Great Lakes Games 2009

I attended the 7th annual 4-day Great Lakes Games board game convention this past weekend (actually Thursday through Sunday) and had a blast. I was elated to receive the invitation and couldn’t wait to go to what I hope becomes a yearly event for me. Dave VanderArk runs an awesome convention attended by numerous board game designers and roughly 100 hard-core board gaming enthusiasts from all over the midwest.

My first game was Power $truggle. I wasn’t particularly fond of the game but many must be given its high rating on BGG. I know Mister Cranky (above) was getting pretty cranky about the shenanigans put on by his hidden arch rival. Players vie for 4 out of the 6 available victory points and the first player to obtain them is the winner. The theme of the game is based in moving workers from departments up into department heads, board members, and at times the chairman of the board. Numerous mechanics play out on the departments portion of the board using a majority control mechanism. Heading some departments allows players to control the order of randomly drawn cards that dictate the length/actions performed each round. To gain the appropriate VPs, players are going to have to diversify across multiple departments or become ruthlessly cutthroat with other players. Bribes for control of various aspects of the board are built into the rules. There are some interesting things happening in the game but nothing to write home about.

Next I played a five-player game of Small World. I’ve said quite a bit about Small World in other blog entries so I won’t go into detail here. Small World is an interesting game but my interest level is waining relatively quickly. There’s only so much flying orcs and pacifist carnivorous gophers can do for you.

Next up was At the Gates of Loyang. The Evett family was sitting down to read through the rules to the introductory game and they invited me to learn along with them. The entire game, including learning, was long at 4 hours. A second playing wouldn’t take near as long but I suspect 2 hours isn’t out of the question. I liked the game and think it would be my preference over Agricola. I found Agricola overwhelming given the sheer volume of cards with text on them. I found that many options entirely mind boggling. Loyang also has a fair amount of text based cards but it’s more manageable since only a few are active at any one time.

Players play the role of farmers sowing crops into their fields attempting to grow and harvest goods of various types in order to meet the demands of regular and occasional customers. Farmers must meet the needs of the regular customers (think feed your people) every turn or they start getting upset. Producing product for your customers earns you money and you use money to buy victory points. The game has an interesting mechanism that allows players to buy a victory point at the end of every turn for $1. However, you’re allowed to buy more but you have to pay the amount for the value of your position on the track. For example, if at the end of your turn you’re sitting on position 10 on the track. For $1 you can advance to position 11. But to advance to position 12 would cost you $12. If you wanted to advance from 11 to 13, you’d owe $25.

Scores are very tight and after the 4 hours, the winner won by 1 point, I tied for 2nd, and the 4th player was one point behind. I liked the game and would definitely play again. Is it something I would buy for myself…probably not as I can’t see it getting played more than a time or two at most.

After Loyang I wandered around the room and sat down to watch a couple of guys finish up a game of Tobago. After watching them play for a few turns I think I had a pretty good hang of it and they were willing to playing it again immediately adding me to the mix. As it turns out, Tobago was one of my most favorite light Euros of the convention. The bits are great. The board is well made and the game play is surprisingly good. It definitely will be picking up a copy for my collection.

Tobago is an adventure/exploration themed game (thinly themed I’ll grant you) where players drive their little trucks around a hex based map in an attempt to pick up amulets and arrive at the one location where a treasure is buried. Numerous treasures are uncovered in a game and when one is found players enter a payout phase that favors the player that invested the most in narrowing down the location of the treasure.

Cards are played containing iconography that indicates where the treasure can be found. For example, the card may indicate that the white treasure can be found in a hex that borders a lake. A subsequent card may narrow down that the treasure is not next to the biggest lake. Subsequent cards my exclude mountains hexes, or distance from trees, etc. until the number of valid locations is reduced to a single hex. We found the iconography a bit difficult to decipher at first but it proved a non-issue after a few rounds of play. All in all, I greatly enjoyed both times I played and can’t wait to teach it to others.

As it turned out, one of the players I was playing Tobago with, was the guy I was buying my grail game from: Tal der Könige. He offered to teach me the game and to get in one last play. We set up the board for three and ended the game in a tie for first. I nice fitting for his last play and my first.

The game is an abstract battle of pyramid building. Several lots of chunky cubes of various colors are drawn randomly from a bag and put up for auction. Players bid chips with values 0-4 (several are zero but only 4 contain the values 1-4) and the winners of the lots collect the blocks. Players then move two special pawns by secretly programming their moves across the board by writing down the movement on a card in erasable marker. The pawns are moved (some may get denied access if a pawn gets to a location before another pawn) and then builder pawns are moved around the board. Finally players place the blocks they just purchased onto the pyramids they control. Pyramids vary in the number of victory points awarded upon completion depending on what number of colors are visible and the arrangement of varying colors. Unfinished pyramids can be stolen and there is a relatively healthy stab you in the back element to the game. I like the game but given that it’s a grail game, I don’t have to justify it to anybody but myself. However, now that I have my grail…I thinking I should probably choose another grail don’t you think?

Three teenagers were looking for someone to play a game with so I sat down and played Dixit with them. Dixit is a slightly gamier form of Apples to Apples. Players hold big cards in their hands depicting various images (they look like hand painted watercolors of various objects real and imaginary). If it’s your turn, you choose a card and state a word or phrase and lay the card face down on the table. Each player chooses a card from their hand the best represents your word or phrase and also places it face down on the table. The cards are shuffled and turned face up in a row and mentally numbered 1-N. Each player then uses one of their numbered chips to choose the card they think is the “correct” card. If you choose the correct card you get a point. For each person that chooses your card (and it’s not your turn) you get a point. And for the player whose turn it is, he only gets a point if some but not all players choose the “correct” card.

Dixit is better than Apples to Apples in my opinion because it’s the players who are doing the choosing rather than the judge. There isn’t as much laughter and ridiculousness but it doesn’t get old near as fast.

Three of us were looking for something to play and I suggested my copy of Valdora. During setup we hooked another couple of people so we played with a full compliment. I like Valdora. It’s a relatively simple pickup and deliver game with a bit of interesting mechanics thrown in to drive players to compete for specific deliveries. The faster people deliver the faster the game goes. The cool wooden “book” holders just can’t be beat.

I played FITS a couple of times during the convention. FITS is a very light, take your lumps game of sliding randomly chosen Tetris-like pieces down a ramp trying to cover and/or leave uncovered markings on the ramp. Leave the positive spots uncovered and cover up the negative spots and you’ll do well. That damned plus-sign shaped piece should be burned!

Matt Evett introduced me to several nice filler games and Cities proved a nice diversion. Each player possesses the same set of number squares depicting 4 terrain types and a few meeples. A primary player throws out 8 random tiles from the set of 24 and then flips up three. Players choose the same three tiles from their numbered stacks and arrange them in a starting position (they can much touch at the corners but not orthogonally). Then the primary player flips up a tile, everybody locates the same tile and you place it orthogonally on your “board”. You can then optionally choose to place a meeple on one of the terrain types depicted on the tile. The size of you board is restricted to 4×4 so at the end of the game you will have placed 16 tiles. Points are awarded for contiguous blocks of terrain types occupied by meeples and other various ways of having meeples look out over water north and south, etc. but in general you place a tile, place a meeple, and hope for the best. Good quick filler. Nice to grab when trying to align a couple of tables or finishing out the night.

My favorite “gamer’s game” of the convention was Hansa Teutonica. The game features no random elements and perfect information which makes the brain burn deliciously. I lost horribly in a four player game but it was the only game that had my brain churning for hours afterward working out how the game ticked. The theme is non-existent but to describe it without the theme is difficult. Each player possesses a “desk” where they mark the level achieved in various aspects. I can’t even remember the real names of the areas but suffice to say that advancing any area along its “track” is good. You take actions placing wooden cubes and discs onto the roads on the map and once complete you either create and/or increase dominance in a connected city or you take the special action afforded by the city (increases the tracks on your “desk”). You’re trying to build and maintain a dominance in your network of cities across the board but watch out because others can attack you kicking you off partially completed roads. However, sometimes that’s not a bad thing. The game features mostly end game scoring but points awarded early in the game trigger the end of the game once 20 points have been earned by a player. After 20 points have been awarded, then all of the bonus points get added in and the most points wins. It may not look like much from the picture but I’m itching to get a copy of this.

I attended a Teach you Tichu class Saturday morning that was really great. Tichu is a informal 4-player card game that is heavier than Euchre but lighter than Bridge in my opinion. It my initially feel l a trick taking game but it’s not. It’s technically speaking a “ladder” game similar to Lexio but with much more going on. We only had a chance to play a few rounds with coaches walking around the room and I didn’t get a chance to play any more that weekend but I would enjoy learning more about the game.

Ted Cheatham must have felt bad for trashing my butt in Hansa Teutonica because he sat down and taught me Expedition. Expedition is an older game that features locations on a map and three colored arrows that indicate the movements of a traveler across the globe. You have several hidden destinations as well as a few known destinations that you need to drive the traveler to. Player take turns manipulating the traveling arrows in an attempt to visit all of their assigned cities. It’s a light game but still fun.

After Expedition, Ted taught me a cooperative game called Der Hexer on Salem. I’m not a huge fan of coops but this was one of the funnest times I’ve ever played a game. Players move about the town of Salem and with the help of a witch, they try to gather goods from different locations necessary to rid the town of monsters that keep coming through the open portals in the town. Each turn monsters and even cards are turned up that keep everyone on their toes. You must work together to close the portals expose the Old Ones and narrow down who the last Old One you must defeat while closing the final portal. Monsters keep ruining your attempts to stop them as well as moving a marker towards certain death.

Ted said we were doing pretty well for about the first half of the game but then our luck started turning and the monsters were getting the upper hand. We battled back and finally got in a position to kill the final Old One and close the final portal. On the final move of the game, one of our players that was strategically placed to close the last portal died after going insane leaving the final portal open and killing us all. We let out a huge roar from our table to let everyone know we’d been killed. Der Hexer on Salem was quite fun.

I managed to get in a game of Dominion Seaside but we ended up not playing some of the new “seaside” bits but we did have some of the duration cards that last more than the current turn. I think I won the game but it was a bit messed up at the end because I missed counting the points in my discard pile when the third deck was exhausted so we had some of the cards packed up and points summed when I realized that I’d not counted some 9 or so points.

I played three quick games of Finito! with Matt Evett and his wife near the end of the night on Saturday. Finito! is really a mindless puzzle exercise of dealing with mixed up discs on a numbered board. A player rolls dice and after placing your discs you try to get them in order in the least amount of moves. I saw mindless but it was better than not playing a game. Great for closing down the evening.

I managed to play in an 8-player game of Long Shot. I think I like Long Shot better than Winner’s Circle. I like that you can bet additional amounts of money as the horse race progresses. In addition you have the option to purchase specific horses which nets you additional money if they win place or show. Players amass cards throughout the game that can help you obtain money, steal cards, adjust the placement of horses, etc. With 8 it took awhile to get back around to each player but it was still pretty fun. I like it enough I might try to pick up a copy.

And finally, I played a great filler called Scripts and Scribes. David Van Sweden taught me the game and I immediately taught it to another group. Not 30 minutes later I was back at it teaching yet another group. The game is a very simple set collection game where players hand out cards through a process that places cards in players hands but also creates a deck of cards to be auctioned off in the second half of the game. A single 6-sided die with a value of 3 is placed on a card depicting each suit and players will be granted the number of victory points shown on the die if they have collected the highest summed value in each suit. Some cards all players to manipulate the value of the die and others allow players to pay for auctioned cards. After the last card is won, players show what cards they have in their hand, the majority holders for each suit is determined, and the points awarded. You can play a game in 15-20 minutes but there’s a lot going on there. I wish I could get my hands on a copy but that may be difficult.

That’s about it. I had a completely enjoyable time at Great Lakes Games and look forward to next year. Too bad I have to wait that long. In the meantime, I need to get in some games…I’m having withdrawal.

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