PAX Unplugged 2019 Recap Part 4: Divinity, Calliope, and More

Hindsight is 2019.

I’m sorry. I dreamt that joke and literally woke up giggling. Blame my subconscious. Anyways, if you’ve ever had the illusion that The Thoughtful Gamer is a news-breaking, fast-paced information source, let this shatter it: PAX Unplugged ended over a month ago and we’re still talking about it. Maybe this makes me behind the times in our social media world, but I’m nothing if not stubborn with my principles. I won’t publish something unless I’m satisfied with it, and I’d rather savor games than burn through them. Let us resolve to savor more in 2020.

This recap will focus on games and companies I’ve not had a lot of experience with, but their offerings intrigued me enough to seek them out at the convention. Come, share in my curiosity.

Divinity Original Sin

The team behind Divinity Original Sin have a colon conundrum and the syntax nerd in me finds it amusing. The video game, as far as I can tell, is always written as either Divinity: Original Sin or Divinity – Original Sin. This makes sense, as “Original Sin” is clearly a subtitle. However, the board game adaptation is subtitled “The Board Game” because you’ve got to distinguish it from the original product. Now they’ve got to write it with too many colons — Divinity: Original Sin: The Board Game, or with too few, and I just looked at the words “Divinity Original Sin” next to each other for so long that all language momentarily lost meaning. Trippy.

Following the trend of video game companies adapting their most popular works into the tabletop realm, Larian Studios and Lynnvander have teamed up to make an epic fantasy game that honestly doesn’t feel too far from what I know about the digital game. It’s a big box and a lot of bits. I’m not going to say they did a Full Gloomhaven, but it’s definitely at least 75% of a Gloomhaven.

I was supposed to get a 1 hour demo of the game, but scheduling didn’t work out very well and I could only fit in 30 minutes. “Don’t worry”, I said, “I learn games quickly”. Perhaps that was too much of a boast, because walking away I felt like I lost half of what was said. Fortunately, I recorded everything.

The digital Divinity prides itself on deep combat and endlessly branching story arcs with real consequences. Lynnvander is trying to capture those same principles as much as possible. For story and adventure, each bit of the campaign has a number of location cards (with over 600 total in the box), most of them incorporating some kind of time limit before an event triggers. The cards are placed around the central clock-like thing, and cards next to or directly across from each other are adjacent. I…I think it works reasonably well, though it’s hard to visualize precisely how.

Combat involves a lot of triggers and effects and such, which seem like a lot, though I was reassured that once you get through a round or two it’s very intuitive. I partially buy that, as mechanisms like status effects, ranged vs. melee combat, and elemental combinations all work exactly as you’d expect. But, on the other hand, there are so many different tokens and things to keep track of, even though certain elements are abridged compared to the digital game.

Don’t get me wrong–I love games like Mage Knight and Gloomhaven and Spirit Island that deal with the puzzle of sorting through a number of different abilities and effects, but there’s a difference between having a complex puzzle and having complex bookkeeping. I was not able to determine where Divinity Original Sin falls in this spectrum, but it didn’t strike me as an elegant game by any means (again–not necessarily a criticism).

Then there’s the big elephant in the room: why does this game need to exist? The digital game, from what I’ve heard, is a masterpiece of deep, tactical gameplay and storytelling. It supports multiplayer, and you don’t have to keep track of little tokens and cards as such. It’s also going to be simply better at telling a story, not being limited by the physical constraints of a box, though I must admit that the way the stories and locations can adapt as you make choices in the world is clever. Even with all of the bits and pieces, the core game contains roughly 20 hours of gameplay to get through the campaign. The entire enterprise seems like the definition of a “cash in”, and while I’m not against trying to do such a thing, I also tend to make sure *my* cash isn’t going in.

However, after talking with the people involved I cannot deny that they really truly love both the source material and this particular game, and while video game adaptations don’t tend to work in other media, they’ve been quite successful with board games. I’m somewhat skeptical, but I hope that Divinity Original Sin can capture the same magic as other great fantasy games.

Rise and Fall

I did not get the opportunity to actually demo Rise and Fall, sadly, but I did look at it, and what a look it was. This is a new design from Cristophe Boelinger, designer of the fascinating Archipelago and the underwhelming A Dog’s Life, among others. Rise and Fall is a gorgeous eurogame where you’ll develop a 3D map while trying to grow and expand your civilization. 

The visual appeal of this map cannot be overstated. It looks awesome, and the verticality is used in gameplay, with various rules about traversing the different layers as you expand.

I do not recall the specifics of gameplay, but I remember that the actions available to the players will change over time, and that it’s a no-luck, strategic game that reminded me of the sort of old-school eruos I’ve been enjoying lately, where elegance is a design goal rather than showcasing a multitude of bits. Fortunately it’s also prettier than many of those games.

Running Quest: Soul Raiders

No! Wait! Come back. Don’t be scared by this unfortunate word soup of a name. Marc Andre, the designer of mega-hit Splendor, has made something both familiar and foreign with RQ:SR. The art is beautiful and recalls early isometric RPG/adventure games. It was pitched to me as inspired by games like Gloomhaven, but I think this is somewhat misleading. Where Gloomhaven is focused on very crunchy tactical combat, Running Quest is all about the adventure and exploration. Sure, your character is largely represented by a deck of cards, but the cardplay is extremely straightforward. Combat takes a backseat to the decisions that get you in and out of combat.

Each mission begins with a single card, showing the setting and a number of different routes you can take. Characters can split up to explore more, or stay together to be safe. Every time you make a decision of what to do it’s going to reveal a new card, or trigger an event, or cause the current card to flip over. The way everything progresses as a consequence of your decisions feels so easy and so natural. Divinity Original Sin has something similar, but it felt more bogged down in record keeping.

I’ve not played a board game that captures quite the feeling Running Quest did, even in my short demo. Matt and I were tasked with exploring a castle of sorts, and our decisions had us fighting enemies, picking locks, doubling back to avoid patrols, and developing a sense of geography about the place, just like we would when actually exploring a castle. I’m a bit concerned, as I was with all of the campaign style games I saw at PAX, about how much game is going to be provided in the box, but I’ve got to say that Running Quest is the one I’m most excited to play again. 

Calliope Games

From BGG

As I wrote in the first part of my recap, this PAX was notable for the sheer amount of enthusiasm for gaming I witnessed. Perhaps no one I spoke with was more enthusiastic than Chris Leder from Calliope. I know about Calliope, like many people do, because of Tsuro, a game more beautiful than it has any right to be. But they’ve got a whole lot more going on than Tsuro, though they never stray from their goal of producing quality, light games. While I tend towards heavier fare on average, I do think there’s a bit of “weight creep” in the eurogame space, and I’m glad to see a company sticking to the family friendly roots of German-style gaming.

They’re celebrating their 10 year anniversary with a slate of new and interesting games. Three come from their “Titans” series of games, which aim to showcase notable game designers. Rob Daviau’s ShipShape is a game in the long tradition of games about pirates trying to divvy up loot. Seriously, I can think of at least 3 other games about that right now off the top of my head.

From BGG

Everyone Loves a Parade, a game with a title that I can personally attest is factually incorrect, involves dice and…parades? We didn’t talk about it very much. 

Spymaster takes the “I split, you choose” mechanism and plants it in an espionage theme, where agents are trying to gather intel (that has been split and chosen) and accomplish missions with that intel. I like the idea and apparently it’s toward the heavier end of their catalog, as Chris pointed out that he’s had a lot of success demoing it to skeptical heavy gamers.

Tsuro is getting a deluxe treatment for the 10th anniversary with Tsuro: Phoenix Rising. There’s a bit more meat on this flaming Phoenix bone, as you’ll be able to pick up and rotate tiles through various means, expedited by a game tray that helps people with grubby fingers like me easily pick up the tiles without digging their stubby fingernails into the table.

Station Master just wrapped up its Kickstarter campaign, and it sounds great. It was first printed in the ancient halcyon days of 2004 by Mayfair, but Calliope is updating the visuals and hopefully bringing it to a new audience. It’s something of a passion project for Calliope president Ray Wehrs, as it’s his favorite game of all time. Restoration Games has proven that there’s a market for old games updated with new design wisdom, and I’m all for something a bit more obscure and niche getting the same treatment. It’s a quick playing bluffing game of sorts, where you’re committing passengers to trains, but the value of the trains at the end of the game is determined by the passengers themselves. 

Finally, while I didn’t get much information out of Chris, he did say that they’re going to be doing something “special” regarding the original Tsuro game in Q1, so if you’re a fan of the squiggly paths, be sure to keep your ear to the ground.

We’re almost there! The final installment of my PAX U recap will feature a couple of the games I am most looking forward to. Don’t miss it!

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