Thursday, 10 December 2015

Meeplecon Game Reviews (reviews)

I went to Meeplecon over the weekend. But hark! I hear a question, echoing from the depths of time...

"Hi Ivan! This is the ghost of Ivan past."

Okay... Like from my childhood, or ten years ago, or what?

"Nup. Last week. What the hell is Meeplecon?"

I see. Board game con. In its third year. Held in Preston (Melbourne's north) last weekend.

"Gotcha. That's 'last weekend' from your timeline, yeah."

Yeah. So you'll go there this Saturday. Cost you a tenner.

"Cool. How was it?"

Good. Wanna hang about for the game reviews?

"Nah, I'm off. Spoilers, etc."

Fair enough. I'll talk about it anyway to these other guys.

Where were we? Ah yes! The games.

I started off about midday with some boardgames, moved on to the exhibited dexterity games, and then to social party games for the evening. I'll go through them pretty much in chronological order.

Between Two Cities
A clever tile-drafting game where you build two cities, one with the player on your left and another with the player on your right. You end up gaining the value of the lesser of your two cities.

It's a clever hook and makes for a fine balancing act. You are at once collaborating and competing with the other players which gives the game a very positive and sporting vibe at the finish.

It does have a steep learning curve (the scoring rules are very important to know from the outset and take some time to explain) but the game itself is pretty fast and intuitive. And the "gentlemanly" nature of it makes it a delight to play with no hard feelings at the end.

Escape From Atlantis
This game got a gushing review from the Shut Up & Sit Down crew (they review board games and stuff) which meant we got people to play quite easily. It has also been around for over 30 years and it stands up very well.

A hex-based game, your handful of little dudes start on a sinking island and try to swim or sail to safe harbour. But terrifying sea monsters and sharks and whales live in the water ready to bugger up your dudes. Added to which, the island is not only sinking but about to blow up, And your dudes all have secret values that you might lose track of during play. Oh no!

It's a load of fun. The pieces are vibrant and the gameplay is tight. But a special mention goes to the tiles. As the island sinks the beach tiles get removed, followed by the forest tiles and then the mountains. The designers could have left it there but instead they decided to make the forest tiles taller/thicker than the beaches, and the mountains are bigger again. It's an obvious representation of the shape of the island and made us all go "Ooh, nice," as we imagined the water rising.

Dead of Winter
I've been wanting to play this for a while and had the good fortune of having two old hands play with us who recommended exchanging the Crossroads story cards with the app which they'd conveniently brought with them. It was a good choice.

Dead of Winter is a post-apocalyptic survival game where you try to maintain a small community trapped in a frozen zombie nightmare. You'll have several survivors who'll go out scavenging or stay home and man the barricades whilst the game itself tries to screw with you all.

It's presented beautifully and the stand-up pieces are a treat. The expansive cast and the random events of the Crossroads deck/app add depth  to the experience and offer good replayability.

The best part of the game for me is that you can get most of the way through the game and do quite well, but then the whole group decides to start throwing spanners in the works. This inevitably screws up everyone, but the train wreck is so fun to watch that you end up joining in.

Secret Hitler
Secret Hitler is a tactical bluffing game of vote-passing and secret identities. It fits somewhere next to the Resistance on the shelf, but is a different beast again.

I'm exactly the type of person you want playing this game. I'm like the guy who rocks up to the poker table with a wad of cash and no idea what the suits are. I don't play Secret Hitler, it seems; I get played, and played like a damn fiddle.

It was a simple printed set, but did the job well. Even so, I'd like to try it again. I'm a little concerned that downtimes between turns can get a bit laboured, so I want to test that further.

Dexterity Games
There were a large collection of wacky dexterity games available and most only took a couple of minutes. They were a great tonic to the more complex games in the main hall and required little knowledge to play.

  • Nelly: A balancing game where you put turtles on top of a hippo called Nelly. Run out of turtles and win. But it's a lot harder than that. Nelly's back is very slippery and it seems hard to balance any more than two turtles up there. A cute game, but I probably wouldn't buy it.
  • Lift It!: A building game where you use a little plastic crane to stack various plastic shapes atop each other. Cards determine the construction you'll make along with a time limit. The big draw is attaching the crane to your face and bobbing your head madly to try to build your design sans hands, but you don't get to do that very often. Not quite as fun as it looked.
  • PitchCar: A racing game where you flick wooden token cars around a track. Simple and surprisingly addictive, but the opportunity to customise your track adds a challenge for those looking for more. Very nice.
  • Bugs in the Kitchen: There's a bug in the kitchen and you'll need to adjust a maze of cutlery to entice it into your trap (but not your opponent's trap). But the real charmer is the funny little hexbug; a battery-powered roach that jiggles and shimmies about the maze you make, sometimes in the most silly of ways. Alas, hexbug needs a bit of work and tends to get caught in corners. The idea is great and my opponent and I fell in love with hexbug himself (we called him a boy), but sadly hexbug needs a better design. Really worth trying at least once.*
  • Riff Raff: Another balancing game, this one involving a delicately balanced sailing ship that is incredibly pretty. There are a helluva lot of pirate ship balancing games, but this seems like one of the few designed for older players. The variety of balancing pieces is fantastic and the ship itself is striking. Quite the challenge, too.
  • Flippin' Frogs: My favourite of the dexterity games, Flippin' Frogs sees you launching rubber frogs from little catapults at the branches of a spinning tree, which is precisely as fun as it sounds. You only have a limited time to get your frogs up there before the tree snaps up its branches, potentially dislodging your frogs in the process. I loved this game. The little rubber frogs look silly and are thoroughly non-aerodynamic, whilst the tree sometimes seems actively malicious. 
* Hexbug: an element of a game that manages to be the most satisfying and charming part of the experience despite being utterly incapable of achieving its design function.

There are dozens of different card sets and names for this game (we were using the Ultimate Werewolf set) but I tend just to call it Werewolves. It's a great game and a classic staple, but it also has several fundamental problems.

The first is player elimination, which is not so bad with a dozen people and a more intimate environment, but it can be frustrating in a 20+ player game. It's entirely possible to wait all day for a game, sit through a fifteen minute rules brief, get five minutes in and be eliminated with no further interaction. That can suck. And in an environment where I can wander off and join another game almost instantly, it doesn't make me want to hang about and meet all these awesome new people (and isn't meeting people part of what makes this hobby great?)

The second (related) problem is what I tend to call the Big Brother effect and it simply means that the more interesting and entertaining people tend to get eliminated early on, leaving the second half of the game a bit boring for the eliminated players who now serve as audience.

There's one other issue and that's the downtime. Night scenes interrupt the flow of the game and introduce regular pauses of silence between the more exciting day scenes. Certainly the Night scenes are interesting for those with special powers (such as the werewolves, the seer and the bodyguard) but it's simply a tense "loading time" for humble villagers.

Regardless of these problems, Werewolves remains a classic experience and if you do manage to survive (or better yet, actually win) then you honestly feel like you achieved something (I did manage to survive and win and it was the best game of Werewolves I've ever played. I've also never felt such a personal vendetta against the werewolves.)

But where Werewolves fails, another game shines...

2 Rooms and a Boom
This is the social politics game that has knocked Werewolves for six and keeps everyone involved at all times. In a lot of ways, 2 Rooms and a Boom is the convention game of 2015.

The basic premise is simple and the game takes about fifteen minutes. Everyone is given a card with their hidden role on it, separated into Red and Blue factions, and then the players are randomly assorted into two rooms. The rooms get to exchange players at regular intervals until the time is up and the Red Bomber explodes. If the Blue President is in the same room as the bomb, Red Team wins; otherwise the President survives and Blue team are victorious.

The game is often a tense standoff of secret card revealing, bluffing, deduction and political double-dealing which rewards both the loud scene-stealer and the quiet observer alike. Multiple other roles can be introduced (including grey factionless ones) and all of these extra roles change  the dynamic of play.

I've yet to encounter an officially produced deck (though one does exist) but it is incredibly easy to whip up your own. You can even just use a deck of playing cards. Mind you, I would like to have the actual product, even just to support the game designers.

The problems concerning player elimination in Werewolves don't happen here as players aren't eliminated but rather just relocated, which is always an exciting opportunity. You're never a spectator while playing 2 Rooms and a Boom unless you want to be, and even then you're engaged in the game, watching, listening, and learning before finally choosing your moment to make a play. It's very good.

If 2 Rooms and a Boom has one outstanding issue, it's getting players to adhere to the time limits, especially when selecting hostages. The hostage process is easy for people to bugger up, and I think an impartial timekeeper/mediator is essential to the game. Without that person, things can get a bit cumbersome.

But don't let that throw you. 2 Rooms and a Boom is a great experience and the perfect way to meet new gamers at a convention. And it's fast enough that you'll play at least twice.

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