Two years ago I posted a thing about how I suck at vacations. I wrote it right after the family and I got back from an awesome trip to Disneyworld. Well, pretty much everything in that post is still true, and that’s why I’m writing this post today.
You see, I’m technically on vacation right now. Two days ago I drove 12 hours north to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to attend the World Boardgaming Championships. While I’m here doing what I LOVE doing, the kids and my wife are headed to the beach (we don’t actually have time this busy summer to vacation together - don’t say anything; we know it’s fucked up). I may or may not join them when I head back south - depends on how I feel. You know what I mean: it depends on whether I’m completely exhausted or not.
I’m having a fucking blast. I’m drinking great beer all day long that I bought from my buddy Eddie’s Ale Yeah! shop in Roswell, and I’m playing Twilight Imperium and a whole host of other games with Michael Buccheri, Matt Loter, Josh Look, Shellie and Al Rose, Bernie Frick, Wilson Knight, Rob Buccheri, Andy Waller, and a whole bunch of other people (you can see a few of them in the picture at the top.
Still, right this minute, I’m sitting at a Starbucks down the street from the host hotel, parked in front of my computer and logging time BECAUSE IF I DON’T DO THIS NOW I’ll be stressed out the rest of the week, beer and games and friends be damned. That’s how I am. I can’t help it. And it’s funny that all I have to do is write a short bit about writing a short bit, and I feel better.
There. I feel better.
Aha! If you come here often, you know that 12 days is a long time for me to go between posts. So why did I go that long?
Because I was at Atlanta Gamefest, playing the shit out of some games!
The list of games I managed to get under my belt between Thursday (the 5th) and Sunday (the 8th) is relatively short, because - as all of my gaming friends and acquaintances know and remind me incessantly - I prefer longer, deep strategic games. I would rather play one kick ass six-hour game than six one-hour ones. Besides, it seems to me that a lot of those shorter games are simply iterations of the same mechanics. So if you’re playing those, you’re playing the same game for six hours anyway. The way I do things, I don’t have to keep putting the game back into the box and then getting it out of another box.
So… here’s some of what I played: Sid Meier’s Civilization, Alien Frontiers, A Game of Thrones, Cash n’ Guns, Chaos In The Old World, 7 Wonders, Battlestar Galactica, Dominant Species, and Shogun. Not bad for four days of dice rolling, card counting, beer swilling, and smack talking.
All of those are excellent games, well worth trying if you want to play a board game besides Monopoly, Risk, Chess, or Sorry!, which is what sooo many people in America imagine when they hear the words board game. But what I’d like to focus on here are two of the “hot” games of the Fest, and how I feel about them.
First there’s Eclipse, the latest Euro-ized version of the epic ”space battle and exploration” game. Now, here’s the thing about Eclipse: I’ve heard many, many gamers saying in the past few weeks since Eclipse’s release (it was actually published in 2011) that FINALLY there’s a trimmed down version of Twilight Imperium, 3rd Edition - one that’s playable in three hours or less. Well, let me go on record as saying that Eclipse is, at its most distilled essence, NOTHING like Twilight Imperium. If you bought it hoping to get your TI:3 fix in half the time, you’re gonna be disappointed.
Sure, they both have hexagonal tile pieces for space systems, and plastic spaceships called Dreadnaughts and Cruisers. Sure, you have to explore and fight and advance your technology to better your society and naval capabilities. But as far as scope and mechanic, the games don’t compare at all.
Eclipse has a clever mechanic, and I REALLY like the modular way you can add on to your various starships to “beef them up”. I bought it and I played it and I like it enough to keep it, but it’s no Twilight Imperium. By sheer virtue of its streamlined mechanic, it simply lacks the variety and scope of TI:3. I imagine that after a few passionate plays, it’ll get shelved, and then only hit the table once every 3 months or so when me and my buddies get a hankering for that particular flavor of play.
The same thing happens with a lot of Euro games, as well as other games with slender but interesting “plots” - you play it, you figure out what works, you do that. And if you do anything else - anything outside of the “solid” strategies, you’ll probably lose, because the game’s dynamic can’t adequately support originality and diversity.
TI:3 and a lot of the games I play CAN support oddball strategies, and therefore they have high replayability factors. I’d play them every week if they weren’t so long (and like I said, length isn’t an issue for me, but it is for other people).
Gamers who know me associate me with Twilight Imperium, and if you haven’t guessed - it IS my favorite game. It may still be; I’m not sure, because it is exceedingly possible that Mage Knight might supplant it, if only for a while.
Here we go. Me on record again, saying that Vlaada Chvatil’s Mage Knight might possibly be the most brilliant fantasy adventure board game EVER. Practically every cool thing about the ancient game Magic Realm, without the overburdening minutiae. The conceptual ambition of Runebound and Talisman coupled with actual strategic depth. The variety of Magic: The Gathering without the need to always be buying new shit. And it scales well: you can play it by yourself - it’s that challenging and engaging. Or you can get a friend or three and take turns sweeping the countryside, killing orcs, leveling up, and bending the locals to your will. I can only imagine how HUGE this game will be once an expansion or two comes out.
It has only two problems as I see it. One is that if a player takes too long on his turns, the down time may seem exhorbitant. But you only get a few cards to play each turn, and I think once we all “get the hang of it” we’ll be zipping through turns like it’s second nature.
The other problem is length of play, which could run into 6 or 7 hours with certain scenarios. (Yeah - as if the game didn’t offer enough variety in its structure, there are about a dozen different SCENARIOS you can play.) For me, though, the time I spend playing isn’t really an issue. See what I said above.
Mage Knight was also published in 2011. Between it, Eclipse - which is solid even if it’s no TI:3 - and all the other awesome games published recently, 2011 was a great year for new titles.
Which I intend to play the shit out of in 2012.
Well, the weekend certainly didn’t go the way I thought it would.
Ordinarily, when you hear a statement like that, you figure something went wrong. Terribly wrong. But in this case… I THOUGHT the weekend would be fun, tiring, and full. I had no idea it would be so great that it would make the days before seem like a red blur and the days after seem like a gray haze.
On Thursday, I got there with my children - Madeleine and Eli - in tow. The Con had not officially started yet, but all my friends were slowly converging on the downtown Atlanta hotels where everything would take place - the Hyatt, the Sheraton, the Marriott, and the Hilton. In the galleria of the Hilton (downstairs), I met up with my friends Tae and Charlie, and we set up some Heroscape terrain so that Madeleine and Tae’s son could wail on each other with painted plastic miniatures and some dice. That went on for a couple of hours, and then my wife Aida came and took the kids home. After that, the place started filling up, and soon I was drinking beer and playing games (specifically RuneWars) as planned. I left at about 1 in the morning, went home, and climbed into bed to charge up for day 2.
Friday consisted of a morning full of logistical movement. If I have any complaints about Dragon*Con and my status as a Dragon*Con volunteer, it’s that I have to do all this logistical movement. You see, I supply the Con with a number of games, and before I get to sit down and start playing, I have to haul all my games to the library, check them in, and make sure my checklist matches what’s on the shelves.
I’d complain, but when I hear horror stories of how long the lines are to get entry badges into the Con, I thank the powers that be and throw another game onto the cart.
The rest of Friday went the way I expected: I played a bunch of games, started making a dent in my cooler of beer, met some new people, had loads of fun with the people I already knew. Then I stumbled upstairs to the room I was going to share with my best bud Jay Elgin, and crashed.
Another part of what I do at Dragon*Con is run these outrageously huge games of Twilight Imperium. On Saturday and Sunday, that’s what I was scheduled to do. So at noon Saturday, I laid out the map of the game - you can see Seth Rogen playing it at the top of this post - and laid into 9 or 10 hours of galactic conquest and political negotiation. I’m not gonna bore you with a blow by blow of the game - it bores me a little to think about it in retrospect. In sum: the Muaat player played like a kid hitting a piñata, Seth Rogen played the Xxcha, Kevin didn’t win and I did. Oh, and Jay rolled dice like shit.
After the game, I started drinking more beer - THIS time in celebration, not of my victory but of my impending… birthday. That’s right, folks. On September 5th, 2010, while attending the largest science fiction and fantasy convention in the United States, I turned 40. And THAT is where the weekend diverged from my expectations.
I only told a handful of people - maybe 20 - that it was my birthday. But between word of mouth and people overhearing other people wishing me well, I couldn’t go anywhere in the Hilton without someone lauding my nativity. Now I kinda know how Jesus feels on Christmas. A lot of Saturday night/Sunday morning is a jumble, but I remember singing Silversun Pickups in the Rock Band room. I remember Mike Barnes’s entourage following me to the Rock Band room, only to get kicked out because they were drinking. I remember a longish conversation with my buddy Peter about how much we like Dogfish Head - although he likes Palo Santo and I don’t. I remember that Jennifer Sellman left her ID at Hooters, and I remember Eddie’s truck.
That’s about it. All else was a fantastic mish mash of Happy Birthdays, smiles, and costumed maniacs.
Then came Sunday. Again, I stumbled down to set up Twilight Imperium. But then something awesome happened: while I was setting up the game and collecting entry fees, up rolled a cart surrounded by a large group of people. And on top of that cart was a huge birthday cake, baked in the shape of a game of TI. The next thing I know, 60 or 70 people are singing the Happy Birthday song to me while several hundred more look on, all likely wondering what the hell was happening.
Was I A) surprised B) blown away C) touched so much that I had to fight back tears (crying in front of bunch of geeks would be BAD, BAD)?
The answer is D: all of the above.
My friends from Americus - Elizabeth, Ray, and Stephanie - made me the best birthday cake I’ve ever had, and with the help of Jay served it up to me and the Con in a flourish that would make Siegfried and Roy envious. I was and still am without adequate words to describe how I felt that moment, and how I still feel today, even though Dragon*Con is over (until next year!) and even though I’m a little bit sad and a lot sick (the cold Eli gave me is raging still). They say that your 40th birthday is often somehow very special. And I thought mine would be, since I’d be celebrating it during one of my favorite times of the year. But the outpouring of love and generosity and friendship that I received both humbled me greatly and filled me with immense pride. An irony I think you can understand without me going into detail.
So I won’t. Instead, I’ll end this post with a general thank you to everyone who wished me well on Sunday, and then a little shout out - kind of like the ones you see on the jackets of CD covers - for a few well-deserving, specific people.
To Elizabeth, Ray, Stephanie, and Jay: You made my day. You made my Con. You might have made my year.
To Chris: I know you wanted to sit down with me and enjoy some quiet conversation. I’m sorry it proved impossible, and I promise we’ll do it. And yes, you can buy.
To Phil and Omarr: Thanks for all the opportunities. I’ll see you guys next year.
To Tae and Charlie: Didn’t see you to say good-bye. So, good-bye and I’ll see you in January (at the latest).
To Kevin, Jay, Sean, Ray, Steve, Joshua, Garand, Alex, Travis, Jonathan, Allen, Vince, James, and Robert: The game is great, but it’s people like you that make me want to play it so much.
To Jerry and Jeff: You frakkin’ toasters!
To Peter: You owe me a beer. I think.
To Eddie: Next time, I’m gonna figure out a way to put it in neutral and let it roll backwards a few yards.
To Brian: You never gave me your keys back.
To Jennifer and her friend: Did you see the show? I bailed. Did you get your ID?
To Freitag: The offer is there. You pull an all-nighter, you get in free.
To Aida, Madeleine, and Eli: Someday you’ll really share this with me. I look forward to it.
To the Con organizers: Mail the damn badges already. So what if a few get counterfeited? You’re making boatloads of money, and one day you’re gonna have a fatality in those obscenely long lines. Will it be worth it?
To that fat girl who made the comment about gamers while we were waiting for the elevator: I’m a gamer, and I know why you can’t get laid at Con.
To the kid who just walked up and helped himself to a piece of cake: Sure, go ahead.
To anyone I’m forgetting: Thank you, bless you, may the Force be with you, nanoo nanoo, live long and prosper, go forth and multiply.
When last we left off, I was DESTROYING Ben, Jason, and Andy in Twilight Imperium. I had 7 out of the 9 points I needed to win, I had my Secret Objective – and I didn’t tell you this part, but I’d also blown up Andy’s Space Dock on the planet Arcturus, which was enough to get me the 2 points I needed to bring it all home.
Then the phone rang.
Now, I have a policy that when the phone rings, unless I am absolutely unable to, I answer it. I may shoo you off as soon as I’m on with you, but I will pay you the courtesy of at least acknowledging that you called. Unlike Michael Barnes.
You can test me if you want….
Anyway, it was my wife Aida and I answered it – with every intention of saying hey and then shooing her off so that I could get back to the game. I love her, but when I’m in the middle of something like Twilight Imperium, it’s difficult to demonstrate my love – the plastic pieces are calling, my friends/opponents are waiting, and it’s not fair to her that I’m only half listening.
Unfortunately, in this instance, I couldn’t shoo her off; something was up, something akin to a minor midlife crisis: Aida was concerned about her future, her well-being, her health, etc., and she needed me to listen to her vent. I stepped away from the table and strolled around the gaming room, listening – just listening – like a good husband should.
I hope she felt better after that; I’d like to think she did.
I hope it was worth it, too, because when I got back to the TI3 table 15 minutes later, Ben had devised the most elaborate plan imaginable to take my Home System, using Andy (naturally) as an unwitting accomplice. In TI3, if you don’t control your Home System, you can’t score any more points….
I sat down and Ben casually mentioned that he was going to take my Home. I stopped, and for several long minutes stared at the board, breaking down permutations and maneuvers and possibilities. I couldn’t see HOW he could do it, so I confidently continued playing for my win. I figured he was full of shit.
Ten minutes later he had a huge fleet in my Home System and I was locked out.
Now… ordinarily, this wouldn’t be that bad – even though this was a qualifying round for the TI3 final the next day. Except for two things:
1) There is NO WAY Ben and Andy could have concocted a plan like they did had I been at the table. But I wasn’t AT the table….
2) In most games, I would have had to sit there, trying to get my Home back for maybe an hour at the most (I finally got it back the same round Ben crossed the 9-point finish line for the win), but as I mentioned in my previous post, this game took nearly NINE HOURS. I literally sat there for nearly FOUR HOURS, unable to score a point and trying desperately to get back in the game my with a scant fleet and almost no resources. Four hours of just sitting there, suffering.
I think I would have enjoyed having bamboo wedges shoved under my fingernails just about as much. And if you’d have been me and this had been your first or second or third game of TI3, I’d understand completely if you swore you’d never play the game again.
Okay. I’ve drawn this tale out into three whole posts. And to be honest, as much fun as I had at the WBC, the memory of it is fading and other things are shoving my WBC adventures to the back of my mind – things like last weekend’s gaming session (more Twilight, which I won, plus Smallworld, Dominion, Tales of The Arabian Nights, and Middle Earth Quest), my daughter’s first day at school, and my renewed enthusiasm for my novel. So I’ll simply share a few brief highlights with you and then wrap this up.
Charles Jenkins is one of my oldest and dearest friends. He lives in Pennsylvania, though, so I only get to see him about once a year. He came down for a few games on Friday and Saturday, and I gotta say – Charles hasn’t changed. In fact, I’d like to apologize now to that guy who was sitting with us at the bar Saturday night. That joke about hollowing out a turd and filling it with “cream” was in poor taste. But that’s Charles and me together for you.
I don’t know what I enjoy more – playing the game of Descent, or the attention all my painted pieces tend to get at conventions. I’m no Richard Launius, but I’m fairly proud of my figurines – and painting them relaxes me kind of like knitting does for some people. The picture here features some of my work.
Battlestar Galactica with Canadians
Is fun. Bob, Dan, and Mike – if you’re out there, thank you for a riotous game that cracked me up and made me very happy, eh.
Everyone who I met at the WBC – thanks for a great time. I WON’T be back next year, since it falls on Aida’s birthday, but I’ll be around.
I’ve been thinking even more about how much I liked Michael “Malloc” Buccheri’s assortment of friends, who are my friends now. Ironically, before I left I HAD been feeling a little down, because I’d just had a guy tell me that he didn’t want to hang out with my gaming group anymore because he thought I (we) were – and I’m almost but not quite paraphrasing here – vulgar, sarcastic, and apparently needful of making myself (ourselves) feel good at the expense of others.
Believe it or not, and this is gonna surprise even the people who know me well, I’m sometimes prone to crippling self-analysis. So that guy’s remarks actually made me stop and wonder whether me and friends were too vulgar, sarcastic, and downright mean.
Then I met Malloc’s crew and I fit right in, even with Rob Olsson, who’s about the sweetest guy you could ever meet. In fact, now that I think about it, I’ve never had much of a problem, even though I’m a 30+ gamer who likes fart and sex jokes and who has no problem with banter and bravado as long as everyone’s sensitive to those gray areas that are occasionally off limits (like, no mama jokes at a table where one of the guys has lost his mom, and no fat jokes unless you’re ready for them to come right back at you).
So now I offer thanks to Malloc and the others. The bravado and bluster is (almost) universal. And that guy who said that crap about me and mine? Well, he’s just a giant pussy.
As I indicated in my first post about this, I was staying in a separate hotel thanks to Jay. My room was GREAT, but the hotel itself was a typical chain hotel – lots of comfort but no character. The Lancaster Host, where the WBC took place – had character in spades. While we were there, the whole place was teeming with people, all of whom shared a common interest – games, and many of whom had no problem with having a beer or six with friends. The hotel offered us daily buffets of artery-clogging food which we devoured without remorse. There was a pretty cool bar where you could get a decent beer after yours were “lifted” and you got tired of Natty Boh. And there were rooms – spacious, well lit rooms – full of games and people playing games, laughter and shouting and fun.
Absolute Heaven. I knew I was in for a treat when Malloc met me at the door with a Dogfish Head 120 Minute in hand.
First Session Report – Fucking Wormholes
Now, if you don’t know Twilight Imperium, some of this next bit is gonna make your eyes glaze over and your tongue loll out of your mouth. So I’ll use as many swear words as possible to make it interesting to the layman.
On Tuesday, after getting some much needed sleep, I sat down to play my first “qualifying heat” of Imperium, heretofore to be referred to as TI3 (Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition). I was playing the Mentak – one of my least favorite alien races, but the most “militaristic” that I drew. At conventions, I gravitate toward military races instead of peaceful ones, because a strong military is your best deterrent for those fuckers who think they’re playing Risk and who’ll just attack you because they think that’s the way to win.
To my left was Jack Jaeger, who looks like the dude from The Mentalist. And yes, his last name is Jaeger - that was not lost on me. Across the universe was a hybrid of newbie (Jeff Arnold) and Malloc, and to my right was Rob Olsson.
To understand how I eventually lost the game to my favorite asshole, Malloc (and the guy who was essentially just rolling his dice, Jeff), you have understand the game board/map. In TI3, there are Wormholes – a lot like the ones in Star Trek – which establish adjacency between two “systems” or spaces, even if those systems are across the table from each other. Well, in Malloc’s special map, there were 4 “Wormhole Nexuses” – spaces that were separate from the rest of the game board and only connected via Wormhole. And in each one of those was a planet which carried a Technology Specialty. To win, I needed SIX planets which had Tech Specialties, so it made sense for me to lurk in the Wormholes. By Round Five, I had pretty fucking big fleets of ships sitting in a couple of those spaces.
I was poised to strike the two planets I needed to round out my six, therefore scoring my “Secret” Objective as well as a “Public” one AND taking an Artifact (worth a point) from The Mentalist. Game over.
But the Mentalist must have read my mind, because when the next Political Agenda got presented to the Galactic Council, he and Malloc and Rob (and Jeff, sort of) voted to CLOSE THE FUCKING WORMHOLES, thus cutting my two big ass fleets off from the rest of the universe for the REST OF THE FUCKING GAME.
Second Session Report – Divorcing my Wife (Not Really, But Still….)
I took second in that game – a strong second which eventually guaranteed me a place at the final table. But I didn’t know that at the time, so on Wednesday I opted to play another game in hopes of winning a first place slot in the final instead of my then tenuous second.
This time around I faced Ben Stephenson, a guy named Jason, and a British? guy named Andy. We started late morning, and this time I was the Barony of Letnev – my favorite race. Also, I had an EASY Secret Objective (Expansionist). This game, like the first one, was in the bag.
Now, I will not cast aspersions unless provoked (OK, I will, but not in a public forum), but to give you an idea of some of what I had to deal with in this game, let me describe one particular situation that occurred.
A Political Agenda came up. It went like this: If we voted FOR, and it passed, then Mecatol Rex – the most important planet in the game, and one that is vital to a significant number of Secret Objectives – could NEVER be invaded the rest of the game. What that meant was that if it passed, Jason and Andy could NEVER score their Secrets, because both of their Secrets had to do with Rex. Ben and I had already made it abundantly clear that our Secrets had nothing to do with Rex, so naturally we were gonna vote for it.
And yes, at this point none of our Secret Objectives were not so secret.
Anyway, Andy votes FOR.
Jason is livid. He asks Andy WHY he would do that. He explains to Andy the ramifications of voting FOR – it will pass and they’ll be shut out of those points for good.
Andy says, yes, okay….
Jason asks Andy how he’s gonna vote. Andy says… FOR.
I swear to God, Jason was gonna come across the table. WHY, he asks, would you vote FOR?
Andy stares at him. Blank face. A face that would become familiar to us over the course of the game.
TI3 gets a bad rap for being a long game, but we’ve found that when everybody knows what he or she is doing, and pays attention, and moves quickly and decisively, the game usually only takes about an hour per player.
We started at around 11 a.m. We finished at 8 p.m. And you understand now part of the reason why.
And if that wasn’t torture enough, I spent the last 4 hours of the game at 7 points (out of the 9 needed to win), with fucking Ben sitting in my Home System.
And THAT was my wife’s fault. I’ll tell you why next time….