fabulous beasts in our home and pretty much all cat games warrant a look for us.

I met up with my buddy Nick, who was kind enough to teach June and myself from a bit of a rules read, which got us off to a slower start. Once we got into the groove, however, the game’s five rounds happened quickly. Play consists of ‘catching’ and placing cat-based polyominoes onto your boat (‘saving them from an island’), but it’s not just Patchwork or Cottage Garden where you have sequencing limitations. Here, cats can be freely drawn as long as you have the money (um, I mean, FISH) to pay the field they are sitting on. There are two, one of which is more expensive. You also need a basket to hold each cat you save because, you know, cats.

My boat pulling away with the Isle of Cats with many a saved feline friend.

Before that fun begins, you pass-draft cards around the table that will give you buying power, more baskets (sometimes piecing them together from two broken ones), scoring cards, and other advantages permanent and ephemeral. On board your ship, you also use the ‘catominoes’ to cover up rats that will make you lose points if they remain in view. Furthermore, you want to group your cats into ‘families’ with similar ones (same color) to score more points. Finally, scoring cards are both public and private so if you opt to take public ones, you need to remain vigilant that you aren’t handing too many points to other players with public goals. Private goals are just for you and kept secret so your opponents don’t know what you’re seeking.

There are also rules-breaking wild cats to expand your cat families, and treasures that can fill in the gaps between your felines that are also on some of the cards. I think the treasures should’ve been cat toys but I guess treasure’s universally good. After five rounds, you total everything up. From a design perspective, it’s a solid use of good mechanisms well-blended, if it fails to offer anything truly new to the hobby.

In the end, IOC is on my wish list for a trade because it will play well with casual players, the artwork is fun, my wife will love the theme, and, again, cats.

As for the convention in general, I had fewer meals out with friends than usual because I kept taking meals while running upstairs to work for a bit. Yet, I did get a lot of time to chat with people, including finding out that Stance and Cynthia Nixon, who L.A.-based gamers and longtime Strategicon folks, were also attendees. I was so glad to meet them (although I think I met Stance ages ago) so I can interview them for my upcoming writing project about the history of Strategicon. I mention it here so people will hold me accountable if you don’t see it on Kickstarter sometime next year.

Okay, that’s enough for today. Part 4 will delve into more prototypes, Obsession, Nemesis and a few more stragglers that I missed so far.

Back to mid-week at the Gathering of Friends. If you missed the previous part, well, you can find it here. Onward…

While I was in Niagara Falls, work was infringing a bit. A work friend was dealing with some personal issues so I had to step up a bit. I was happy to do it to support him during a tough time. I love games but I love my friends even more.

Lost Cities: The Franchise

Early the next morning, I tried out Lost Cities: Roll and Write with a nice group of people, including my good friend June King and the always-welcome-at-a-table Bayard Catron. There’s really nothing new. LC:RAW follows standard rolling and writing on a pad. Much like the original game, players choose whether to invest in and even start certain all possible expeditions, because if they can’t get enough items in that column, they’ll lose points. Some elements from the SDJ-winning board game version (like boost spaces) are also present. I love Reiner Knizia’s designs, enjoy Lost Cities and I’d buy this as an app on my iPad in a heartbeat. But I’m thinking this franchise is wearing thin now and don’t need this box in my house.

A worthy third entry, Clever Cubed.

In contrast, we also played the third in roll-and-write from Wolfgang Warsch’s Clever Trilogy, amusingly but also sensibly called Clever Cubed. Like the other two in the series, you roll and figure out the intriguing ways in which the various scoring sections interact for bonus bumps, big jackpots you can build up to over the course of the game, and re-rolls for when the funky dice selection happens. If you know this series, you know that the active player selects and locks one die at a time, but loses opportunity to roll as many dice based on how high the number on the die they selected is. Warsch is so good.

I enjoy this abstract R&W more than most because you can act on other peoples’ turns. Like Wurfel Bohnanza (a favorite of mine), players can take a mini-turn, selecting one of the dice the active player did not select. Cubed is good and maybe lighter than Twice as Clever. I joked that these trilogies always seem to have a ‘more difficult’ second game. That’s true in the Mask Trilogy, Uwe Rosenberg’s Seasonal Polyomino Trilogy, and even the recent West Kingdom series.

Continuing on, I met up with another of my favorite GOF attendees, Brent Lloyd. I love playing games with him for the jokes, the thoughtful game commentary, and the sheer fun of his personality. I walked up as he was about to teach Paleo to Elizabeth Hargrave (designer of Wingspan, Mariposas, and Tussie Mussie), who was attending GOF for the first time. I’d previously met Elizabeth playing one of Matt Leacock’s prototypes and we’d made quite a team, so I didn’t mind butting in to learn Paleo. This game was near the top of my list of ‘want to play’ games.

Like most people (I expect), I became curious about Paleo after it won the KDJ 2021 over presumed favorite Lost Ruins of Arnak. Playing the game, I could see what the jury saw – this is an innovative board game with a unique feel that hangs together better than LROK. I know, I know – you probably love Arnak. Personally, I found it to be fine but overdone. A lot of elements didn’t fold into the design as cleanly as I would have liked. I also found the solo game lacking and far too administrative. I’d still play it when asked, but I didn’t need it in my personal library.

Paleo looks good on the table, too.

On the other hand, I really liked Paleo, a clever cooperative game with stories to tell. Paleo gloriously implements a card-drawing mechanism that reminds me of the solo game Onirim and also Robinson Crusoe. The theme is prehistoric times, with players making up a tribe of people trying to survive and accomplish various goals as outlined in the scenario (cleverly created by combining various card sets).

Each round, players are given the opportunity to select one of the next three cards in their personal draw deck, which they have some insight about because of the card backs. Some backs suggest encountering goods players can gather (woods, mountains), another type is for staying at home and working crafts, while still another is a likely threat that you will probably need to be armed to address. Additional cards like Visions are also possible to obtain from certain actions.

Paleo is high on my want list.

You may not encounter every card, however, because this is a cooperative game and sometimes, the other players need your help. In fact, banding together is often the only way to take down big threats and key challenges. Why might you need help from the other players? Because requirements on the card will tell you that you can obtain or defeat what’s on the card based on the skills that your character cards have (usually with multiple options – as in Above and Below). These skills can be augmented with acquisitions you can find or craft (more on that later). However, if your current card is a threat, you may not be able to choose to ignore it and help the tribe.

When you complete a round, some cards are ‘trashed’ and others are put back into rotation when you go through the deck again. So, avoiding some threats will not mean you don’t need to deal with them. You’ve just delayed that moment.

Crafting is yet another well-implemented concept in Paleo. From a funky 3-D rack that you build, you can craft items for the current scenario, as well as a handful of standard ones like torches and tools. These can help you along the way to defeat challenges and acquire whatever key items you need to survive the round of play. What you need by the game end is designated upfront, so the tribe can plan what they truly need as they continue the adventure.

Paleo also allows you to reuse your characters from scenario to scenario. If you happen to die, the game gives you a new tribe member to play so there is danger and loss, but not player elimination. Between the smart design, the varied stories that conjure up memories to be told over at future game tables, and the thoughtful approach to cooperation, I call Paleo a winner that I want in my collection.

After a couple of scenarios of Paleo, we dove into a game of Krass Kariert. The game has been newly titled (for English speakers) Dealt! This new version was in our gift bags; a smart move for Amigo because this ladder-climbing game was so popular at the last GOF that we probably all bought copies. I know I did. These copies will likely be given to friends with a recommendation. I donated my copy to the Strategicon library to spread the word.

The word deserves to be spread, too. Dealt! is a quick-playing card game that has the lovely feel of Tichu without the mannered play, team element, and big swings of card luck. Of course I’ve had issues with Tichu for many years for the simple reason that before I ever learned the game, I had played thousands of hands of Daihimi and probably at least 500 hands of Gang of Four. Both of those experiences make it difficult for me to remember exactly what I need to do in Tichu and therefore I’m not much of a partner.

X marks the wild card.

Dealt feels different enough from those games and I love it. Players are each dealt a hand of cards they may not rearrange (like Bohnanza) and two face-up cards. The cards are numbered from 1 to 13, plus a few special cards. Play proceeds by someone leading either a single card, a run of two or three cards, or multiples (pairs, trips). The next player must play something higher, either in rank or configuration and it’s a once-around play. If it comes to your turn and you cannot advance the trick, you have two choices. Either take one of your face up cards into your hand – placing it wherever you feel is ideal – or you lose one of your three life chips and the round is over.

Mind you, the reason for keeping your cards in order is that you can only play cards together that are adjacent in-hand. This rule for runs is a bit easier, as they can be out of order (e.g., I can play 6-8-7 as a three-card run). The choice on whether to pick up a card is interesting because you can often improve your hand with these face-up cards. And, as you play, you can also improve your hand by removing cards as well.

A few special cards round out the game. The STOP card just ends a trick and the X is wild. The best of the lot shows three cards. When played, the winner of the trick draws three cards (six are set aside during setup). Later in the game, this is ideal for stopping someone about to go out. Early on, it’s helpful because you draw the cards one at a time. This gives you a chance to optimize you hand a bit, as you add them where you choose.

There is usually only one loser in Dealt – the player who runs out of chips first. However, if two players run out of chips on the same round, you can end up with a double loser situation, as we did in our game.

I played Dealt three times at GOF but the post-Paleo session was the most memorable. All of the players were worthy (Brent, Elizabeth, and Matt) but there were some adult beverages involved. Matt and Elizabeth were cautious in their imbibing of the various whiskey offerings that Brent had for us, but I was game to try everything that he had. Yes, I think my play was somewhat affected as I ended up sharing the loss with Matt. For me, Dealt/KK is a winning card game and a worthwhile addition to the hobby.

I don’t think there’s a man, woman, or child alive who doesn’t enjoy a lovely beverage.

Okay, that’s enough for today. Part 3 will include discussion of Android, another cool prototype I played, plus a few more games that I knew and played primarily for the great company at the table.

My reports on attending Alan Moon’s invitational tabletop event, the Gathering of Friends, have been as inconsistent as my old podcast schedule. When an event happens, some content may happen…or maybe not. This year, however, I am inclined to write about the experience for both my own recollection of the healing, heavenly week I enjoyed but also to allow for some to live vicariously through these words if they could not attend this or another convention held this year for whatever reason.

Eb airborne
Airborne and masked

This was, if I understand correctly, the first time GOF was rescheduled to this time of year, due to COVID. Safety protocols were in place and while I was nervous about the travel from LA to Niagara Falls, I was confident about my safety during my time there, thanks to Alan’s firm commitment to making sure everyone would be okay. Everyone had to be vaccinated, as they well should, and ensure they had no symptoms beforehand. I’m glad to preemptively report that it would appears there were no infections from the event, as the community has been reporting negative tests consistently, although more on that later.

On to the games. I arrived later than expected, early Tuesday morning, due to last minute changes in schedule, but that still gave me a full week to enjoy the convention. While attendance was down from its usual highs (around 400?), the game room was STOCKED with board games, including prototypes from many of the designers who made the con and lots of the newest new games from here and across the pond. Sadly, that was just due to imports and not because we had the usual mix of European visitors. Tough EU restrictions meant that so many of our favorite Europeans designers, gamers, and game industry pros couldn’t make it and that even affected the plans of many of my favorite Canadians. This was a huge void but I focused on appreciating who we did have because the room was still full of so many excellent people.

Attack on Titan. Now I need to go see the anime series. Sigh.

Attacking Titans and Plunder Pirates

After the red eye flight and a tiny bit of work, my first board game of the convention was Attack on Titan, the deckbuilding anime-themed game from Cryptozoic and Matt Hyra. I had mixed the game up with another one based on the same IP, Attack on Titan: The Last Stand from Antoine Bauza, but I was still happy to play because I was recruited by Sheila and James Davis, purported to be the owners of the largest game collection in the US, who were both familiar with the anime series the game hangs its theme on. I’ve only seen it briefly; I’m the only non-anime person in the house, but the deckbuilding mechanisms were familiar. There are some ideas I haven’t seen in deckbuilders, including the opportunity to return standard cards back for an in-turn boost.

Otherwise, it’s a cooperative game with players taking on the roles of characters from the series to defend five gates against the onslaught of titans and bad stuff coming out of a villains deck. Interspersed amongst the garden-variety titans turning out after each round to attack the five walls we were guarding, were four mega-titans (or some such) that had to be defeated first in hit points before a massive killing blow that had to be delivered in one go. This last concept with the killing blow is another good innovation for this sub-genre that I expect to see show up elsewhere. Chatting with the Davis’ is always fun, too, although I really got to talk to them more at the final Sunday dinner, where Shiela shared her admiration for the games of Ta-Te Wu, my good buddy. Always lovely to hear and share back with my friend.

After this first game, I spotted Ken Hill from Rio Grande Games just in time to join play of a prototype from Gregory Daigle. One of the great joys of the Gathering, second only to the wonderful people, is the chance to try early prototypes from top designers. I’ve played with Greg at past shows and I do love his excellent Hans Im Gluck title Hawaii (not just for the lovely theme). In this case, his new Powder and Plunder prototype brought his mix of euro mechanisms to a pirate-themed experience. The game seems pretty well along and was a good experience, particularly the innovative deck manipulation and intriguing options built into a modular board. I also appreciated the lack of forced player-vs-player interactions, which seem inevitable for so many pirate games. Looking forward to seeing the final product in the days ahead.

Art Decko on Boardgame Arena

Art Decko: The New Promenade

Following that, I enjoyed chatting with Greg, Ken and his fellow RGGer, Scott Tepper. In addition to sharing dog stories, Ken showed me the new version of Ta-Te Wu’s Promenade, which RGG will be publishing as Art Decko (yes, it’s an art-collecting, deck-building game with a punny title).

So, I broke out Art Decko with a couple of newbies and took the new version for a spin. The artwork in the new version is actually quite enjoyable and this clever take on deck building games shined yet again. AD has you buying art with your standard five cards per turn but Ta-Te’s design amps up the trashing and use of cards in intriguing ways. Instead of VP cards being dead in your hand, they are currency and assets you can put into museums for VPs based on the requirements for each collection.

Furthermore, there are additional bonuses that affect your collection as a whole or for the individual pieces of art being displayed (kind of a ‘point side-salad’, if you will). This allows you to slim down your deck, which is also possible by using some currency cards for their trash ability, allowing you more buying power for the turn at the cost of your card long-term.

Add to that variable market pricing and I find Art Decko to be one of the most satisfying of Ta-Te’s designs and a real keeper. The original version, Promenade, for which I brought a prototype to the last Gathering in 2019, must have been played with some frequency because I saw copies of the limited edition version in a lot of game piles at the event. I happily reported this to Ta-Te, who was delighted.

Daybreak Prototype: Not final product. Approved for use here.

Daybreak: Just Award the Kennerspiel Now

Later in the day, I ran into Matt Leacock, designer of Pandemic, and one of my favorite game designers. He’s also from California, so he’s attended our Strategicon conventions a few times to play test and at our invitation as a Guest of Honor. As one of the earliest fans and champions of Pandemic, I’ve been watching his output closely for years. While I’m forbidden from speaking any more about the prototype I played, I’m happy to say that he’s continuing to advance the world of cooperative games with new elements and themes. During the event, I also played two other prototypes of his, including a dexterity game that had the audience hooting and hollering with joy and excitement, and Daybreak, his take on fighting climate change.

Daybreak has plenty of information online but I’ll talk about a bit more because I really liked the game. I won’t go into the mechanisms but suffice it to say that you can clearly see in this design how Matt’s artistry has continued to evolve. While you can call it Pandemic’s bigger, more detailed brother, that’s selling short the innovation of the systems Matt has developed. Yes, it’s a cooperative game and the players are working against a crisis of global proportion. Of course, the game itself is a paper machine that kind of ‘gets its turn’. But the similarities end there, as players are asked to make more detailed decisions for the countries they are managing than running a medic or scientist around the global squashing cubes and collecting cards.

That’s not to dismiss the approachable and compelling Pandemic (which I still consider one of the greatest board games around). Rather, it’s to point out that Daybreak feels more like a gamer’s experience, with nuance that a lesser designer would make feel like ‘chrome’ on a design. Matt’s light touch instead implements intriguing decisions elegantly into hand management of various categories, allowing players to make calls about working locally vs. globally, replacing old and dirty sources of energy vs. simply adding new green solutions to meet increasing demand, or even managing the short-term thinking outrage from within your country vs. doing what is right for the future. The game is detailed and plays smoothly – no small feat.

I think Daybreak will come out and wow audiences and probably earn Matt and his co-designer a KDJ for their efforts. I was not alone in my assessment. In addition to so many others expressing their admiration for the game (and the frequent requests to break it out), I played the game with Legacy concept originator Rob Daviau and he expressed that he was ‘almost annoyed at how good the game is.” What better compliment could a designer get from another one?

Okay, that’s enough for Part 1. More to come in part two and beyond…

Restoring the Statue

The last five years have turned me into the seasoned mourner I never wanted to be, but always knew I was destined to become. Even as a young man, I knew I’d have to face losing a lot of important people in my life. Among my massive Catholic family, I’m the youngest child of the youngest of nine siblings on my paternal side and not far off on the other side. I could still leave the planet early, of course, but if I’m on anything like a standard timeline, I will experience a lot of loss from family alone, to say nothing of my voluminous list of dear friends.

As I hear of a good friend losing his mother, the concern and grief I feel at his loss triggers a dull sting reminding me that I’ve more to do to mourn my own mother, who passed away just a couple of months into the pandemic last year. This was all easier with my father, who we lost three years back. I’ve found myriad ways to honor him, from travel to reading to watching his favorite films. Sorting out similar methods for my mother has been much more challenging.

Yet, I’ve found a meaningful way to make it work. The books and such are fine, but the most profound part of my mourning process has been to embrace the best traits my parents had to offer. They were far from perfect, as am I, but there’s much to admire, too, and not all of it is currently housed properly in my own brain and/or heart.

With my mother, I’m trying to embrace her sense of generosity as my own. She was a devoted mother who would do anything for her children, to the point that we relied on her too much. She loved us so deeply that she could not judge where to stop. This clouded her view of us in the kindest way possible, as she could see little wrong with her children and nothing even slightly askew with her grandchildren. She was a giver and I know this well as one of the big takers in her life. I’ve always tempered this inclination to follow her ways in my own parenting, trying to focus on opportunities to encourage self-reliance and build confidence. Now, however, I want to be more like her. I want to just support those around me without so much precision. I want to be more the one who rushes to help without thinking about whether I’m ‘teaching a person to fish instead of giving them a fish.’ My mom handed out the fish all the time, no questions asked. You even got a hug with it.

A Task Never Accomplished

As I pondered this intangible quest last weekend, I noticed my wife watering plants in our back garden, stepping among the small bits of statuary we inherited from my mother. A peculiar one amongst the collection was an ersatz Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This is generous to the stubby little thing because it was made by some knockoff company and, although there was fidelity in the facial features, the clothes were red and blue for some reason. This Disney expert knows that’s just not right.

My mother housed this goofy little item in her yard, dragging his heavier-than-you-would-think body from her house to a townhome, to a mobile home in a retirement community and then to our place when she came to live with us. This helped our home be hers during the year she was with us. Internal space was tight, so we couldn’t retain all of her furniture, but we kept her garden decor and plants she’d put into ceramic pots so they could move with her. My wife endeavored to keep the plants alive, but the loving care she provided my mother was the real gift she gave us both. Alas, my mother’s nature inspired me to marry a woman of uncommon kindness. She was repaid mightily by my wife, who managed her medicine, cooked and cared for her with love, as she would her own mother.

Ersatz Dopey: What a faker.

During that year with my mom, I’d often sit in the garden and sometimes joke with her, suggesting the ‘real’ Dopey would be offended by this impostor. “I know,” she’d say, “He’s a big faker.” While teasing the innocent statue amused us both, I’d often said she should paint him the right colors. She’d agree and recall how she used to paint. She didn’t produce much but I recall a gorgeous painting of an atoll at dusk, with rich eggplant-colored water and lavender shadows dominating the serenity of the scene. Her work was always a pleasant reminder of my mother’s artistic side, which mostly came out in the course of necessity. Challenged with a child (even an adult child) in need of a Halloween costume, she would find the materials and get them together with impressive results. She turned my wife and myself into a credible March Hare and Mad Hatter one year. My sister’s Queen of Hearts costume was also exceptional and made on the rattiest of shoestring budgets. Halloween was always a fun time for our family. This tradition preceded our generation; my family always had Halloween parties and, in fact, my parents first met at a Halloween party. The story is they were an item almost immediately. I’m thrilled to have a picture of that glorious night preserved in an album.

Ritual Restoration

Alas, my mother never broke out the paints as she planned so many times. Poor Fake Dopey remained in his unattractive blue and red garments. So, when the clouds of early spring parted a few days before Easter, I mentioned this to my wife. She kindly took up a paintbrush the next day. With her sure hand, she cleaned up the figure, corrected his wardrobe and put him back out to work – newly refurbished and ready to guard the garden against whatever incursion might threaten the kumquat and mango trees my wife planted (knowing my affinity for those fruits) or the white flowers of jasmine spread across our fence.


Only when a friend came by for a physically-distanced visit last week did I make the connection. He saw the newly-painted Dopey and asked where it came from. I reminded him of the knockoff and he recalled it. I noted that my mother had wanted this statue to be painted and, though she wasn’t here any longer, I experienced a powerful satisfaction at his refurbishment. This act would have made her happy and a reflection of that imagined joy on my own soul was palpable. I hesitate to say reflection only because the elation was a more potent blend than that word conveys. This was the same multi-flavored emotion I felt when I traveled to England to spread my father’s and uncle’s ashes in a place significant to them. I was overwhelmed by an emotion of my own layered on top of what I know my loved ones would experience.

I’ll add one more dimension: my mother would want me to be happy when I thought of her, so I’m also fulfilling that wish. It’s like a sense of loving accomplishment boomeranging back and forth to infinity. This lifted the shackles of loss and beat back the grief, turning the tears into a quiet rain of pure love. I enjoyed those salubrious drops hanging around the edges of my eyes, comforting me as my mother always would. The impression of her head against my chest (she was only 5’1″ to my 6′) appeared like a phantom hug. I’ve been feeling that all week as I considered my experience; somehow, it’s new and wonderful every time.

Mom and Eric
Mom and me early last year.

Sweetness Follows

One of life’s counterintuitive and also most profoundly sweet lessons is that making others happy is actually more compelling than making yourself happy. Applying this notion to the memory of someone you’ve loved and lost – well, I find it a rare and wonderful concoction. To be sure, it is an acquired taste that you obtain through the mourning process. I definitely didn’t have it in the early days, when even pleasant memories and thoughts were too raw.

Yet, these rituals help along the journey, whether they’re tiny like this restoration or larger like my donations to causes important to my mom on her birthday and for Christmas. They build up the interest and appetite for these more complex emotions that manifest from the loss of a loved one. Every time I find another way to honor my mother, the experience is less bitter and somewhat sweeter. Accepting that these emotions will always be a melange has helped immensely, especially as I strive to embrace the best of my parents so I can keep them alive in my thoughts and actions.