One of the last pre-pandemic board game events I participated in was an epic play of Dune at the Granite Games Summit. The new edition had recently come out and I’d always heard stories of how epic and incredible it is. It lived up to the reputation: a game of scheming, betrayal, and thrills that felt far shorter than its runtime. Two years later, the first thing I signed up for at this year’s G2S was a repeat play of Dune. It was even better.
I both love and hate conventions. They provide me with an opportunity to play a lot of games, which is fantastic, but they’re also often crowded, awkward affairs, particularly if you’re not attending with a group of people you know. Successfully navigating the social perils of going alone is something for which I am not well equipped. Once I attended a local convention for about an hour before turning around and driving home because I couldn’t find anywhere to sit and all of the games seemed to be pre-scheduled and full.
Fortunately I knew a good number of people at G2S so awkwardness was kept to a minimum and play was at a maximum. Over three days I played 24 games. Here are the most notable:
This Knizia trick taker comes with marshmallow-looking fabric pieces that you should definitely not try to eat. You’ll want to. This warning is a courtesy. The goal is to take your fourth trick as late as possible in the game without being the very last person to do so. After you take that fourth trick you’re out of the game, scoring points equal to the total number of tricks previously won by others. Unless you’re last, in which case you get nothing. Cute idea, but I wish it lasted a bit longer. Our game only went 4, maybe 5 tricks before someone won.
I sleeved the decks I made and actually got a couple of games in! They’re certainly mediocre decks but they made for entertaining games. Playing Netrunner again was like visiting an old friend. The rhythms and cadences of that game are unparalleled. I even got to teach it to one of the youths in attendance. His father accused me of attempting to turn his son into a cardboard addict. I did not deny the accusation.
For some reason I thought this was only a solo game, but I guess I only heard of it in that context during that brief window when it was all everyone was talking about on Twitter. I understand the hype: it’s a tidy cooperative game that uses a simple deck of cards brilliantly. Respect.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Ark Nova, as the only thing I knew about it going in was that it had something to do with zoos and that it was shooting up the BGG rankings at an extraordinary rate. I was not expecting it to be so similar to Terraforming Mars in its tableau-building and general card design. On my first play I found it to be great fun. Through a perhaps too-elaborate set of pulleys and levers it guides the players towards always doing something interesting. In that sense I found it more entertaining than Terraforming Mars, where you often want to play around with the cards more than you perhaps should if you want to, you know, win.
Design rules are never concrete, but “find the fun” is a reliable one. Ark Nova certainly does that, though I don’t know how long it’ll hold up over repeated play. Maybe it’s a solo game at heart, a sort of playground for exploring that giant deck of cards and the mysteries within. At three players I wanted it to be either shorter or more interactive; I felt like my presence at the table was getting in the way of the other player’s enjoyment as I almost exclusively represented the passing of time to them, on a ludo-mechanical level.
Merv: Heart of the Silk Road
Similar in complexity to Ark Nova but much more brisk, Merv presents a genuinely fascinating action selection system that provided perhaps the most difficult game decisions of the entire convention. The actions themselves were far less interesting, but how to wield them was engaging start to finish.
It sort of reminded me of Targi, insofar as you’re moving around the edge of a rectangle and claiming stuff within it. Each space has both a resource and an action, and if you choose a previously unclaimed one you place one of your houses on it. In future turns if you claim any space that has a house on it (of any color) you get the resources all of the other houses of that color in that row or column are sitting on.
The tricky part is that it’s a worker placement system, so if you build up a mega-column full of your houses another player could claim it before you. You get a small compensation whenever someone else uses your houses but it’s not enough to make up for not using your mega-column.
The rest of the game was adequate, with essentially four different ways to score and get stuff, split into two mildly-reinforcing loops. Maybe over more plays I’d find that aspect of the game a touch dull, but for this play the action selection system completely overwhelmed it.
I got to play this one twice. The first play was pleasant. You’re drafting landscape hexagons and animals to place upon them. The animals score according to different, mildly thematic, rules. You want to connect like landscapes together into large segments. It was tactical and inoffensive.
After the second play I felt like I’d seen everything there was to see. The final scores were 98-97-95-94 and I couldn’t see any situation in which they wouldn’t have been that clumped up. In an attempt to be accessible I think it got too soft. For a light-ish game like this I’d much prefer something with a bit more bite, like Tiny Towns.
I can’t wait to review this one once it’s released. This was the second time I’ve been able to play it in a prototype state and I think there’s really something here. It’s a 2-player battle game in which you’re psychically fighting the other player, predicting and pre-planning moves in a timeline before they actually play out. This allows you to manipulate the chain of events as they sit there, suspended in time, and it’s just as cool as it sounds. I’ll save further superlatives for when I’m able to get my hands on a finished copy and play around with some of the more complex characters.
It finally feels like we’re all crawling out of our caves after a long hibernation. Pax East is quickly approaching, and I plan on more or less camping at the “first look” section gobbling up more games at a frenetic pace, attempting to satiate a long-marinating hunger. I’ll make sure to take some time to write about that too. Happy gaming!