PAX Unplugged 2019 Recap Part 2: Reiner Knizia and Scorpion Masqué

Friday night at PAX I had a rendezvous with an exclusive class of board game people. Eschewing the proletariat banality of the convention center, we met at a hotel lobby across the street–a finer setting for a finer class of game. We were going to play some Reiner Knizia. Sadly, the guy who was going to teach the Knizia games at this event got sick and couldn’t come so we had to kind of figure out things on our own. It wasn’t exclusive. I found out about it from a tweet.

There was also some PAX-adjacent whiskey thing going on. I know this because there were a bunch of PAX folks drinking whiskey. I think it was informal, as people would simply go up and pour themselves some whiskey from the dozen or so bottles sitting in the corner, but I also had no knowledge of it and did not contribute to the whiskey supply in any way. Frozen by uncertainty, I did not drink any whiskey.

I did play some Knizia games, though! Two, to be precise. After that we all agreed that the Knizia night “had happened” and moved on. This wasn’t the good doctor Knizia’s fault. We just didn’t want to learn anything from the rulebook. Everyone but me seemed to be full of whiskey–probably a contributing factor. 

Schotten Totten

From BGG user c_mcc

I got this one in while waiting for some people to arrive. I knew my copy of the new version of Battle Line would be waiting for me in a GMT box when I got back home, so why not learn the rules now? Like a grown up Lost Cities, Schotten Totten has players arranging cards into columns. This time, however, you’re doing battle directly with your opponent to capture each of the nine central spaces. Your weapon? 3 card poker hands. A straight flush is the strongest, followed by 3 of a kind, and so on.

The clever bits come as you try to manage your hand. Rarely will you have a full 3 card arrangement in hand, so you feebly put some cards out, hoping to draw into what you need. But don’t spread out too far because once you place a card in a location it can never be removed.

Interestingly, you can claim a battle won if you can, through the cards displayed out in the open, deduce that your opponent can’t beat you. It’s a brain burn and a half to try to keep track of everything, including what’s in your own hand and what is probably not in your opponent’s hand, but it’s such a compelling puzzle I didn’t mind that it slows down the mid/late game to a halt. This Knizia guy is good…

Through the Desert

…But I don’t think Through the Desert should ever be played with 5. I had always heard this game compared to Go, but that’s the barest of comparisons. Perhaps a 2 player game captures some of the feeling of Go, but at 5 it’s something else entirely. Yes, you’re trying to surround territory, but Go is about liberties and creating solid structures. Through the Desert feels closer to another Knizia, Stephenson’s Rocket, in that you’re being stretched multiple places at once, and pursuing one line of play necessarily leaves two others vulnerable.

Through the Desert also seemed ridiculously generous in the beginning game, as points are handed out left and right for going on particular spaces, like Knizia was terrified of players losing interest early. 

Again, I don’t think I got the desired experience from Through the Desert. I’d give it another shot with fewer players and much less whiskey. At the end we all agreed that it was, in fact, a game, as we packed it up and quickly found something else to play.

Unnamed Scorpion Masque Party Game

After Through the Desert I met Matthew from the Canadian publisher Scorpion Masqué. “Who published Decrypto?” he asked us. 

“Iello”, we answered. 

“Wrong, we did. Iello was a partner and helped with distribution”.

Matthew’s job is to fix this recognition problem and help bring Scorpion Masqué to the wider English-speaking audience. Apparently they’ve done quite well in France and the French-speaking areas of Canada, but there’s work to be done in America. If the games I demoed are any indication, they’ll succeed.

I don’t remember if this party game yet had a name, but it’s something like a cross between 20 questions and Mastermind. One player knows the answer, and everyone else is racing to coordinate questions for them before time runs out. Once all of the questions are placed, the answer-knower simply indicates how many of them are answered “yes”. Flip the sand timer and start another round.

The entire group gets 3 attempts or 7 rounds to figure out the answer, and we found it quite difficult to effectively narrow down the options. Our strategy was to try to get all “yes” or all “no” sets, so we didn’t have to guess which correct answers were which. This broke down after a while, because, again, whiskey, but the potential for truly clever strategies to emerge is there. I believe this should be a 2020 release, and I am looking forward to playing again.

Flash 8

Remember those little 3×3 or 4×4 sliding puzzles you’d get from a pizza place vending machine or as an arcade prize? Flash 8 is one of those transported to cardboard. You’re racing against other players to create arrangements that match cards. First person there grabs the card, revealing a new one underneath. The fun is in the frustration of someone snatching a card away just before you can accomplish it, forcing you to shift your focus on the spot. Otherwise it’s exactly what you are thinking, no more, no less. This isn’t a bad thing.

Zombie Kidz Evolution

Before playing I’d heard murmurs that there was something special about this legacy game aimed at kids and families. It’s at the top of the “children” category at BGG and I totally see why. Not only is the gameplay super simple, but the dynamics are quite clever. The fundamental choice: do you try to stave off the hordes of zombies or advance towards the win condition? Once zombies start to pile up movement options diminish and they fill up the board more quickly. It’s the same tension found in Leacock co-op games but distilled to its essence.

ZKE also understands what’s fun about legacy games. It’s not about trying to string along a complicated narrative, it’s about the joy of discovery and personalization. In the back of the rulebook players can name their characters and the zombie enemies. They can get rewards for playing with different groups of people. And since each game takes about 15 minutes you’ll be opening up new content rapidly, without a dull moment in between.

Stay Cool

Finally we get to the cream of the crop. Could this be my next party game obsession, a game, like Codenames, I stash in the car and introduce to people every chance I get? Quite possibly. Though I might not have much success because I was the only person in the group that Friday night who didn’t recoil in horror as Matthew described the game. “Is this a form of torture?” one asked.

No, dear friends, it’s a form of fun. The active player is given some dice with letters on them. As a series of sand timers drizzle down they are pelted with questions from two other people. One person’s questions they answer aloud, the other person’s questions must be answered by spelling out the solution with the dice. Oh boy it is cruel. Questions range from trivia to semi-basic math to things like “who in this room has the longest hair?” or “what’s your favorite movie?” I love the stress of it. I love trying to think about two things simultaneously, inputting and outputting information while remembering what you needed to store in the back of my mind to access later. 

After going through this (and getting a near-perfect score, I might add), I was informed that this was the easy mode. The next level up is doing everything before while keeping track of the sand timers. If any of them run out before you flip the next one, you immediately stop. I did not get a perfect score. I would have totally played the even more difficult mode, where you have to flip the sand timers but can’t look at them but I had places to go and things to do. On to the next meeting…

That’s it for today’s PAX Unplugged recap. Check back tomorrow for our podcast about it! I sat down with Matt and Orion to talk about the people we played and the games we met. Er…something like that.

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