My Experience at BGG.Con 2019

November 27, 2019

We've ramped up the number of conventions we have booths at this year, and even when I am not working the booth at a convention, these events have slowly become more of a social experience for me, which is very strange. Sure, there is game playing, but there seems to end up being a lot more social activities that don't involve games.

Which is great, but I will admit it is nice to finally have BGG.Con come up - a convention that is all about the gaming. Sure, one day was mostly dedicated to play testing and waiting over half an hour for a table at a restaurant, but still, plenty of gaming. So I just want to briefly go through some of the game highlights I experienced at BGG.Con last week. Unlike most convention reports, this will be mostly positive. I'm not sure if I was just so happy to be playing games that the experience was colored in a positive light, but I didn't really play any terrible games, and played a lot of good ones.

So I started off the week-long adventure at Tabletop Network, which was a design conference scheduled for the few days before BGG.Con. I am not a great public speaker, but I agreed to give a talk about designing unique experiences (key takeaway: design unique experiences). I ended up kind of dreading getting up and giving the talk as the time approached, which wasn't a great way to start the week necessarily, but, at the same time, I got to meet a lot of cool new people and become better friends with others, so it was still worth it. And my talk didn't turn out too bad.

The last event of Tabletop Network was a "Shark Tank," where 25 designers got up in front of a panel of board game publishers and pitched their game in 3 minutes. In was entertaining, but one game really caught my intention: Shinjuku. It was kind of pitched as a simplified hour-long 18XX with no currency. And while it turned out to not really resemble an 18XX at all, it was still quite fun. It kind of reminded more of Bus, in that you were laying down track and shops so that you could transport customers to where they wanted to go and score them.

The next day I started my full board game bender with Zoocracy, which was quite average. My friends were like, "Do you want to play a game with area control and negotiation?" And I declared those were two of my least favorite game mechanics, and sat down anyway. So, given my bias, I guess it was okay? There were lots of different dials to turn, which was nice, but the biggest disappointment was how suddenly the game ended. Anywhere between the 5th and 8th round, a random card flip can end the game immediately, which is just too much variance.

We then moved on to a game of Pictures, which was very fun. Basically, players are trying to recreate a randomly chosen photography out of a display of 16, but the materials they have to use to recreate it are strange and hard to work with. Things like a pair of shoelaces or 4 sticks and 4 rocks. It is madness, and you get really annoyed when the other players can't figure out that your jumble of misshapen wooden blocks is supposed to represent a deer licking a child.

And then we went heavy with a game of City of the Big Shoulders, which was also pitched as 18XX-like, if you like worker placement instead of tile placement. This was super-heavy and interesting, and I liked it quite a bit, though after 4 hours, we had to call it at the end of the 4th round (it's supposed to last 5). Which, you know, is like any good 18XX, but I had things to do. I really liked the worker placement mechanic, and how players created spots where a company could go to pay the money directly to the player to get stuff. Sometimes your company wouldn't even need what you were selling, but it was a great way to get money directly out of the company coffers. My only issue was that some of these actions felt way better and got way more money out of the companies than others, and players received them randomly, so chance had a bigger effect on the outcome of the game than I would have liked.

So now let me tell you about a game called First Contact. This was actually the only game I played twice at the con because it was so...different. Players are divided into two groups - humans and aliens - and the premise is that aliens have come down to earth and need specific things to power their spaceship, but they can only communicate in their own strange language. So then you basically set about playing a game of Codenames with a 5x5 grid of items, but the clue givers are speaking a different language. And so the humans main goal is just to figure out what the aliens are saying, while the aliens are trying to use what they think the humans have learned to point them in the right direction. It is bonkers, and you need to try it.

If my goal was to have as many unique experiences with games as I could this convention (and, given the nature of my talk, I was certainly open to that) then The Mushroom Eaters certainly put another tally on the board. The actually game play was a little lackluster and overstayed its welcome - basically players collectively moving along this track, dealing with random events to try and earn points - but the experience, man, the experience. The theme of the game is that we are all on a mushroom trip, and to convey this as much as possible, we all wore 3D glasses, staring at psychedelic cards and a board that folded out in this cool way as we progressed down the track, getting weirder and weirder as we went until we were deep in the weeds of nonsense, trying to ride out the waves of intense experience. I don't think I'd play it again, but I'm glad to have gone on the journey once.

I suppose I should also briefly mention my play of Kauchuk, even though we played it wrong. It was also certainly unique, with its use of rubber bands on a peg board. But the module we played barely felt like a game and more of an abstract puzzle. I ended up a little disappointed.

The next day, after some play testing, I spent some time playing Winsome games, which started with Northern Pacific, a decidedly silly game. It is a 20-minute "filler" game for the 18XX train people crowd. It is very simple - on your turn you can either place one of your cubes in a city, or you can move the train in one direction down a constantly forking path. If the train lands in a city where you have a cube, you get two back, and the game ends when the train reaches the end of its path. That's it. It was an interesting thought exercise, and it was over quickly, even though we played it twice. Oh, I guess I played two games twice...

Then we moved onto a real Winsome title, Pennsylvania Railroad, a game of owning stock in train companies and building them up as much as possible before a payout is triggered and you get more money to buy more stock. It was fun, though I realized I was not going to win about 1/3 the way into it. Still, I fought on, built up infrastructure, and had a good time hanging out.

After that, I decided to check out the hot games room and got into a game of Terramara, because it was the only thing available (the hot games room was very busy, if you can believe it). It was a solid worker placement game with some cool things going on, like sending your workers into future rounds to collect more resources, but then you wouldn't get them back until the end of the round where you sent them. I felt there was a little imbalance in the various tracks, though, mainly the military track seemed pretty lackluster. It was a good time, but I can't help feel I would have had a better time playing Agra, also published by Quined Games.

I've discussed the Unlock games before, but I just wanted to call out that I finally played my copy of the Alice in Wonderland adventure, which I have brought with me to every convention over the last 6 months. It finally happened, and it did not disappoint. I don't want to spoil it, but they did the single coolest thing I've ever seen an Unlock game do at the end of this one.

The next day it was back to the hot games room to see what additional trouble I could get myself into. I found myself in a game of Marco Polo 2 and really enjoyed it, even though I got crushed by someone who had played it before. I believe I have played the first Marco Polo a couple times in the past, and I have vague memories of thinking it was all right. I'm certainly not the best judge you could ask, but if you did ask me, I would say that Marco Polo 2 felt significantly better than the first.

Then a friend recommended I try out The Magnificent, and a table was open, so I sat down and did just that. This was probably my biggest surprise of the con, as I hadn't really heard anything about it up until that point, and it was actually quite good. In a nutshell, you are dice drafting to build up your circus and put on performances, but there were a lot of different interconnected mechanisms to make everything feel like it was working together. It felt good when you pulled off a big show and got lots of points and money. The actions were tight, but by the end, you felt satisfied that you had accomplished a lot.

Which wasn't quite the case with Cooper Island, a game that gives you a million things to do and absolutely no time to do it in. More than any other game, Cooper Island felt like work. You were constantly stressed about the impending end of the game and how you were possibly going to get everything done that you wanted to. I would almost suggest it should be longer, but the game was already super-long. It just is what it is, and there were certainly satisfying parts to it, specifically the tile placement on the map to generate resources, but it was harsh.

The thing I don't like about auction games is that it's hard to get a handle on exactly what something is worth the first time you play it. If this gets me 4 points at the end of the game, and every $5 is a point, I guess I should be bidding something less than $20? Q.E. turns that uncertainty about what your money is worth into the heart of the game. Other people decide what your money is worth, and the game is figuring out what they have decided. It is painfully simple - over a series of rounds, you can bid whatever number you want for the companies up for auction, but at the end of the game, whoever spent the most money automatically loses. What do people think is a lot of money? $1000? $1 trillion? Every game and every group is different.

I played Taverns of Tiefenthal because I was pretty sure my wife would like it. She really liked Quacks of Quedlinburg. I just eyeballed that spelling. I'm not going to look it up, because the fact is that I do not like Quacks. It's a random mess of a game with few meaningful decisions. I was not expecting to like Taverns either, but I wanted to give it a shot, and I ended up being pleasantly surprised. It could have been the company, but I had a pretty great time. There were way more decisions to be found in how to use your drafted dice and what to buy. I'd definitely like to try this again with some of the modules that add even more depth.

I cannot speak to whether Factory Funner is more fun than the original Factory Fun, but I can tell you that I enjoyed my experience with it. I know there are many people who really like the game, but I never bothered to learn what it was about until someone pulled it out late Saturday night. It is just a very clever but simple spatial puzzle game where you have to progressively add more and more machines to your factory and make sure all their inputs are supplied and their outputs have somewhere to go. I definitely want to play this some more.

The last game of the con came early Sunday morning. I had failed to get into an 18XX game all week, and then... well, I played Rolling Stock, another game that certainly shares DNA with 18XX, but was also decidedly different. To explain this game would take a whole other blog of equal length. There are so many strategies to the game and so many ways to fail. It has invaded my brain and remained there, like a good 18XX, so I think I enjoyed it. If only these type of game were shorter, I could explore them to the full extent they deserve.

But, alas, it was time to go back to the real world, at least for a week. The last convention of the year, PAX Unplugged is next week, and hopefully I'll get to play some more cool stuff there, but there is a booth and all that. I certainly won't have time for an 18XX, but we'll see what happens!

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