To put the critique below in context, keep in mind that Game Storm is manned by a group of volunteers, most of whom have been doing this for the last seven years. Objectively, it looked like all of the congoers were having an absolutely great timing accomplishing what they set out to do: hang out with a bunch of gamers and play games. That said, the following speaks to potential areas of improvements.
Location: I was bummed when they announced that they were moving across the river to Vancouver, but when I found out that the hotel was a short walk from the final stop of the Portland bus, I approached with an open mind. What a pleasant surprise - I love downtown Vancouver! It has that small city feel that I crave to return to. It felt like I went 20 years into the past – no cell phones, no face piercings, no general thuggery, etc. – although the area was a bit lacking in demographic diversity. Since the hotel sold out, I stayed at the nearby Hilton, which was just a cigarette away (that’s six minutes to you) and next to a large beautiful park that hosted a market on Saturday and Sunday. It was nice to get away from the gamer crowd – there was a seniors convention at the Hilton that weekend – and I like to pretend that Paris used the sheets just before I did (that might explain my current "itching" problem).
Compared to the previous location, the board game space was further away from the rest of the con – registration, RPG crowd, hospitality room – giving it the feel of a mini-con within a con, roughly the size and focus of BGG.Con. I definitely missed having the rooms that hosted the panel sessions nearby, as it was always worthwhile to pop in when between sessions. Fortunately, they moved the game library directly into the boardgaming room, whereas previously it required a bit of a hike to get a game and bring it back to the open gaming area. The biggest drawback compared to last year was not having smaller side rooms available for key boardgame events, such as KC’s two-player tournament. Overall, I though the previous site was slightly better, but I would prefer to stay in Vancouver again. Grade: A-
Logistics: The Game Storm crew had long perfected most of the logistic items (game library, registration, etc.), but where they made the big improvement this year was pre-registration. Not only did I pre-register with Paypal, but I was able create a schedule for myself under my account that I could revisit, revise, and print out. Although the staff was a bit slow in the initial setup of the boardgame room on Friday, I have no real complaints here. Grade: A
Eats: I was really excited when they introduced the hospitality room three years ago, but I was a bit disappointed with it this year – and I’m not just talking about the absence of frosting for the animal crackers. The availability of food and beverages was very inconsistent; I don’t know whether the cause was lack of funds or lack of runners. Unfortunately, there were no nearby restaurants akin to Jantzen Beach’s Original Joes (Bento/wrap joint), and the places that were a 10-minute walk away were hard to find. Fortunately, the farmer’s market had a lot of good options, including a great BBQ joint; however, there were no late-night options without traveling across the bridge back to Oregon. The Game Storm program booklet should have a map of the surrounding area showing food places (apologies if it is there already; I never read the program that closely). Grade: B-
People: There was a healthy mix of different types of gamers and games to choose from. Compared with previous years, there were many more Eurogamers. It’s hard to believe how far the hobby has come in the past six years. I have to say that I was wrong with the skeptical outlook I posted on BGG about there being too many events. Few events got cancelled from what I saw, although some events got a disappointing turnout while, as I wrote about previously, there was plenty of open gaming going on with the Eurogamers. It’s great that the hobby is growing, but I may be done with running events. I don’t want to have to predict what games folks are willing to sign up for; it’s just too much work for me to prepare for an event and lug games along. A big plus for the boardgaming crowd was how little eating there was in the room itself; one of the disadvantages to having restaurants nearby is that folks will tend to be more likely to be the food (usually consisting of vast quantities of grease and/or onions) back to the room. Grade: A-
Gaming: Easily the best opportunities for gaming of any Game Storm I have attended. Unlike previous years, there was a full crowd all the way from Friday afternoon through Sunday evening, including late night and early morning. There were Euros, abstracts, conquest games, fantasy games, “Ameritrash” - the whole range. The only knock against the selection is that most Euros being played were those released by American publishers (i.e., those I already have had an opportunity to play with my group). Compared to the national Euro-centric cons I have attended, it was difficult to find a more obscure import being played. Any issues I had with the quality of events were more than made up by the quantity. Grade: B+
In the final assessment, I would give the con a grade of A-. The slate of events was far from ideal, but the organization of the con kept things running smoothly. Most importantly, for three days, it got my mind completely off of home and work issues, and boy did I need that. Unlike most of my past gaming getaways, it will be the non-gaming moments that I will remember the most, such as the Denny’s excursion with GoE-mates Chris and KC. Our banter with the sassy Denny’s waitress - after we all ordered the same special - was a particular highlight. In the spirit of you had to be there:
W: Would you like identical desserts? Maybe milkshakes?
D: Do the milkshakes come with pancakes as well?
W: You wish they did.
D: (Yeeaaaah baby!)
My typical goal at Game Storm is to try out games that are new to me, usually outside the Euro genre. In addition to the below, I got in several prototypes, some by local gamers dabbling in design, others by local "professionals" who were pretty aggressive about roping folks into their demos. Below were my main events, listed in chronological order.
- A Struggle of Empires that was not ideally planned for a couple of reasons. First, the GM was a Game Storm staff member, who had a lot of interruptions since the con was still undergoing initial setup. Second, there is a tendency for GMs to list available seats for a games as defined by the maximum number of players that the game is designed to handle; I went home early on Sunday evening to avoid a six-hour Age of Steam match, and I saw a six-player Tongiaki event going on at one point. In this case, we played with the full slate of seven players, which would have been okay except that only three hours was allocated for the event. Unsurprisingly, with mostly new players in the match, we didn’t even complete the second of three turns.
- I had my first exposure to Sigma File (aka Conspiracy), which was a very pleasant surprise given the age and publisher of the game. I try to sign up at least once per Game Storm for an event being run by Andrew Nesbitt – one of the few GMs who have been there as long as I have – as he has a deep collection of delightful games from earlier decades. I fear that the design doesn't have a built-in way to force the action, especially as there is incentive to hoard money and wait around for others to pay their money for the assassinations. A fragile system, but I think it’s a cool little puzzler worth exploring further. It would certainly be easy enough to make a homemade copy (which I have no qualms about doing given its out-of-print status).
- Next was an Icehouse event, featuring the recently announced Treehouse, and perhaps the most popular Icehouse game of all, Zendo. Treehouse was a decent-enough puzzle-type game, although our matches were far too chaotic and random given the number of players involved; I would like to try a 3p match before my final judgment. This was my first play of Zendo, and I was so delighted by it that I ended up running an impromptu session of it on Sunday while waiting for another event.
- KC’s 2-player tournament had a disappointing turnout. Simply Fun’s Drive (aka Crazy Chicken) was intriguing once I figured out the “right” way to play it, although I wonder, independent of how aggressively you lay down sets, whether the best strategy remains to always hoard the highest possible values you know you have a shot at winning. I actually liked KC’s two-player Backgammon variant Versailles, even if the flow of the game was analogous to running up a down escalator. Having the tourney end with two of my favorites – Battle Line and Einfach Genial – gave me a chance to share my love of the game with the other players, even though I knew it pretty much guaranteed me the first-place prize. ;->
- KC already wrote about the National Lampoon drug-themed game. A cute marriage of theme and design, but the game was too random and repetitive to be worth playing once the joke wore out.
- Played in a late-night pickup game of King of the Elves. It is hard to win without a Gold card, especially with more than three players in the game. But it makes for a good filler in a social situation.
- Started out Saturday by playing my first match of Antike. All the criticisms on BGG seem to be spot-on. One of the things that drives me nuts in multi-player conquest games is when the economic system detracts from what should be the primary focus: who is going to attack whom. Wallenstein was my previous star example of this phenomenon, but Attike might top it, as the numerous short turns encourages fast play centered around the mechanical production cycle. In a largely combat-free game, no temples were sacked in our match. As Greece in one corner, I came in second, while the player in the other corner won.
- The highlight of the con for me might have been Dungeonville, a release from Z-man Games which features cute artwork and theme. You recruit characters to go out on adventures and find gold, which you then use to buy more characters, and so on. Ultimately, you want to start recruiting good fighters to go out and kill your opponent’s parties, which is the main way to gain VPs. However, good fighters are more expensive, will carry less gold back from adventures, and are more susceptible to booby traps (I assume due to their reckless bravado). There are enough elements that define a character to give the game sufficient depth. However, the default game as published has the players play to a low VP total, which gives the game poor arc as the obvious strategy is to buy the strongest fighters you can ASAP and just win a couple of quick fights. Clearly, a longer game with some ebb-and-flow is needed. Mike Selinker – who co-designed the game with James Ernest – ran the game and admitted as much, saying that his group plays to a higher VP total. Perhaps this explains all of the low ratings on BGG...
- I have not played any of the big box Fantasy Flight Games products released in the past couple of years. As it was, Descent was the event that I was looking forward to the most, and it did not disappoint. I was given a ranged-combat specialist, and was then dealt the Rapid Fire ability and Ferret familiars to fetch me stamina potions which I could use to refuel Rapid Fire repeatedly. I was a killing machine even with a crossbow, but I soon found the Bow of Bone which made me even more deadly and at longer range. We had three ranged and one magic user in our party, so it was a pretty easy match. However, it was fairly long and repetitive, and I would imagine it to be pretty painful with a party mostly made up of tanks. It was a great con game, but I don’t think I would invest that amount of time to play this with my own crew. I may get it as an intro to D&D combat for my family, although the storage space requirements may prove to be prohibitive.
- Although no one signed up for the single event I signed up to run - Celebrity Deathmatch Candamir Tournament - three folks showed up. The first just wanted to learn the Candamir game, while the other couple agreed to join us out of pity. What made the match so hilarious was that Legolas kept running into bears and snakes over and over again. Great display sportsmanship by the impacted player who took it like a champ. LeBron James was running away with the victory but Richard Simmons made a fierce comeback and ended up edging out LeBron, 10-9. It was an unusual match in that the deck of adventures barely got into level 2 (with level 3 a long ways off), and that two characters maxed out on XP. My biggest disappointment was that no one wanted to play my latest card: the infamous Katrina Looter (see below).
- After Werewolf a couple of years ago, you think I’d have learned my lesson about signing up for midnight events at Game Storm, but I couldn't resist a late-night session of Mall of Horror. I ended up seated to the right of the start player in the first turn, so I predictably had to lose a character right away as the start player decided to announce that zombies would be storming the parking lot, causing all other locations to fill up. In the second turn, despite my being down a token to the other players, two opponents voted against me, perhaps as future leverage for bargaining with the third party. I then got hosed a third and final time a couple of turns later when I got stuck in last position again. I came back as a zombie the next turn only to get blown up by a shotgun, mercifully allowing me to leave the table. Still a great game, but it won’t be a great experience for every player in every match. Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy...
- I arranged to meet loyal GoE reader Wes (really, do I need to mention the name as if there were more than one of you?) to play Crusader Rex. I played the Saracens in my first match and had a blast, so I agreed to play the Franks so that Wes could play the more exciting Saracens, and boy was that pretty dull. Wes’ extremely conservative play gave me a decent chance to win it - net consensus is that the game highly favors the Saracens - but it meant that I spent most of the game in a sit-and-wait mode. I still love the design, but will need to study more on how to play the Franks; hopefully there is an effective strategy which includes mixing it up a bit more.
- The Rocketville tournament – ran by designer Richard Garfield – got a fair draw of 16 players, and I ended up winning the championship match when my final draw was the yellow card I needed to pick up four bonus points for two of the robots I collected. I give the game a Thumbs Up, if only for the top-notch presentation. This is a fairly pedestrian area-influence game with lots of random elements to it. However, unlike most area-influence games, this one is card-driven, and players will not be playing with equal resources. If you get decent cards throughout the game, there is plenty of skill in playing them to your best advantage.
- Before heading home, I taught Chris how to play Scarab Lords. Then I schooled him.