GOF 2017 Report: Bärenpark and Phil Walker-Harding

GOF 2017 Report: Bärenpark and Phil Walker-Harding

The Gathering of Friends, Alan Moon’s invitational, is always a highlight of the gaming year. One of my favorite things about the show is the opportunity to game with designers who have become friends. It is a Gathering of them, after all. Playing games with designers is a bit like going to dinner with a chef or having wine with a vintner – the perspective they provide can help deepen your appreciation of a game immensely. Some of my favorite moments from the years I’ve spent at GOF are the post-game discussions about something we have played, metering out the specific mechanisms and how they worked, recalling where we’d seen them in the past and judging their reimplementation, and talking about how the title fits into something like Bruno Faidutti’s Ideal Game Library concept – only the games you need for all moods, situations, player types and numbers. Those convos are sublime for the engaged tabletop gamer.

The other major delight is meeting designers whose work I love and this year, a key meeting was Phil Walker-Harding. I’d call myself an OF (Original Fan) of Phil’s work, way back to his first game with Z-Man,

Bärenpark and Phil Walker-Harding.
Playing Bärenpark with Phil Walker-Harding. Playing with the designer helps one get the rules right the first time…

Archaeology: The Card Game. This light but clever design found its way to me when I was running demos for Z-Man Games (Yes, I was a Z-Forcer) at Strategicon conventions. I taught it to so many people, but never lost interest. It played wonderfully with families and gamers could admire the pleasantly clean design. NOTE: The game is out of print, but an expanded title based on it called “Archaeology: The New Expedition” is available here.

Years later, I was unsurprised that modern family game winner Sushi Go was from Phil – it’s such an immediate delight and imminently playable. Gamewright was lucky to pick it up. Sushi Go Party is even better, as I’ve previously noted in this space. Everyone on my team at work owns it now because they love it so much. His SDJ-nominated Imhotep was another story. I wasn’t sure the first time out, but as I have chronicled, I found its brilliance a few plays in. It’s a standard gateway for us now. His other well-known title, Cacao, is another winner that I want to play a bit more before commenting, but it warranted an SDJ recommendation in 2015. Phil has the goods, folks.

Over the years, my enthusiasm for his titles hasn’t gone unnoticed in this era of social media. I’ve tweeted back and forth with Phil a number of times, but it was still a distinct pleasure to actually shake his hand at Gathering of Friends 2017. Having missed last year’s GOF due to a new job, this was my first chance to sample his new games prior to publication. When we met, he first brandished his just-released Bärenpark, which is now available in Europe from Lookout and will be hitting the US via Mayfair this summer. Amusingly, he brought it out to play with Matt Leacock and myself after I’d been asked what I was interested in playing. I’d expressed an interest in Cottage Garden based on my wife’s deep love of Patchwork. Phil offered up Bärenpark as being designed to scratch a similar itch.

“I designed Bärenpark after hundreds of plays of Patchwork with my wife,” Phil noted. Sounds familiar to me, and many tabletop gamers, I expect. Uwe’s delightful two-player game is firmly planted on the “Couples’ Game” list now. Cottage Garden, which I’ll talk about in my full GOF report, is the big brother of Patchwork and plays up to four. Bärenpark has the same pentominoes you find in those games but the goal here is to build out your bear (that’s what ‘baren’ means, folks) zoo park with various attractions. I wondered about the similarities to my own Theme Park game, which also uses pentominoes but they were limited to just that construction bit (see Princes of Florence for the original idea, I expect).

Barenpark
Mosaix is a wonderful little game.

Phil also noted the influence of the wonderful little game Mosaix from designer (and game illustrator) Christof Tisch. That roll-and-assign winner from 2009 is due to come to my table again soon after Phil referencing it in regard to Bärenpark.

How Does Play Bärenpark?

Bärenpark turns are simple enough – just build a piece from your supply and gain new pieces based on what you play. You play the pieces to a swatches of parks (you start with one) as 4×4 grids, each with symbols that let you acquire new pieces of varying types (and values) that decrease as they are acquired (Thurn und Taxis-style). You need to then fit those pieces onto your board so there is no overlap or overhang. Since this is a euro-style game, you collect new piece(s) at the end of the turn and have time to consider how to use them while the other players take their turns. You may get more than one per turn, but you only place a single one each turn.

While the big pieces delivered by building over dump truck spots are a lot of points, they’re also unwieldy at times and you will often need to go back to the small park pieces to fill in the empty spots. There’s a reason to do so – the game clock is completion of park grids with an also-decreasing value in bonus delivered. These are manhole cover tokens that are automatically placed over the single pit on each grid after all other spaces are filled. These values start with the biggest points in the game and recognizing that helped Matt win our game (I was caught up in accelerating to the high point park pieces).

Of course, you don’t just fill one 4×4 grid. Additional boards can be had by building over worker spaces, up to maximum of four, and they’re a chance to gain more bonus points from placement plus that completion bonus. Matt astutely noticed this was a strategy for maximizing points because you didn’t just score from just your placement, but from the completion. Did I mention there’s a downside to playing games with great designers? Yeah, they win a lot.

Bärenpark has an elegance I associate with Phil’s games, yet there are things to explore and enjoy through repeat plays. Much like the subtle choices of Imhotep or the realization that Sushi Go has enough information to make choices better if you want to play it more than casually, Bärenpark will surely reveal more as the game gets more play – and it will certainly do that. I think this is an early runner for SDJ consideration and it would be a welcome addition to gamer and family collections. To that end, it plays in about 40 minutes and you can teach it in two. Watch for it.

Prototypes

I also played a hush-hush prototype of Phil’s that had his signature simplicity that often reminds me of Michael Schacht. From me, that a high compliment, indeed, as I believe Schacht to be one of the top 10 of all time. Again, I was unsurprised that the prototype was snapped up by a publisher promptly and was in much demand from the players, too. The title will be well-liked when it arrives on the scene and was much discussed at GOF. I missed two other protos Phil had but I look forward to their publication with interest as I heard many other positive reviews of them.

Thanks to Phil for the introduction to his games and the great convos. Bärenpark is due out from Mayfair in June 2017, just in time for the summer convention season.

 

Boardgame Babylon Rating for Bärenpark

BIN (Buy It Now) PIN (P)lay It Now TIF (Try It First) NMT (Not My Thing)

Disclosure: Not sure if I need it but Phil’s a good guy with whom I’ve tweeted for years. This was our first meeting.

Boardgame Babylon – what’s going on?

Boardgame Babylon – what’s going on?

In the last few months, I’ve had a number of inquiries as to why the Secret Newsletter stopped. Let’s be honest – the election was a shocker to me and I haven’t really recovered entirely. Add that to some family concerns, a house emergency over the holidays and a new game design popping up (all while my professional life is very intense) and you get a newsletter holdup.

As those who follow my Twitter and Facebook feeds know, I’ve still played some games. Mostly, it’s been a weekly game of Descent with my son, wife and two oldest friends. This has been rewarding and also kind of simple to maintain while I was going through a rough patch. The stability of a weekly session has been a kind of healing salve for me, as it’s both nostalgic and so nice to engage with some of the most important people in my life.17201397_10155232813029276_1981619716516564283_n

That said, I’ve also done a lot of writing in the interim for the book I’m working on while I’ve done some polishing on Theme Park and also written quick rules for my new game, A.I. I expect to take Theme Park, A.I., Cosplay Grab (also a revision) and a game I worked on with Ta-Te Wu (Jokers) to the Gathering of Friends next month in hopes of talking people into playing them. It’s a tall order to complete all this work but we’ll see if I can get there. Wish me luck.

Until then, I don’t know how soon I’ll get back to the newsletter. I enjoyed writing the text weekly and it is hard to stop now that we had reached just over 1,000 subscribers with virtually no promotion other than my own silly channels. It may get resurrected sometime in the future – we shall see.

In addition, my marketing assistant who helped me get up press releases and also get more content on the site regularly has been otherwise engaged. I’m trying to see if I can recruit one of my kids to help out in the interim so we can rev things up again. Stay tuned.

Thanks again for asking for remember – it’s only a game.

Ameritrash Confessions, Part 1

Ameritrash Confessions, Part 1

More than a few fans of the old podcast and some close friends noticed a significant shift in my game plays sometime in 2014 but not all of them asked the obvious question directly. Most were coy about it, trying to find a casual way to say what was surprising them about the type of games they saw being featured on my social media feeds. “That doesn’t seem like a game you’d be interested in playing,” said one Facebook friend after I posted pictures of my third play of Mice & Mystics last year (and after three the previous year).

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The observer was correct; anyone who has been listening to my podcast during the last decade or following me on Twitter, Instagram or other social channels with any regularity could say the same thing, “You’re a dyed-in-wool eurogamer – how is it that you’re playing all of these Ameritrash/Experience games? Have you gone born-again Ameritrash?”

The answer is essentially ‘no’ but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I will endeavor to do that now.

A few years ago, I was playing a game with my family and yet I was feeling like a failure as a ‘gamer dad.’ The reason for my feeling was simple – even though I was playing a fun family game with my kids, it was WAY below their age range.

We were playing Qwirkle and, while I love that game, I was realizing that my teen and preteen had been Qwirkle Board Gamestuck in a loop playing games that were too young for them. Now, Qwirkle is good enough for anyone to play but the truth is that my kids were old enough to take on more challenging games but I’d failed to introduce them to the next step in more meaty games and so I was left still playing casual and younger-audience games with my kids.

Some time before, my good friend Devi Hughes, the man behind the Orange County Board Gamers (he and his wife), had talked about playing Le Havre with his kids who were younger than my own. Le Havre! Meanwhile, I was sheepishly playing 6+ and maybe 8+ games with my kids who were both three years older than his two kids. How did I let this happen?

Now, any gamer dad is happy to play games with their kids, almost regardless of what it is. That’s just being a good dad. But I saw the potential for my kids to play more serious games and felt like I’d missed some invisible shift from kid games to something more substantial. Sure, I played with friends and my wife will take on just about any game as long as she gets a play or two in with me first. But I wasn’t bringing my kids fully into the hobby like all gamers plan to do on one level or another.

I’d done so well with them at a younger age. They had played over 200 different games before they ever played Monopoly – and, even then, we only played it when I bought a stupidly cheap copy of it during the holidays and gave it to them as a joke Christmas gift. To my eternal delight, they hated it and my daughter actually uttered ‘It’s stupid that you just roll a die to move in this game.’ Seriously – be still my eurogamer heart.

None of the joy in their derisive attitude towards the hallmark of bad board games could change that I’d missed a transition somewhere. I decided I needed some dire measures to get things back on track.
Soon thereafter, I declared that, as a family, we’d be playing through the complete Alea series in order to kickstart the eurogamer souls I was supposed to be inspiring into my offspring. My daughter had grown less interested in games in the last year but she was sort of pressured into participating. I will say that once she got to the table, she would always have a good time and get into it (she’s a trifle competitive – actually, they both are. Good.)

As we were proceeding through this gauntlet (chronicled elsewhere), my son asked about Dungeons and Dragons. I explained that I’d played the game from elementary school to high school off-and-on but hadn’t played any role-playing games since the 80’s (I guess I’m dating myself there). I had no interest in role-playing games and when I moved on to purely board games (which had played before I ever tried RPGs), my personal group of gamers moved on with me. Other than my friend Clark occasionally complaining, everyone was fine with the move and no one suggested we go back to GURPS, Champions, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller and D&D.

Dungeons and Dragons

Yet, as I say, a good gamer dad encourages any kind of games (even video games, which I produced for many years so I was happy with that, too) so I sought out my friend Devi again, who was raising his kids on both board games and RPGs. He was kind enough to run a game of Dungeons and Dragons for us. As it happens, my longtime friend and fellow gamer, Chad Smith (who develops and designs with me sometimes), brought his own son to the game as well. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one whose offspring wondered about the game we had so enjoyed in our youth.

Soon enough, we settled down in our game room and played a massive 4th Edition game of D&D with a few adults and a bunch of kids. While Devi did a great job running the game, it wasn’t my cup of tea. It was about six hours of play for a couple of combats against some kobolds and some time walking down a road. My eurogamer mind imagined how much delightful cube-pushing, auctioning, trading, and negotiation play I could have enjoyed during that one long afternoon. I calculated the mix of fillers, meatier games, maybe a middle-weight or two thrown into the list. That would have been a better day than this excursion to kill kobolds and goblins while teenagers fussed about whose turn it was and wanting to go to town to ‘buy new boots.’ While that wasn’t my RPG experience in the 80’s, I’d always avoided players who did that sort of thing. The lengthy process of resolving battles felt flat to me. I wondered how some of my friends had so strongly embraced 4th Edition when it came out. Devi was a competent DM. The kids were a bit rambunctious and all but the whole thing just fell completely flat. I thought that clearly these experience games and Ameritrash just weren’t for me but I wasn’t done trying.

(to be continued)