Its not a game! (But its still fun)

When talking about board games, one that gets brought up often and often riles me up is Apples To Apples.  A huge commercial success and a requirement for every floor of every dorm of every college campus, it’s not surprising that it comes up as often as it does when what I want to talk about is which specific Dominion cards I enjoy (Menagerie and Horn of Plenty).  One of the things I find myself saying is “It’s not a game!”, which is technically untrue.

It is extremely difficult to define what a board game is, but an essential component in my mind is competition (The most important component in my mind is that it is fun, but fun is a lot more nebulous. Also finding the balance of fun and serious competition is tough).  And while winning isn’t everything (there are games I have not enjoyed despite being ultimately crowned victor), it is important. Behind that large and potentially obvious statement is something a little more nuanced: not only does there have to be competition, but players need to feel like they have some stake in and influence over the outcome.

Here is where Apples To Apples (and the recently released Cards Against Humanity, or Apples to Apples rated R) falls apart for me.  Technically, it is a game: it has a set of rules,* you sit around and play it and there is a winner. And unless you’re playing with a bunch of assholes, it is generally pretty fun. But the winner doesn’t matter.  I say that not (only) as a competitive person that cares about who wins enough to have it be a column in the Standings, but also because I’ve seen “games” of Apples to Apples continue long after a winner was declared by the rules.

“That’s great!” you might say “It means everyone is having so much fun they wanted to keep going!”  And I agree, it IS great, but it also means that it isn’t really a game, it’s an activity.  AND THAT’S OKAY!  Gamers are defensive about their subculture and can be pretentious about it, so don’t take the label of activity as a bad one; some of the best things in life are activities** that in no way should have competitive parts to them.

But for it to be a “game”, you need to have competition, and for it to be a good game, you want to have both stake in and influence over the outcome.  So we hit the “stake in” part, lets move on to the “influence over.”

“I’m great at Apples to Apples, its all about knowing what sense of humor the other players have.”

Well, yes and no. If everyone is playing to have fun and be silly, then yes, the tools you use to win would be figuring out what other people might find funny. Except that not everyone plays that way (theres always one person who takes everything literally), and not everyone plays the same way throughout the game.  In fact, the biggest chance to effect the outcome is when you are the judge, and then you could turn the game into “which of these cards belongs to the person who is losing?”  But then you’d be playing like an asshole.

But in truth, I come here not to bury Apples to Apples, but to celebrate it for what it is: A really fun party time activity.  In fact, let’s go ahead and talk about fun party time activities, because they’re great!

The Drawing Game

This has been monetized recently as Telestrations, but I remember playing this game in highschool with pieces of paper and loving it.  The idea is simple: Everyone sits in a circle and writes a sentence.  They pass that to the person on their left, who draws a picture to convey that sentence.  They fold the paper so the next person can only see the drawing. The next person has to write a sentence to describe the drawing.  This goes until the person who wrote the original sentence ends up with their paper back.  What you get is a game of Telephone only with drawing and with 8 things going around simultaneously.  It’s hilarious, it’s easy, it’s relatively low investment with a whole lot of payoff at the end.

Brandon’s take on “Deformed Mexican Squirrel”

1000 Blank White Cards

I can’t remember how I found out about it, but 1000BWC has been a favorite small group activity for years.  This link will tell you all the rules and the suggested set up better than I could describe it, but for those who don’t feel like clicking: You have to make your own card game while you play.  Every card must have three things: A title, a picture, and what the card does.  New cards are made before each game and during each game and at the end of the game everyone gets together and decides which cards were the most fun and will get used in the next game.

Improv Games

Alright, so these take a little more bravery, but who doesn’t want to play a round of Busted Tee?*** or Bad Raps?  OK, so it may not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for funny non sequitors, you could do worse.

In sum,

If you’re looking for a silly game with a winner, go with something like Balderdash.  If you want a fun activity, feel free to suggest Apples to Apples, but don’t pretend it’s deeper than it is.  It’s fun, and that is enough.

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*I’m not going to go into too much depth on this, because I don’t want to write three or four more paragraphs on it, but another major gripe I have with A2A is that whenever I see it played in a group of 5 or more, there’s a disagreement on whether or not you’re allowed to lobby the judge, and how much, and what exactly you’re allowed to say.  Games with that much disagreement on the rules are bad games.

**Singing, grilling food, drinking beer, comedy, sex, watching TV, catching up with old friends, exploring a new place, building sandcastles, spending time with small children

***For the non improvisors in the audience, Busted Tee works like this: you stand in a circle and everyone chants “Whats on your Tee? Whats on your busted Tee?” One person describes an image “Okay, so its a clock, but instead of hands its got sharks” and the next person says the words that go underneath it “Every week is shark week” or “Ridgemont Highschool class of 1977” or something that either makes sense or doesn’t. Then the chants starts up and the person who was putting the tagline on the image says the next image.

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Mission Statement

Let me share with you part of an e-mail I sent some friends. It was sent to invite them to gaming one weekday, and possibly get some material for the site. It became something… more.

Any game good.  It’s a twitter feed.  A soon to be catalog blog (catablog) of board game sessions and musings.  A philosophical statement on the importance of play.  It’s a purposeful grammatical oddity that encompasses the simultaneous importance and delightful stillness that comes with loving a hobby so much.

And Josh and I want you to be part of it.

Everyone loved it. Everyone also thought it was ridiculous. “Shatner-esque” was the common descriptor. And yes, for an e-mail meant simply to invite people over for gaming it’s a bit ostentatious. But just because it’s a little grandiose doesn’t mean it’s not sincere.

Let’s break it down.

Any game good. It’s a twitter feed.

@Anygamegood is my personal Twitter handle. When I made it I hadn’t thought about using it much; it was just so I could contribute to a tech-themed improv show called Twitterprov. But I wanted to make a name that contained a sentiment I hold dear, while not being too long. When Josh came to me with the idea of co-writing a blog about our board games and our thoughts on them, I was immediately attracted to the idea. And I agreed with him that my Twitter handle was the perfect name for it.

A soon to be catalog blog (catablog) of board game sessions and musings.

Right, well, you’re reading it now. So this one’s obvious. And no, we won’t be calling it a “catablog.”

A philosophical statement on the importance of play.

Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga wrote a book called Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. I must confess I haven’t read the whole thing, but it does talk about the importance of play and games in the development of modern culture. The book is dense, and quite academic. So am I, at times. But I like my philosophy streamlined, and I take the marshaling of my words very seriously. Life is good, when you’re playing a game. Things are good, as long as you’re playing a game. Any game. Any game good.

It’s a purposeful grammatical oddity that encompasses the simultaneous importance and delightful stillness that comes with loving a hobby so much.

It took a long time to write this one sentence. It’s a heavy statement and, admittedly, a little obtuse when I realized that people don’t think the exact way I do. So let me elaborate.

It’s a purposeful grammatical oddity…

“Any Game Good” did come out of a search for a meaningful yet succinct Twitter name, yes, but it was also chosen with a degree of specificity.  It’s not “any game is good,” “games are good,” or “any good game,” even though those were all (probably) available. “AnyGameGood” was chosen because it’s quirky, and because it encompasses all the previous sentiments.

…that encompasses the simultaneous importance and delightful stillness…

As adults, sometimes we forget that we’re allowed to love silly things. We’re allowed to have an adult sentiment for things that even children know are silly. Imagine an infant, adamantly gurgling and spouting the adorable babble-speak that infants do, over something as simple as a red ball. The color, the newness, the triumphant feeling of success of throwing it 2 feet. Now imagine that you could have that same passion for something, anything, as an adult. You can. And you can be as serious as you want, and it can be as trivial and ridiculous as others tell you it is. Games can be simultaneously frivolous and fantastic, like a seemingly nonsensical statement delivered with the same gravity and purpose as the Emancipation Proclamation.

that comes with loving a hobby so much.

Board games are incredible.  Video games, pencil-and-paper RPGs, sports, lawn games, and frickin’ I-Spy are all wonderful (though out of the scope of this site).  And really, loving anything as much as I love games is a tad ridiculous.  So be it.  Games are good.  Gaming is good.  Any gaming is good.  And I’ll play any game, good or bad, and it will be good.  And I give thanks for all games.  Any game.  For it is good.  Any game good.

And Josh and I want you to be part of it.

And this line was written at the height of my hubris.  It sort of implies that I’m looking to bring new people on to the team.  My friends assumed they were adjunct editors of the site.

My point was that I wanted them to come over to play games.  Gaming makes you a part of something.  Gathering around a table with friends, making decisions in what everyone is treating as a matter of great importance, while knowing that it’s “just a game” (a phrase I hate, incidentally), makes for something wonderful, something good that can be found in any game.  Gaming makes you a part of AnyGameGood, a philosophy, a silly wonderful thing.

Good gaming, to any and all.

One of the Best Games I’ve Ever Played: Second Place

Note: It’s been a couple years since this happened. Not all the details are fresh in my mind. But I’ve told this story enough that it seems prudent to tell it here. Maybe for the last time.

Really, everyone reading this blog should know about PAX and PAX East (though I’ve included links for you just in case). When the East Coast version of one of the greatest new gamers’ conventions came to Boston I was very excited. Held in the Hynes Convention Center (before it was clear the venue was too small to house the whole thing and moved to the BCEC), there was far too much going on for one person to internalize. On day one I went in without a plan, missed a few cool panels, and wondered what I would do with the rest of my time.

On day two, I knew.

Tournament

Mayfair games was having a tournament for what is probably their most popular title, Settlers of Catan.* This wasn’t the PAX-standard 1 day fun-fest, with the winner receiving a medal and a previous blog post. This was a National Qualifier. The winner got an expenses paid trip to Origins and a ticket to compete in the National Semifinals tournament; the winner of nationals gets a trip to Essen Germany to compete in Worlds against the bar-none best players in the home of the game’s creation.

I love Catan. It’s the game that introduced me to the wider world of strategic board gaming. Before it was Monopoly, Sorry, Scattergories, Pictionary, and other family-friendly party games. Now it’s Carcassonne, Caylus, Puerto Rico, Power Grid, and countless other rich, complex and beautiful creations. And I wanted to be a part of this grand exhibition.

The format was as follows: 4 preliminary games of 4 people, attendance permitting. Wins and total score are tracked. The top 16 overall winners, determined by win count, then point count, go to the semifinals. Four tables of 4 players play, with the winner of each going to the final table.

Let the Games Begin

I play well, but lose the first game. I’m stressed about it, because I don’t know how tough the competition will be. I consider my 7 as possibly beneficial, but wins are what matters here. A switch clicks in my head. For the next three games I have a laser-like focus. I’m particularly proud of game 3, where I do a quick trade to get a ninth point built, then drop largest army for a two point bump, giving me the win and an additional point for the tie-breaker. When the prelims are done I’m at 3 wins and about 38 points. Despite the lack of sleep and crappy food I’m eating at the convention center, I feel amazing when I find I’m going to make it to the semis. The feeling is only slightly dampened by the realization that a bunch of people don’t want to play Catan the whole convention and bow out, leaving the lower folk to sneak in. It does become a point of contention in the semifinals.

I arrive at the convention to be placed in the enormous queue before the hall opens. The tournament is scheduled to start before the queue finishes, which worries me. The tournament heads have my number, and I’m able to tell them I’ll be there, quote, “even if I have to chew my way through.” They think it’s funny.

Semifinals

The player sitting across from me is Katie. I remember because it’s the name of my girlfriend, and because, as it turns out, she wasn’t able to make it to qualifiers but manages to step in to the semis since not enough of the qualifiers show up. I’m kind of pissed. I’m even more pissed when I realize quickly how sharp a player she is.

Lots of people have played Catan. Lots of people think the game is great, but fairly simple after 10 or 20 games. Lots of people think there’s a great deal of luck involved with the dice.

Lots of people don’t know the game.

There’s a great many variables to keep track of. In addition to resource and probability, there’s also the viability of specialized port strategies, total resource potential which lends to specific strategies, and most importantly, player behavior. The core balancing mechanic of Settlers of Catan is primarily of a social nature. The Robber Baron, and the tendency for trade, are driven by players, who are at times driven by personal feelings. The robber usually hits the player in the lead, and trades are usually more harsh for the breakaway leader, but that’s not always the case. Rude players get attention, vengeful players start vendettas, meek players get overlooked, and smart players know how to play this meta-game. So when, two turns in, Katie is nay-saying her own position and declaring she’s out, while maintaining a strong presence, I do not allow her to sway the masses. It’s obvious she knows the game, and despite not actually qualifying, she’s the one I keep my eye on.

My setup is strong, and personality is jovial, and my trades are good. I’m able to sneak the longest road in, while downplaying its use as a couple victory points that don’t actually earn me anything. A couple swift builds and port trades later, and I’m able to claim the win, faster than anyone else that round.

During the down-time, I’m trying to keep focused. I want to see the final board, I want to see what the total pips are for each resource, their proximity to associated ports, the overall potential of expansion vs. opposite port vs. city & dev card strategies. I’m praying for a victory on the last semifinal table by the guy from Nova Scotia, because he can’t take the prize as a non-US resident, and that doubles my chance for a trip to Origins. He doesn’t pull it off. The winner there is a… well, it’s odd. He’s non-descript. Tall-ish, white, blond hair, I think his name was John but I can’t be certain.

The final table is, in clockwise order; Me, Anna, John, and some girl who had just learned to play that weekend.

All Finals competitors got this t-shirt.  It’s faded, but the memory lives on.

The Final Table

The opening placement takes longer than I’ve ever seen. Everyone is amped and deep in thought. I’m nervous because Anna has opted for an aggressive strategy; she’s going for the same port I’m hoping to build on my earliest convenience, blocking my road and initial build and giving her that much more board space to work with. Our game won’t be decided on the 10th point; it will be decided on the 3rd. It’s a race for the two resources we need. We both know it. So while it isn’t a surprise, it was an unfortunate circumstance, that when I proceeded to roll a seven the first four (possibly 5) turns I had, I hit the same person. It made me feel like a jerk, but that one spot was more critical than anything else, and everyone knew it. I was vocal about lamenting that I had become the villain of the game (in hopes of garnering, if not sympathy, then some sort of understanding that would keep me from being villainized).

It was 9 points for me, 9 for John (mostly through victory points, but it was kind of obvious), while Anna and the other gal were far behind. And that’s when it happened. Anna targeted me. All barons went to me, all trades went to the other guy. She king-made the game. It was a bitter moment for me, one that I can’t see how I avoid. She stamps her setup right next to mine. She passes it off as strategy, but there’s no point other than to fuck me over. After 2 years, it turns out that while writing this I’m still a little bitter. And then I realize, all over again, that I played an amazing run of games, and I can be proud of what I accomplished; second place, one point from . And I have to admit, it was fun.

For his part, John was an amazing player. The nondescript description I gave earlier was meant as a compliment. In juxtaposition to my vocal, heart-on-my-sleeve style, John was quiet, stoic, observant, and a very strong opponent. I’m glad that if I didn’t win he did. Oh yeah, and the other gal got proposed to by her boyfriend right after the game, so yeah, she’s fine.

Finals players also received copies of the game. The winner got the game used for finals.

Epilogue

Mayfair holds this tournament every PAX East now. I went in 2011 and got to the semifinals. Anna was there, and snuck in at position 17 after someone dropped. She was at my table, placed right next to me again, and succeeded in boxing me out. I was vocal in my irritation, and while we griped over it, someone else took a development card victory from nowhere.

I didn’t compete in 2012. Too busy demoing board games for attendees.  But I’m looking forward to 2013.

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* I’m not linking it. It’s f*ckin’ Catan. It’s the blog background at time of posting. If you don’t know it, turn to the gamer next to you and ask to borrow theirs, because they damn well have a copy.

…Huh

I like games where you don’t have the final scores until the end. If you’re paying attention you can usually determine who’s winning, even who’s won before the final scores are tallied. But there’s something amusing about playing a game to the end, counting and re-counting the final scores, and then just sort of saying, “…huh.  I guess you won.”

I don’t track information, at least not consciously. I like to play games by instinct. I keep a vague notion of who’s making the most headway, what resources everyone has, and feel my way through the strategy as I play. So when I’m in a game with hidden scores the end can be surprising. So it was with our recent play-through of Puerto Rico.

There were four of us playing; Me, Josh, John Fraley, and G. All of us were coming from a game the week prior fresh in our minds. We know the rules, we got a glimpse of strategies we like and, as Josh has said, we knew just enough to get into trouble.

Fraley won the previous game, by a margin so thin that if we had missed a rule regarding the harbor (+1 per delivery, not per phase) he would’ve been in second by 2 points. As it stood, we couldn’t track how many points were lost to that, but we figured it was more than 3. Fraley has a strong analytical mind. His day job involves gathering, processing, and interpreting data, so in a game with many moving parts he usually keys into what works.

At the start of the game I assume he’s off to an early lead. His buildings all work for him, he’s trading well, and everything is staffed. I look like I’m in the dumps, after I’ve missed the boat on goods delivery, pun intended. I’m doing well economy-wise, and I’m looking to buy buildings to gain points and offset my shipping deficiencies.

Midway in I get my favorite two buildings, wharf and harbor. Wharf gives you your own boat to ship goods. Harbor gives you points for shipping goods. The strategy is obvious, and is part of the longest examples for rules clarification in the book. They’re also expensive, and not worth much if you get them too late, but once you have them they’re easy to leverage. Meanwhile Fraley has bought the first 10 cost building (and will buy another by the end of the game), G has a decent but inefficient plantation going; she’s got two coffee fields staffed but neglected to pick up a roaster until late.  Josh has a harbor of his own and is producing a lot of goods. He’s got a good head for role selection, but he trips up one turn with role selection.  He chooses craftsman, I see he’s got good to ship but his position is bad, so I take captain and he loses a great deal to spoilage. I ship when I can and try not to waste money on buildings that won’t help in the late game.

When it’s over, we all flip our points and count the numbers. I comment that it looks like Fraley ran away with it. His response was “I feel pretty good about it.” We break it down by trade points, building values, and bonus points from the large buildings.

the world in black and white

Huh. I guess I won.

Once it was done, Fraley and I had this stunned expression, as we both checked the points again. And again.  Fraley was close. If one were to point out the deficiency, you could just look at the points from goods shipping. I lost sight of that mid-game, and just tried to push as much as I could.

Eurogames like Puerto Rico pride themselves on the lack of random influence. All information is public, actions are chosen and shared by players, and everyone has access to the same material, starting plantations aside. When you win, it’s all based on your skill as a player and your ability to read the situation and adapt to the developments of the game, while following a strong strategy. Had I followed and processed everything in the game I would’ve known how it was shaping up. But the feeling of surprise at the end, and the rush of the thrill of victory after everyone had left, are the reason I love gaming so much.

Ignorance may be bliss, but the reveal can be a pretty sweet plum too.

Knowing Just Enough To Completely Screw Up

Imagine you’re visiting a city you’ve been to before, but not in many years. You recognize some streets and landmarks. You have a vague sense of where things are, but you still need directions on how to get around. You decide that for dinner you’re going to go out to a restaurant you went to once before. On the way, you realize you don’t quite remember where that restaurant was, but you have a vague sense, and you recognize some of the buildings nearby. Rather than stop and look at a map and reassess where you are and where you think you’re going, you rush in the general direction of things that look familiar. Your actions are bold! But, if we’re honest about this scenario, your actions are also likely to find you hungry and eating whatever fast food is around when you realize that you’ve been lost for the last hour and a half.

“Ok, so if we’re at downtown crossing, and we’re trying to get to the Aquarium…”

Sadly, I’ve had this experience recently in boardgame form. Let me explain:

Over the past two weeks when Brandon and I have gotten together to play board games, we expanded from the two of us to a small group of 4 or 5. And with the varying levels of skill and relative newness to board-gaming among the group (Brandon and I being huge nerds, John being an experienced player, Dan and G having played a few games but still relatively new to Euro style games) we decided to go with one of the classics: Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico is one of my favorite intro games because it has a lot going on but has the relatively simple mechanic of role selection. In addition, it seats 5 and has very little in the way of directly screwing someone over for the sake of screwing someone over; these are all things that I think were beneficial knowing the personalities of all who were in attendance. And while I hadn’t played PR in years (2009 is my best guess, but it very well could have been 2008), I had a sense for the general flow of the game and only needed a quick refresher on the rules. After all, I had played a great deal of Race for the Galaxy in the interim, and Race is basically just Puerto Rico in Space… right?

Amusingly enough, what I had done was set myself up for the opposite scenario as to what I did so well in my Ticket To Ride post. Rather than re-examine the game with a fresh set of eyes, I tried to follow strategies I had floating around in the back of my head. Rather than focus on the tactics of what other people were doing, I focused on what I thought they should be doing based on my flawed strategy* based on vague recollections from years past.

Turns out, Puerto Rico is a game based on a strategy of getting money early to develop an engine that gets you victory point chips late (if you want to read waaayyyy too much on the strategy and tactics of a game of Puerto Rico, I highly recommend that link).** And while I did build an engine, it was clunky and slow and by the time it got going, I was easily outmaneuvered in the late game. My very first play of the game was builder so I could get a building that I remembered to be strong (everybody’s gonna be jealous that I got the hacienda!) was a poor one, and by the time I had gotten some goods worth trading, no one was trading anymore.

Relative newbies to the field of boardgaming had figured out the underlying pitfalls of focusing on shipping much faster than I did. I had knowledge from Race that not only did not serve me, but blinded me when it became clear to others. Knowledge is power, but having only a little bit of knowledge and making assumptions off of it is dangerous.

A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool. – William Shakespeare

In sum: When playing a game, getting stuck in a routine rather than reexamining where you are won’t win you many games. And just like revisiting a foreign city, its best to double check the map before you go, and if you can’t find that favorite restaurant, you might be able to find a new path towards a good meal.

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*Quick note on terminology here. I’m using strategy to mean a long term philosophy that can be followed over the length of the game. Tactics are individual moves based on the current (and a few upcoming) turns. So for example, both PR and Innovation are tactical games, but Innovation does not lend itself to much strategic planning.

**In doing a little reading on Puerto Rico for this post, I ran across this and have a lot to say about it. Its coming in another post.

Era

My old boss and I used to play Dominion and Ascension after work. I always found my boss to be a little uptight, and with his work ethic I never thought I’d convince him to play board games at the office. At first we played at the end of the day when all the work was done. Then it was towards the end, when work was almost done and we could multi-task. Then it was at the end of an early day, where non-essential tasks could be put off until tomorrow. To an outside observer it may seem that we were goofing off, but I always thought that the team-building and personal connections we made while gaming were integral to our success as a two-man team.

Teaching a new board game is one of my favorite activities.  At some point I should clean up and post my old essay on the subject. It is a stark microcosm of the bond between teacher and student. When I taught my boss Dominion it felt amazing, empowering, as it was one lesson I could give him, as opposed to the multitude of lessons he had for me on the job.

When he took a position in Texas I was happy for him, and simultaneously nervous about how I would fill the role of two people, when he was already doing two person’s worth of work. The work took care of itself, however, and it wasn’t until later I realized what I was truly lacking was someone I could relate to through gaming. Every time I looked at the games, tucked away in our corner of the lab like a dirty little secret, I felt a twinge of regret, and eventually I removed them from the lab entirely, certain I would never find anyone interested in them at a place I spent a third of my life, give or take.

The lab recently brought on a team of interns. I didn’t get one, which sucks, but that’s beside the point. After a couple weeks I thought it might be fun to see if they were interested in board games after work one Friday. Two of them were very excited, and once all our work was done I jumped in to teaching Dominion.

So you’re saying running this $50,000 machine is like playing a game? Damn, Dominion’s only $40, I’ll go with that!

I forgot how much I missed making gaming part of my professional environment. Becoming reacquainted with the starting card set and watching people slowly figure out the basic strategies is always fun for me. And it made me realize that teaching a game, especially one as systematic and detail-oriented as Dominion, is akin to teaching junior scientists about the work I do. It validated the work I’ve done and the knowledge I have gained in my years of employment here. And introducing one of the finest board games of the current generation of gaming to new people again felt amazing, like inaugurating a new era of board game appreciation to my co-workers. The outcome of the game isn’t important; I won, but whatever :). It just feels good to bring fun back into the office.

I look forward to our next game.

One of The Best Games I’ve Ever Played: All Trains Go to Helena

In March of 2011, I attended the three day geekfest known as PAX East. I was a PAX newbie but quickly found that standing in line for hours to get a glimpse of a videogame I could buy in a few months didn’t get me too excited. What did excite me was the large station set up where you could rent boardgames for free and even more enticing, a series of tournaments set up. Settlers of Catan, Dominion, Race for the Galaxy and Carcassonne all piqued my interest, but the schedule had a four hour block in between Race and Dominion with a Ticket to Ride tourney eating up two of them. I hadn’t played Ticket to Ride in a few months but figured that it’d be a fun way to spend some time.

Two hours and three straight relatively easy victories later, I found myself in the finals for a game I had to doublecheck the rules for before playing my first game. Whats that? Never played? Well here‘s the full set if you need it. Its been awhile since you played? Here’s the quick refresher then.

Ticket To Ride

Here’s the board:

At the start of the game everyone gets three Destination Tickets, of which they must keep at least two. The tickets each have a start and an end point listed as well as how many points its worth at the end of the game.

Each turn, players may choose one of three actions to take. They may either:

  1. draw new cards (from the stack or from a layout of five tickets that are replaced as you draw them) into their hand,
  2. draw three Destination Tickets (and keep at least one of those three) or
  3. take a route using cards from their hand. Routes can only be taken if you have a set of cards that are both the correct color (gray routes it doesn’t matter what color, just as long as they match) and the correct number.

You score points when you take a route based on the size of the route (1 train = 1 point up to 6 trains = 15 points as can be seen in the above). Everyone starts with 45 trains and when they get down to 2 or less you finish out that turn and the game ends. At the end you add to your score the points on your completed Destination Tickets and subtract the points from your incomplete ones. Whoever has the longest continuous route adds an extra 10 points. High score wins. We all caught up? Okay, then lets get to this game.

Game: Ticket To Ride

Opponents: 4, all of whom I had bested at least once before. Each other game was a 4 player, but due to the lack of time and the informality of the tourney, the judges decided to just throw the two people who tied for fourth into the game rather than try to figure out a tiebreaker (I don’t blame them). So this was going to get tight and aggressive.

Starting tickets: Duluth to El Paso (10), Winnipeg to Houston (12) and Dallas to New York City (11). I quickly tossed Dallas to NYC since the other two seemed much easier both to complete individually and with each other.

My strategy in the first few games was pretty basic: connect destinations, avoid routes that look like they can be blocked easily, once routes have been secured, take more tickets. So I started to do that here, first getting the all important Houston to El Paso (this gives me multiple options on how to get north) and soon after grabbing the Winnipeg to Helena route (black cards were tough to come by, but blues were easy). Meanwhile one player dropped a few tracks in the northwest and one player made sure they got out of Miami, but everyone else was building small routes along the east coast. Raleigh to Pittsburgh, Atlanta to Nashville, Toronto to Pittsburgh, and New Orleans to Little Rock were all placed in rapid succession. As the board began to form I decided that my routes were not being taken, so I could take the more leisurely route and rather than try to go up the gray Houston to Duluth corridor, I would zigzag my way across, taking a few more turns for many more points.

By midgame I had placed more cars than anyone else by a large amount and I had Winnipeg to Helena to Duluth and Houston to El Paso to OKC. Very little development was happening in the midwest other than a lot of the Houston/Dallas/OKC/Little Rock area being claimed. I took more tickets and found both Duluth to Houston (8) and Kansas City to Houston (5). Both of which were practically on my route already.

The turning point:

Here’s when I made the choice that makes this game memorable for me.

Do I risk going back into the pile in hopes of pulling out another ticket I could get to (unlikely, given the mess on the east coast and the length of routes for the west coast)?  While I had won the previous games with the help of bigger tickets like LA to New York or Vancouver to Montreal or the ten point longest continuous route bonus, I figured this time:

I’d try something different.

I’d try something untested in my short time playing this game. I’d try to rush to the end and do it by playing high value routes. So with my massive pile of cards in my hand I started playing routes I needed: Denver to KC and Denver to OKC.

And then with a sort of embarrassed smile I announced: Helena to Omaha.

The guy who’s been running the tournament gives me a quizzical look. A few other players eyes bulge a little as they realize what’s coming. The focus has shifted from the hotly contested coasts to the suddenly sparse middle of the board. One player gets the Calgary to Winnipeg line and this causes another to throw up his hands in disgust. His big ticket has been crushed. People are no longer being sneaky about where they need to go and I block off another with a sheepish grin: Denver to Omaha.

Two players have now been blocked, one player is middling around along the east coast and won’t use a number of trains, and as people use the last of their tickets where they can, I play my final cars in a place that might annoy someone: LA to Pheonix, which causes another groan from the guy who was blocked once already.

The Final Scores:

The points are counted and the moment of truth is set to be revealed. Did I make a brilliant play? Did I royally eff this up? One girl reveals she got Seattle to New York AND Vancouver to Montreal (eating the New York to Atlanta ticket she started with though). My heart sinks a little. Two guys count their scores despondently, they know they’re out. One guy is surprised that despite having three east coast tickets and the longest continuous route, his lack of getting all his trains down has put him in a distant third. My count ends up being one point over the girl who took the northern routes. We recount and, we find its actually a tie in score, and that I get the win based on four completed tickets to two. Victory never tasted so good.

The Post Mortem:

This game featured something that I love: taking a game that you’ve played and finding a new way to win (even just barely). My previous games had been won with a large number of small destination tickets plus the longest route bonus, or with a long ticket or two. But in a suddenly crowded game and with my starting tickets I went for the win using base points more than anything. While others had a large number of small routes where the two trains were worth 1 point each, I got my trains to average out to be worth 1.98 points each. And while this was my goal from the beginning, only in the last few turns did it become clear there was a secondary benefit: I was the only one who was going to place all his trains.

Picking up 6 trains and playing them for a 6 length route takes 4 turns, while picking up 6 trains and playing them on two 3 length routes takes 5 turns (and if its a 3 a 2 and a 1 length route, it takes 6 turns). Those extra turns and extra trains are what propelled me to victory. And only in the last few turns did it become clear what was happening, which made the entire thing very satisfying.

Oh, and having a gold medal helps.

Ritual

There’s something special about opening a new board game. It’s different for everyone. Some rush through the packaging to get to the game, some take time with each individual component and tactile sensation. So it went with my opening and first play-through of Ascension: Storm of Souls.

The plastic wrap is removed with care, not torn at like a hungry animal. The fragile seam at the corner is plucked, and a finger (not a knife, it could damage the box) is dragged along the perforated edge. The plastic is wrapped around itself, balled up, and set aside.

The box itself is admired. The artwork, free of the dingy look the wrapping gives it, pops with vibrant colors and bold lettering. The cardboard is wrapped with a smooth paper, presumably to give the box a glossier finish while keeping costs down. By contrast the original game, Chronicle of the Godslayer, and the smaller expansion, Return of the Fallen, has a coarser feel, almost like vinyl, that I prefer. The paper molded to the Storm of Souls box is peeling around the corners, a regrettable but easily forgivable lapse in quality.

Something most people do not note, and nearly nobody talks about, is the smell of a new game; new car, new cologne, food fresh from the kitchen, and sometimes a new hard-bound book, but not a board game. But I take the time to enjoy that musty smell of new cardboard, plastic and ink. Most games have that earthy, slightly synthetic smell, but certain games have a distinct bouquet based on their components. The most striking game I’ve ever smelled was the reprint of Titan. Strong ink and chemical odors complement the bold colors and thick card stock and polyurethane used to make the components.

The cards glide against each other, as smooth as they’ll ever be in their lives. Lots of people put protector sleeves on their card games, and I see the point; you want to preserve your game. But the feel of the cards throughout the life of the game, from crisp and smooth, to slightly worn to faded and pliable, is something to be appreciated, like the aging of a friendship. Seeing the cards for the first time is like meeting new friends. The artwork, a new style for game artist Eric Sabee, has a distinct mural feel, with flowing lines and almost primitive imagery, lending itself to the story of the game; tales told by children and those connected to the land of a looming Nemesis poised to claim the land.

I’ve known people who are serious enough winning that they’ll digest as much information as they can before even playing. I have the opportunity to read the cards beforehand. A couple of them prove too interesting to resist, but I refrain from it for the most part. I’m looking forward to getting to know these cards, these new friends, through regular play. At least I know I won’t have to wait long; Josh is set to show up in 15 minutes. Just enough time to acquaint myself with the board and the layout.

In owning and opening a game, you become its ambassador. It’s on you to know the rules, explain the game, and setup the components. Storm of Souls has a few new mechanics from the original game, and a new board to orient them. As an expansion, seeing the new rules and updated artwork is akin to meeting an old friend after a year or two, and you’ve both grown up a little. Even the new fanatic cards look endearing in their own maniacal way. Josh arrives, and I explain the new mechanics, Fate, Events, and Trophies, as best I can. Josh insists on rifling through the deck to get an idea of the events available. He prefers to have a more thorough knowledge of the game, its possibilities and potential pitfalls, before we begin. I can respect that.

We play two games. It’s enough to get a sense of the general thrust of this expansion. Return of the Fallen introduces us to a deck-building game with fewer restrictions; it’s accurate enough to say the game is “like Dominion, but with unlimited buys and actions.” It gives us the potential for lengthy combos and a few strategies. Storm of Souls amplifies the options and potentially powerful moves available to you. Some monsters give one shot effects in the form of trophies that can be exchanged immediately or at a key point in the game. The four factions lend themselves to specialization a bit more, and events can provide benefits to people who have the right faction distribution in their deck. The aforementioned fanatic gives an event trophy dependent on the event in play, if any.

I win the first game. Josh has focused on a heavy Mechana construct strategy that doesn’t seem to pay off; the mechanics driving constructs this expansion seem to revolve around playing, discarding, and replaying them, and he isn’t able to get them moving. I recognize the prevalence of monsters in the center row, and am able to get good deck thinning with the Void and enough attack to push the win, 61 to 92.

Josh wins the second game. It’s close, but Josh builds his deck well, grabs the constructs that give great synergy, and makes a big push in the endgame to win 89 to 80.

I like the expansion, or at least what it tries to accomplish. There are more powers, more tools, and more avenues to grab points. The fanatic/event setup is neat, but a little under-used. There are so few events, and if we were playing with the base set and expansion they may never have come up. There are lots of opportunities to throw down a massive combination of actions and buys. The expansion felt longer than the base set, though that could be because I haven’t played it in so long.

I’m looking forward to playing again. I’d like to try combining the base set and expansion, and see how well the two mesh.