About Last Night: Unity Games XIX

Brandon:  Unity Games is a convention of sorts, though there aren’t really vendors or panels or stuff you’d normally associate a convention with.

Josh:  They seem to go with “event.”

Brandon:  That’s appropriate.  It is essentially a gathering of board-gamers, organized by the BoardGameGeek community, specifically the New England contingent.  It’s a sort of socialist gathering, in that everyone brings their games, and freely allows everyone attending to borrow and play them, with the implicit agreement that they will not damage or steal the contents.  It totally works.  I was introduced to Unity by a friend of mine when I first moved to Boston five years ago.  I have been attending it ever since.

This year’s event was held at the Doubletree Hotel in Danvers, MA.  Swanky place, it even has a giant indoor water park.  I got up around 8:00 and out the door by 9:00.  At 9:45 I’m playing the first of many games to come (which we’ll give quick reviews of later).

Josh:  This was my first year at Unity, and I honestly wasn’t sure to expect. All my details were, well, not details. Where, when, how much and Boardgames was about all I knew.  So I got up around 10 and left around 11. When I arrived, I put my coat down and immediately found Brandon playing Spinball outside of the main room.

Brandon: Which was a treat since it’s rare, expensive, and I will never own a copy.

Josh: A few other tables with different games were set up and a few people were milling around. The charity auction had a stack of 50 or so games and there was a table with two guys taking money and handing out nametags. I asked myself if this was really it and if maybe I’d end up at my girlfriend’s friend’s friend’s party that night after all.

And then I stepped into the grand ballroom, which was about the size of a football field and filled with about 500 people, all of whom seemed to be immersed in games. Oh. So this is what I’m here for.

Brandon:  Yup.  Unity was in Woburn the last few years, but moved here because there was more space.  IMO there still wasn’t enough.

While waiting for Josh I jumped into a game of Legendary with 4 other guys who have never played.  Quick review: it’s Ascension with Marvel heroes, and not very special.  But hey, new game!  That’s one of the 3 major things I have to do at Unity, play new games.

I’m anxious to get into a game with Josh, so he can start loving Unity as much as I do.  I think my wishes are granted immediately, as we find a 3rd person willing to teach us Eclipse, a pretty robust space exploration game.  So imagine my dismay when we find that the guy has only played it once, doesn’t know how to teach it, isn’t sure he has all the components, and the table we can find to play isn’t nearly large enough.

Josh:  Thankfully we got out of it with a switch to King Of Tokyo, a game I’ve heard as the “light” game that’s worth playing. I don’t remember how long the game took but it felt like 5 minutes and it wasn’t quite as fun as I wanted it to be considering that I had heard it was good, but at least now I know.  I suggested grabbing lunch, in part to find new gaming partners, and in part because it’s a biological necessity to eat and my body was reminding me of that. After a quick bite to eat I returned to the football field sized room and figured now was as good a time as any to figure out what I actually wanted to do here.

Brandon:  Which was a good idea, because I would have been content staying, gaming, not eating, and eventually wasting away.  As opposed to eating my sandwich and bouncing up and down in Subway while Josh wonders why he’s friends with a man-child.

See, Unity is a bit overwhelming.  It is essentially all the games, and almost certainly the people who want to play them (I never did get that Monopoly game off the ground in 2010 though).  Anyone who has tried and failed to get together a game night just once knows how great this is.  It also gives me that feeling of anxiety when I hit conventions; I can’t focus on having fun, because I’m too worried about the stuff I’m going to miss out on.  “Lunch?  Damn man, the demo of Donald Vaccarino’s mad scientist game Nefarious is demoing and we’re missing it!”  Or even better; “We gotta get more gaming in.  this closes at midnight, we’ve only got… 10 more hours!”

So maybe it’s just as well that we sort of split up when we get back.  Honestly I feel a little bad about it; Josh said at lunch that, while my priorities at Unity are to play as many games with as many people as I can, his plan was to play games with me, and also other people that would be fun to play with.  But he sees some improv friends, and I really want to try this Nefarious demo out, so we divide and conquer.

Josh: Keeping track of our afternoons and evenings in tandem is a logic puzzle that would give even expert solvers a tough time. Instead, let me tell you I had a lot of fun, and here are some of my highlights and thoughts on the evening:

  • I found my friends Nick and Casey playing Ginkopolis, which is the game that throughout the day is seemingly always being played near me. There were two games I had never seen/heard of before Unity that got a lot of buzz were definitely Ginkopolis and “that Mayan gears game” (later discovered that it was actually called Tzolk’in).

This ain’t your daddy’s Mouse Trap

  • My initial fear of going to Unity was who I was going to play games with. For me, playing a game with the right person is usually more important than what game we’re playing, so finding Nick and Casey (and their group of friends) was a godsend. I didn’t actually play a single game with either of them, but I played games with people they knew and got to avoid getting stuck in a game with someone who was too competitive or too slow or too smelly. Every game I played was with people I enjoyed who were friendly, smart and just the right amount of competitive. I’d play with any of them again.
  • Village (a worker placement game wherein part of your goal is to kill some of your workers so that they may be placed in the graveyard) may be the most in depth game I’ve played, or it might be a bunch of bullshit where it feels like you’ve got strategies but in fact you don’t. I’m not positive. That said, the guy who won is apparently “the guy who always wins” among his peers, so it might not be bullshit.
  • While we’re on Village: In most game groups there seems to be a guy who has a distinct style of play that when it leads to victory everyone says “oh man, there he goes again.” For me, it’s my friend Dan who figured out the Chapel Strategy in Dominion before the rest of us. In Village, the guy who won’s strategy involved hoarding cubes and then going to market when he could fulfill 4 orders and the rest of us couldn’t fill any. Final scores were something like 73, 51, 46 and 32. Second place isn’t much of a moral victory when first place was that far ahead.
  • Nefarious, on the other hand, I feel more confident putting in the “mostly bullshit” category. Which is too bad. The theme is cool and the gameplay is interesting, but the options felt extremely limited and I didn’t feel like I had much chance for strategy. I’d play again, but I wouldn’t buy it or advise anyone else to buy it either.
  • Factory Fun was played twice, because even in this gaming land of opportunity, where you can go find ANY game you want, this was so enjoyable that everyone agreed to take 5 and run it back. The gameplay is relatively quick, and the only major flaw I found in my two plays through is that the first two grabs seem fairly arbitrary (and if they are supposed to be, then why not just deal out two machines from the start?). By round three though, when you might want to let a part go, it really shines. And the expert maps are… challenging. If you played Pipe Dream on an old windows PC and enjoyed it, then you’ll like this game. Also, if you like yelling “it’s not a dump truck! It’s a series of Tubes!!”, then look no further.

Senator Stevens would be proud

Brandon: I had tons of fun too. Allow me to expound my earlier reviews, give my impressions, and address some of Josh’s points with a few of my own.

  • I remember distinctly a time when I went to Unity with friends and stressed about playing games with them.  We wasted time, didn’t get much in, and had to leave early.  So while I really like going and playing with friends, it’s one of those places where I usually end up throwing myself out to the crowd to find stuff to play and people to play with.  It forces me to be social, and it’s the most forgiving crowd; everyone’s there to game, without shame or hesitation.
  • Legendary.   I really want to like this, but after one play, I can’t imagine breaking out all the components when Ascension plays the same way and has less setup.  You have your starting decks, various heroes to get shuffled, the villain deck which has minions and major villains, the mastermind, the schemes and scheme twists, bystanders, and a big board. You flip villains into a center row, buy heroes, and fight villains if you have the strength, which at the start you almost certainly won’t. You’re supposed to be working together, as there is a global lose condition, but really, whoever gets the most points wins. It’s okay, but not worth the price and time, even with the old-school comic artwork that’s all over everything in the game.
  • Goblins, Inc. was another game I saw a lot of.  I don’t know how it plays, but I sat next to a game and heard, “okay, this turn you have that goblin pilot the head, then he can switch to engineering and begin repairs while we attack.”  I want to be able to utter things like that, that’s one of the great things about board gaming.  You play a goblin team and build robots to do battle with other goblins.  I don’t know about the game mechanics, but the theme sounds great.
  • Nefarious really is mostly bullshit.  I’m glad Josh and I agree here.  I can almost see the steps that led to it:  you have a game with a lot of mad science kookiness, but it’s thin on mechanics.  You have all these ideas that could make the game better.  So you throw them in as “twists” and have the players flip two over to modify the current game.  And you didn’t bother testing them, because hey, the game plays so quick, why bother?  And you end up with a half-game with a half-mechanic that ranges from boring to broken (with admittedly some good cards in the spectrum, not sure how many).  I’m just a little pissed that I was kept from gaming with friends to play it.  Donald Vaccarino made Dominion, for Christ’s sake!  He can do better.
  • The second major thing on my Unity checklist is to play games I have heard about, but won’t get a chance to play due to their high cost, scarce availability, or the knowledge that I could never get a group together to play them.  I didn’t even know Space Cadets was out, so I was super excited to play it.  It’s insanely complicated, and it wore out its welcome before we were done, around the 2 hour mark.  But there was someone to teach it, people to play it, and while it wasn’t the amazing experience I built up in my head, it was still a lot of fun, and I will definitely look to buy it. If nothing else it will be a cool exercise in teaching a complicated game to a group in a reasonable amount of time.

Everyone’s got a job to do. Not pictured: torpedo firing range, sensor kit, captain tearing his hair out.

  • Damnit I wanted to play Factory fun.  And I never did get a game of Eclipse.  Or Ascending Empires.  Or Galaxy Trucker.  I would see games of them going on, and be busy playing another game.  But I had fun.  It’s important not to lose sight of the forest for the trees here.
  • In the wee hours I played Ticket To Ride Nordic with Josh and Samuel, a guy I sort of know from curling.  I won.  It was pretty sweet.

The closing hours

After the Ticket to Ride game Josh headed out.  And for good reason, it was 11:00pm, maybe later.  I didn’t play any games after that (except one round of Loopin’ Louie.  I’m not proud of it).  But I did get to do the last and, I think, most enjoyable thing on my Unity checklist; teach new games.

There were a lot of Android: Netrunner copies floating around (at number 7 on BGG you better believe it), and a lot of people who wanted to play but didn’t know how.  It’s a difficult game to just pick up.  But I was able to help a few people through the initial stages of the game.  I also got to teach Carcassonne, and introduce my own meeple lexicon to a group.  And a few guys were playing Innovation for the first time, and I did a little Q&A for some of the more obscure rules (remember, you can’t get a regular achievement unless you have enough points and a card of that age or higher in your tableau).

Unity isn’t perfect. It’s perennially crowded, loud, and not terribly well-organized. This is what happens when you strip away the trappings of a convention. The booths, vendors, industry moguls and independent developers, the panels and stage shows, and countless advert handouts are shuffled off, and what we are left with is the mutual agreement of hundreds of people whose singular focus is to game. To play games. To teach games. To buy, sell, and trade old and new titles, ensuring that old games find new life, and new games can become old favorites. To devote as much as a full day in the pursuit of that spirit of gaming. It’s a full day of Any Game Good, and I think that says it all.

Unity Games 2011 (you know its from years ago because its so much smaller). My kind of crowd.

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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.