Board Games

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.

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