Welcome to Memoirs of a Board Gamer  Thursday, December 18 2014 @ 11:15 AM EST

Review: Odin's Ravens

About five years ago I ran across one of the Kosmos two-player games called Odin’s Ravens and was intrigued by its high rank and passionate following. At 6.7 on BGG, it seemed like a solid game worth tracking down. I’m always looking for strong two-player games so I started looking but had trouble finding a copy. Published in 2002 by Thorsten Gimmler, there just weren’t that many copies available and those that were out there were being held onto strongly.

I’d never obtained a copy but still had it on my wantlist. The prices started rising and I figured I’d not see a copy any time soon. Fast-forward to Great Lakes Games earlier this month and when my name was called a second time for the prize table, there was a nearly pristine copy sitting there and I rushed the table and grabbed it. Prices are all over the map from $40-$150 for a copy but I wanted it to play!

This weekend Lisa and I opened it up and played several games and I have to admit, it lives up to its rating. The game is light enough that you can talk and sip tea while playing but there’s enough strategic and tactical options available to keep gamers engaged.

The game is composed of several mini-games (races) ending when one player reaches at least 12 points. Each race is a complete mini-game and only the points are carried forward to the next race. At the begin of each race, nine landscape cards are dealt out in a line establishing the terrains over which players will attempt to advance their ravens.

Each player has a hand or five cards drawn from a personal deck (each player starts with the same cards in their deck). Each card depicts a single terrain type and players attempt to play cards from their hand and from an auxiliary deck (built from previous turns). Terrain cards that match the terrain card in front of their raven, advance the raven. The personal deck also contains Odin cards which have some rule-breaker text on them that allows players to swap terrain tiles, rotate them, move ravens forward or back, or otherwise mess with the other player. Players also, during the race, have a chance to extend the length of the race by adding cards to the end of the track.

In addition to the ravens flight, players can play cards to another area of the table (the Magic Way) depicting two valid terrain types (or the Odin card) and at the end of the race (triggered by the first player to advance their raven to the end of the track) players earn points for having played the most cards to the Magic Way and for the distance (in terrain cards) between the two ravens.

Odin’s Ravens is a great game for us. It’s small, packaged in the standard two-player Kosmos square/flat box, light, and easy packs for road trips. And most of all, it packs a lot of game in just a few cards. If you get a chance, try to pick up a copy or at least play it a few times. You’ll not regret it.

CABS - After Turkey Day 2014

Lisa and I meet up once a year with a friend and her son at the Columbus Area Boardgaming Society’s After Turkey Data gaming festivities. This year we arrived around 10am and played straight through until about 9:30pm breaking only for a quick lunch and a light dinner from one of the food trucks that sat outside the gaming area.

It’s normally a well-attended celebration, 125-150 gamers playing shoulder to shoulder. This year, however, there was a noticeably smaller number of gamers. CABS has been going through some transitional changes to their organizational structure, increased yearly fees, etc. that I suspect are contributing factors. However, it’s most likely an over-simplification to attribute the drop to any one specific cause.

We did, however, play the following games:

  • Port Royal
  • Takenoko
  • 7-Wonders
  • Istanbul
  • Viva Java: The Coffee Game
  • Five Tribes
  • El Grande

This was Lisa’s first play of Istanbul and she liked it. Our friend really liked it commenting that there felt like many way to earn points (gems), there was always a Plan B or Plan C, and that it played so fast it always felt like it was your turn. All good points you want in a game!

We got the whole group together and played Viva Java: The Coffee Game for 6 but it felt like there we’re enough blend tiles in the box. The game felt much shorter than what it had felt like in the past but maybe I’m just getting used to how to play it without such a long ramp up time for explanation.

I taught Lisa and our friend Five Tribes and they both really like that (Lisa especially since she won handily!). I had never read the rules and only played after being taught the game once at Great Lakes Games. I can think of about three rules we played wrong at GLG and playing correctly, I think it’s a better game :-)

We finished the night off with a classic, El Grande. We started with five for the rules explanation but we lost one before we could start but it’s still good with four. I think it ran a little long as the AP started kicking in near the end. All in all, it’s a really good game to return to once in a while.

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Images from BGG.CON 2014

I've already posted about my experience as a lone attendee but I figured I'd throw in a post with some images.

The registration line wrapped around three times and then outside the building.

Fun little shoot-em-up western. Cute boxcars do add something to it.

Die Macher for noobs teaching moment. It's not my kind of game but I did have fun playing with the people I was playing with. Three simultaneous tables of Die Macher...now that's something!

The last three minutes of the flea market. Chaos!

Just a wee bit of the game library.

The big room.

My favorite game of the con. The designer, Peter Hawes taught us the game and sat beside me the whole game. We had a great chat about the design and different decisions where made during the process. Very enjoyable game!

I traveled very lightly checking no bags and bringing an extra messenger back to carry back the prize table games. I had just enough clothes without feeling creepy :-) It's probably a good idea I was traveling light because that flea market was oh so tempting!

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BGG.CON 2014

BGG.CON 2014 is done and gone but the afterglow is still there. I’m going to approach this post differently than I would for most of my posts and not make this post a mass of images. Most blog entries you’ll read will focus on the great new games they played, the hits and the misses. I played a lot of great stuff, and yes there were hits and misses but this post is going to focus on the experience as a first-timer and the experience of attending by myself.

No surprises, but I’m not an extrovert and find it difficult to mingle, small talk is painful, and I’m not a “personality”. Traveling 1000 miles to Dallas to game with strangers for four solid days is way outside my comfort zone. The cost alone of the plane ticket, the hotel room, and my time off from work was massive. I knew that going in, of course, but for years I’ve wanted to attend the convention and see what the fuss was all about. Great Lakes Games is three days of gaming and I was really looking forward to a fourth day. Knowing what I pack into those three days of GLG I was almost bursting at the seams to get there! I’m certainly glad I did attend and hope to get back, maybe even next year. I did find it a rewarding and enriching experience. However, I do want to capture my thoughts about what made the convention difficult for me and so if you’re interested in that, then keep reading. Otherwise, thanks for getting this far! My yearly After Turkey Day posts are coming up soon as well as Christmas gaming and then my yearly Cabin Con with my gaming group. For those posts, I’ll return to the regularly scheduled program.

The plane flight from Columbus is an easy two hour trip, straight into DFW. To minimize cost I didn’t check any bags and only took enough clothes for one change of pants and a clean shirt (and other unmentionables) each day. All that and toiletries fit easily in a small day pack. I also brought an over-the-shoulder messenger-style bag for the trip back because I knew I’d have a couple of “give away” games handed out during registration. American lands at the C-concourse of DFW and luckily when you exit the terminal, you can easily cross a couple of lanes of passenger pick-up traffic, walk through a parking garage, over an elevated walkway and then down into the Hyatt’s rear parking lot. Within 10 minutes of exiting the plane I was waiting to check into my room.

The BGG.CON registration line was forming quickly and since my room wasn’t ready yet (it was only 9:30am) I left my bags with the concierge and got in the line just before it exited the building. It took over an hour and a half in line to get my badge, pick my two games, and get back to the concierge to pick up my bags. I’d recommend just waiting until the first rush of registrations gets through unless you’re there very early or with others and can have some “in-line” fun. The people around me were mostly heads-down on their phones and didn’t really appear to want to talk about anything. I tried to engage them a few times but didn’t have any success beyond some rolled eyes and a grunt or two. A few clumps of people in front of me appeared to be having some fun but my pocket of people just kept to themselves.

I did have my first face to face meet ups with some BGG “e-friends” while waiting in line and that was very nice and I looked forward to meeting up after I got through the line and playing some games. While waiting in line, the hotel left a message on my phone that my room was ready so I got my keycard and took my bags up and got settled in there. The elevators were a buzz of gamers going up and down and the conventional hall was hopping. I started with the Hot Games rooms and within seconds got into a game with five strangers in a light western themed game and had some fun. The group was a bit serious for the game but not knowing anybody I’m sure they probably had the same feeling about me. That game broke up in less than an hour so I went looking for another. I found some e-friends from the line but they were in the middle of a much longer game so I started trolling the room and it was so packed there was no way I was getting in on anything at the moment.

So I headed into the exhibit hall and made the rounds there but that was quick. Not having any bag space I couldn’t really shop and I wasn’t really there to buy anything anyway. I wanted to play some games! I spun a wheel at a Ravensburger booth and won a Castles of Burgundy expansion which was really great. I love the game *and* the extra player boards are flat and wouldn’t be a problem transporting them home.

I then started walking around the big open gaming room and within a few minutes the first inklings began, a foreboding of what the rest of the convention was going to be like. I didn’t know anyone and there were only two or three “Players Wanted” signs out. There were hundreds of people playing games, lots of laughing, smiling, and then me walking around for 30 minutes making attempts to get in on games that looked interesting or that I already knew. I did manage to sit in on some games but some people I could tell were reluctant to add me. After a few “I guess so” responses to my request to play and even an eye roll, I got a bit gun shy. I didn’t want to be “that guy” that sits at a table by himself for over an hour with “Teacher Wanted” and “Players Wanted” signs while surfing the web on his phone. In the middle of one of my games I watched “that guy” get up, pick up the signs, and walk out of the hall.

Unlike GLG where groups tend to stick together for a few games, groups of strangers at BGG.CON seemed to quickly break apart throwing me back into trolling mode walking by the same tables of people on their second or third game watching me go past for the third or fourth time in 15 minutes. When it started to feel a bit creepy, I’d head to the Hot Games room to see if I could get in line or something to try a new game. Many of the Hot Games didn’t appear to be “my thing” so I was relatively particular about what I wanted to wait for and after sitting and watching a game for 15 or 20 minutes it starts to get creepy as well.

I did get lucky a few times and was able to sit in on pickup games for new stuff that I really wanted to try but on one occasion I had a thumping headache the size of Montana that I couldn’t process the way the mechanics fit together and played very poorly. I know I’ll like the game (that’s a good thing since I’d already Kickstarted it!) but it felt disappointing that that experience had to happen when I finally got to do something I’d paid good money for.

I signed up to play an epic game of Die Macher on Friday morning and was really looking forward to that but an hour into that game it really bogged down and I realized that the game really wasn’t for me. Thankfully I was playing the game with some fun people but I was glad we declared a hard stop after 5 hours of play especially when we’d only made it through three of the seven elections. After that game, I decided to take a different approach to my attempts at finding playing groups and began seeking out people playing two-player games in the open area. I had much better success at that playing games with young couples, old couples, and even a couple in their forties that had brought an in-law with them. They had been trying to learn La Isla (a new Feld game) and since I’d played it before I helped them out and sat with them through the game. On another occasion I taught an elderly woman and her husband how to play Amerigo.

I enjoy playing games with strangers but I really get enjoyment out of playing games with people I know really well. Going by yourself takes a lot of effort and energy and I felt drained at the end of each day. My rate of gaming was abysmal compared to Great Lakes Games. That’s not to say that it was a bad experience but it wasn’t what I was expecting. The crowds are great, the space limited, and it’s loud…very loud. I noticed when I’d walk into the hallways that they were always packed with people coming and going and there were always lots of single people sitting around looking at their phones. I wondered if they were also in the same predicament as I was.

The Players Needed flags work, I’m proof of that but I wonder if there might be a more efficient way to get into games for those alone or those that want more than just two. Might it work to have a small area in the open gaming room where singles can gather and people with games looking for others could come to get them for pick up games. And might that approach be a way for singles looking for games to meet in a non-confrontational way. You know, hey, there are three of us here waiting to get into a game and we’ve all got Eurogamer ribbons on our badge, let’s go play something rather than waiting for somebody else!

I’d like to think I’ll find a way to go back next year but I’m not sure I would do it again without a close friend or two. I’d really like to share the experience with someone that I know and can discuss the experience with over dinner or in the room as we stagger back at 1am. I didn’t have that experience this year. I was worn out, exhausted by trolling the gaming rooms, and back in my hotel room by 10pm every night. That’s not to say that I’m not part of the problem. I recognize that but I can’t change that very easily. I was already feeling the pressure of being “on” and outside my element for the entire day.

Was BGG.CON fun? Sure, a lot. I see the potential and would have a completely different experience with close gaming friends at hand. I had a blast meeting people for the first time face to face but those are fleeting and not really relationships you can capitalize on the first time without feeling like the equivalent of a gaming remora, feeding off the fun-shaped detritis of other gamers. I really liked working in the library and would sign up for that task every morning for an hour or two. It really was fun to talk to people as they came through the library, recognizing my avatar or my name from this website. Maybe going back would be a better experience because I could begin to capitalize on those relationships I started this year. That’s how it all works right? One year at a time?

BGG.CON 2014

Tomorrow, at 6:30am, I'll be boarding a plane headed for Dallas, TX to attend BGG.CON. I'm really looking forward to it but given that it's my first time, I do have some apprehension and anxiousness. I'm not a natural mingler® and since I'm going alone I'm definitely outside my comfort zone.

BGG.CON hosts roughly 2300 gamers and focuses primarily on open gaming. They've got a game library hosting over 3000 games available on-site for attendees to checkout and play. They also dedicate a special "hot games" area for new "Essen" games and will have people available to teach them if you're into the "cult of the new" (YES!).

To date, my longest convention has been 3 days of solid gaming, morning, noon, and night and BGG.CON adds an entire extra day. I know I'm going to be exhausted physically and mentally but it will be nice to meet up face to face with people I've only interacted with online. To help with anxiety, I've signed up for the "first timer/orphan (attending by yourself)" meet-up Wednesday night but I'm sure my anxiety will melt away within minutes of entering the gaming area (fingers crossed). I'm also signed up to work in the game library Saturday morning and on Friday morning, an "epic" game of Die Macher for those new to the game.

I'm planning on taking lots of pictures, hope to play some cool games, but most importantly, meet some really cool people. If I can just get past the waiting...

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Great Lakes Games 2014

Another Great Lakes Games has come and gone. As usual, Dave Vander Ark, his wife, and many others really put on a great convention. I got to play a lot of great games and catch up with people I only get to see once a year. This year was an extra special treat since another member of my game group got invited bringing the total to four. Only three of us could make it this year but it was fun to pile all our stuff into a single car and make the 3 hour trip. I remember my first GLG. I went alone forcing myself to mingle with gamers I didn’t know. That was definitely outside my comfort zone but in the end, it was the funnest thing I’d ever done like that. It was exciting to watch a third friend from my group as he experienced it for the first time. It’s hard to put into words how rewarding and enriching I find the GLG experience. I wouldn't miss it for the world.

GLG features a prize table as an added perk for attending. You're encouraged to participate and bring an in-shrink copy of a “good” game; it’s left up to you to decide what that means. Many people bring one good game and several used games for the table. Better games tend to go early in the rounds which means you'll get a chance at picking from the table earlier. I brought multiple games this year and walked away with a copy of L’Aeropostale, Odin’s Ravens, and a copy of Munchkin to give to my son, Noah (he plays with his friends and they have a blast with it).

I'm not fond of mixing reviews with bulk convention information so the rest of this post is mostly just a stream of pictures from the convention. I'm already planning for next year!

Amerigo

Concordia

Euphoria

Evolution

Five Tribes

Greed

Guild Hall

Kremlin

La Isla

Las Vegas

Odin’s Ravens (Prize Table)

Ole Kaji

Ole Kaji (look at how packed/icon-rich that board is!)

Convention Hall

Port Royal

Ruhrschifffahrt

Rum & Pirates

Russian Railroads

Steam Donkey

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Review: Ruhrschifffahrt 1769-1890

As early as 1770, coal barges reached deep into Germany, up the otherwise unnavigable Ruhr river to load up on the rich coal deposits that lined the river. The river was littered with dams and mills and the barges could only travel short distances downstream until they would need to transfer their loads into barges waiting on the opposite side of the obstacle. Every transfer reduced the quality of the coal and by the time it reached Ruhrort it was sometimes only dust. After the barges reached their final destination, they would be drawn upstream by teams of horses. Over time, 14 locks were built along the river to allow the barges to freely transport their cargo from as far deep as Witten all the way to Ruhrort without transfer. By the end of the 19th century, the water-based coal route was replaced by a railway.

As you might imagine, Ruhrschifffahrt 1769-1890, gathers 2-4 players to transport and sell coal along the Ruhr river and to make it as profitable as possible.

BGG classifies the game as a pick-up and deliver and a worker placement game but in my opinion that’s a bit misleading. At the core is a set collection mechanic that players strive for to match patterns on an individual player board. Match specific patterns of delivery and you’ll unlock other features of the game allowing you take actions other players cannot and to establish board position to gain end-game victory points.

The board is split into two halves with the downstream half (the left western half closer to Ruhrort) “unlocked” at the beginning of the game. As the game progresses, players will gain the necessary tokens opening up the eastern half of the board.

The game lasts 12 rounds and in each round, an historical event occurs. In most cases this is a positive event but in some cases it represents a negative point in the history of coal transport. In addition to the historical event, an obstacle/demand marker is drawn from a bag. The demand tiles place money on delivery points along the river representing a higher demand for delivery (this money sweetens the deal when delivering to these locations). In other cases, they represent some limiting factor for the round (low water, etc.)

After the event/demand/obstacles are dealt with, players choose a single action and pay it’s cost. These actions allow players to haul their boat up the river to a coal deposit, uncover a new coal deposit, the freedom to ship farther downstream than is normally allowed, etc. Once chosen, the player’s coal barge is placed next to a coal deposit (a die). Some drawn obstacle tiles block the use of some of the actions for the round. Players are required to haul and deliver coal to a destination every single round.

After all players have placed their barge next to a coal deposit (taking debt to pay to haul their barge up the river if they’re out of money), players ship their coal (the die) downstream to a delivery point, selling it for money. If the coal passed obstacles it loses value decreasing the amount of money the destination city/port is willing to pay for it.

Players place resource cubes on a personal player board depicting where they’ve delivered coal and of what type (black or white). These resource cubes establish a pattern and if the pattern matches those of the individual tiles on the board (you can see the little dots in boxes above the tiles in the image below), the player earns the tile, unlocking a new feature of the game. Players start the game with a matching set of permanent game features they can unlock but there are some limited, one-time use markers that players can earn and then use when it’s most effective for them.

Players are then free to purchase items with the money they’ve earned but you’re limited to what you can purchase based on what features you’ve unlocked in this and previous rounds. Players can build locks, build warehouses in the cities and coal depots, in Ruhrport’s export area, etc. Building things earns the players immediate victory points and helps establish end-game victory points depending on what features you’ve unlocked during the game.

I really like this game. I’d read that the rules were a mess so I stuck to the rewritten rules available at BGG. Even using the rewritten rules requires some persistent reading. There’s a lot going on in those 12 pages of densely packed text. But stick with it; it’s worth it.

The game rewards a player that sticks to a strategy but can remain flexible in the short term to weather particularly nasty demand/obstacle tiles or the effects of other player’s actions. The game also features a highly variable turn order mechanism as one progresses through the different phases of a turn. As players vie for different positions to load high-valued coal and deliver it to locations needed to unlock feature of the game, turn order must be taken into consideration as it’s always east to west, down the river (highest upstream to lowest downstream). Some resources are limited and if you don’t go first you may miss out or at a minimum have to pay more to stick to your strategy. There is a lot of indirect player interaction taking spots other players want or need before they can making them shift tactics, pay more, or take debt at just the moment when they can least afford it. Points are tight, with the end-game in the low to mid-thirties in my experience.

A copy of Ruhrschifffahrt is a bit hard to come by. I managed to pick up a copy in a BGG auction for about $50. Don’t be surprised, however, to pay $70 or more for a NIS copy.

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Review: Cartography

A few weeks ago, Jon Adams, contacted me to see if I would be interested in reviewing his new game Cartography before the Kickstarter launch on October 14th. I’m always excited to play a new game so I jumped at the chance.

Cartography is an abstract but there is a hint of theme albeit small (think chess or Go). Players face off in a territory grab but there are no rules concerning dominance or majority. Instead, the game focuses on positioning. Early in the game, players focus on playing triangular-shaped tiles to the playing area to build up the map. Many of the tiles depict walls that segment the map into regions that become the regions to fight over.

On each turn, players have the chance to place one “stone” onto a dot on the map expanding their cluster of stones in a region. If you can fully trap the other player’s stones into a corner of the region, you can capture their stones to earn points. Players take turns attempting to trap the other player until both players pass ending the game. Players count the number of stones remaining on the board and the number of captured stones and the player with the highest sum wins.

Cartography is often compared to Go but since I’m not a Go player that doesn’t hit home with me. I can see the resemblance, yes, but if I were to pick a game or two to compare it to, I would definitely choose Hive or Fjords.

Both of these games are also abstracts that have a strong sense of positioning and to do well, you will need not only strong spatial skills but also patience. Unfortunately, I’m not a patient player which gets me into trouble quickly. In my opinion abstract games tend to reward the player that can recognize and capitalize on the other player’s blunder. Recognizing that blunder, however nuanced, is key of course. I usually mistake a seemingly poor move, with an aggressive response and only then realize, too late, that it was a trap.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many gamers enjoy this tight, head-to-head match-up in an all-or-nothing battle of skill and cunning. That’s not my style of game but I greatly appreciate the effort and the design. It’s very elegant and I can see how other players would like this. I know of a mother/son duo that would love this game and I’m hoping to introduce it to them in the coming weeks.

I wish Jon a lot of luck on his launch. I really think there are some good ideas here and it really looks great even at the prototype stage. Very well done Jon! Keep an eye out for this on Kickstarter, I know I will be.

Kickstarter: Aquasphere

I can't help it. I'm a sucker for more point salad from Feld and a way cool looking board.

Click to head over to the Kickstarter for Aquasphere

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Kickstarter: Ophir

Looking forward to Ophir from Terra Nova Games. The ship artwork looks very similar to my recent Kickstarter delivery of Fantasy Frontier but I'm a sucker for pickup and deliver/ship games.

From the Kickstarter page:

Ophir is a pick up and deliver, set collection, resource management game set in an ancient, prosperous world for 2-4 players. In Ophir, you're an influential merchant of government, trade, or religion with a singular focus - the construction of the Temple. The Temple is built layer by layer through collective contributions of Silver and Gold. These precious metals are delivered by your merchant ship for Victory Points at the Temple, one of the seven locations you'll be visiting in Ophir. To afford these precious building materials, you must navigate the region's seas against your clever rivals to collect Goods. You must then decide whether to fulfill the demand at the Market for Coin, or exchange the goods for Favor with the Temple. Well-timed trades, efficient cargo storage, and tactical transportation will be the keys to your success. But you must be swift in your travels, because the game ends immediately once the construction of the Temple is complete. Will it be you whose name is spoken alongside the stories of Ophir's wonder? Ophir's accessibility makes it a joy to play for families -- and with its modular setup, exclusive player roles, and mercurial market, Ophir has tactics, tension, and replayability for experienced gamers to savor!

It's got some pretty cool 3D bits too!

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