Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Origins 2019 Recap: Boardgames Edition

This past weekend, I attended the one and only Origins Game Fair and had an absolute blast. It was the first Origins where I well and truly attended a slew of events, as compared with the time I went in 2014, attended a single RPG session at Games on Demand, and sorta browsed around the dealer hall before playing Star Realms with a couple of friends. I was absolutely floored by everything I got to try out, and that's even considering that (judging by other folks I'm hearing from) my "demoing things" record was much lighter than some dedicated enthusiasts' trails! So, let's have a look at what I checked out, now that I've had some time to digest! This post will be about the boardgames I played, and I'll have one up next week about the roleplaying games I played at Games on Demand.


While this was the "everyone's getting set up" day, I still headed over and got some demos in at one of the gaming halls. The dealers' Exhibit Hall was still setting up, but a few companies had booths set up outside of that. I played Sanctum (prototype), Fog of Love, and The Supershow for the first time ever.

Sanctum: Found this one just by browsing through CGE's massive demo booth. It's a board game inspired by the hack-and-loot gameplay of the Diablo video game series. Just like in those Diablo 2 sessions you might have played at a LAN party, players race down a track, finding monsters to defeat for loot and portaling back to town to buy new gear and heal up. The most interesting mechanic here was that as you acquire XP, you gain new health and mana tokens that can be spent for various effects like manipulating dice and staving off hits. Overall, the core of the system was coherent and worked pretty well while also feeling pretty light. Everything had a clear, intuitive purpose, so the game didn't feel bogged down by mechanics, which is what I'd want to see in a Diablo game. The one thing I was missing was a hint of some of the higher-level abilities that characters gain access to, and the characters themselves didn't actually have any sort of unique abilities or talent trees, which would be awesome.

Fog of Love: I've heard so much about this game about romantic relationships, so I was happy to actually get to try it out. At its core, it's a cooperative game for two people with a possible traitor mechanic, and where it shines is in being a game about using partial information to deduce things about the other player, which merges perfectly with the theme of feeling your way through a relationship. Players take turns playing decision cards and simultaneously picking one of multiple options. You have certain goals which you're trying to make progress towards with your choices, and your partner is also trying to make progress towards their goals with their choices. If both of you pick the same choice, you get a bonus for being in synergy. In practice, this mechanic was perfect for embodying the feel of working together with a partner to sync up, and I enjoyed the feeling of figuring out which set of choices I could use to set my partner up with. Often, I could give them a list of choices that would predictably benefit me, based on what I had deduced that they wanted.

The Supershow: SRG Universe, the publisher for this game, went pretty all-out for this game inspired by professional wrestling! They had a huge booth, and adorned it with various WWE-esque paraphernalia, including a round bell and a small amount of costuming for the booth volunteers. Someone even had a fake championship belt, so, points for presentation. I was less impressed by the game. The core of the game is that both players are trying to play a sequence of cards--a lead, a follow-up, and a finisher. Each card is a type of move (grapple, strike, submission), which acts like a suit, and many cards act as counterspells for one of those types of moves. So if I play a Strike, you might be able to play a Grapple that counters that Strike and then goes into play for me. Having cards from the various move types sometimes lets you activate bonuses on other cards. Pretty basic. Also, instead of alternating turns, both players roll a die that selects one of their character's skill values, and the high roller wins. could theoretically go an entire game without being able to proactively play a card. On top of that, to win the game, you need to play a Finisher and then win a roll-off with your opponent. I wasn't really impressed, but hey, the booth seemed to be pretty popular, so I guess style counts for something.


This is where my convention experience turned mostly to the tabletop RPGs of Games on Demand, but I did swing by the CGE booth again, and tried out a solo game called Under Falling Skies. It's a dice-placement game of deeply difficult choices, where you're trying to juggle priorities as an alien mothership descends upon Earth. Solo games are an area that I've explored a tiny bit, and this one absolutely delivered, because of one simple core mechanic: when you place a die on the player board, you get an effect with a power based on the value of the die. However, there's little alien spaceships swooping down on the city, and whenever you place a die, every spaceship in that column moves towards the city, one space for every pip on the die! So you're constantly playing a balancing game, juggling powerful effects with the movement of spaceships, trying to line up trickshots and manipulating spaceships into the firing zones of your defensive systems. There's a huge variety of "well, I could do this, but it has these effects" puzzling in this game, and I loved that.


While this was also an intensely busy day at Games on Demand, I did have a little bit of time to try out The Networks, which I'd seen in a boardgame store before. The premise intrigued me, so when I saw it in a dealer hall, I jumped straight for it. As I expected, it feels just like a TV Tycoon computer game, but stripped down to not be overwhelming, without sacrificing the gameplay or the feel of the game. From my brief demo, I couldn't determine if it's a game that would hold up in continued play, but what I really did enjoy was the elegant procedure of the game, and the way that everything flowed around. Game components very naturally provided rules, and as cards for my shows progressed around my board (from active shows that declined in popularity to reruns to archived shows), I felt like I was part of a network television cycle. It reminded me that even though having meaningful choices is an important part of games, it's also good to make sure that the flow and play of the game is fun as well. Even if I'm just shuffling cards around, following the procedure of that card-shuffling and watching it unfold also brings a sort of joy into play.


While I didn't demo any boardgames on Saturday, I was fully free for a portion of time on Sunday, and so I hit a few more games on my way out of Origins. This day featured Root, the Pokémon TCG, Costume Party Assassins, Ascension: Skulls & Sails, and Shards of Infinity, all brand-new to me. Yeah, even Pokémon!

Root: I have heard so much about this game, and I thoroughly enjoyed Vast: the Crystal Caverns, from the same company. There's interesting parallels between the two, most notably the asymmetric gameplay, where each faction has a fundamentally different approach to playing the game. I played the Cat Empire, which seems like it's a very straightforward 4X style of faction, with gameplay that reminded me a lot of Starcraft's resource economy. Overall, the pieces of the game fit together fairly well, although the demo only took us through two turns. I saw some very interesting gameplay from the other factions (the Eyrie, the moles, and the crows; the latter two were factions from the new expansion), and can definitely confirm: there's all sorts of interesting stuff going on in this game. I'm unsure how it would turn out in the long run, and I've seen complaints that there's serious flaws in the game from a competitive standpoint, but it feels like a game that would be fun to play through, not to master, but to get the hang of the various factions and watch how they interplay.

Pokémon, the TCG: Yep. I've never played, but they had a demo booth open, I'd been curious all week, and it's a good idea to try different foundational games. It's far from my first rodeo when it comes to CCGs, and knowing its longstanding reputation, I was curious to see what it did. I went in expecting something of a Magic clone, but it was immensely different. The mana system worked differently, the creature combat worked differently, the victory conditions were different, the importance of card advantage was different, and all of it had deep, deep implications for the gameplay. I loved the evolution system, despite it introducing an element of draw dependence, because my little 'mons gained more depth than a typical CCG creature (similar to the characters in Decipher's Lord of the Rings TCG and how they normally gained piles of equipment and conditions), and evolving them into more powerful forms just felt cool. I might even drop in and see if I can make it to a pre-release event sometime.

Costume Party Assassins: During college, I played a fascinating little game called Top Secret Spies, where all of the characters in the game were controlled communally by the players--but each player secretly had the identity of one of the characters. You tried to maneuver your character into positions that would help you win, while also moving other characters so that you didn't give up your identity to the other players. Costume Party Assassins is built around the same premise, but instead of maneuvering for points, it's a free-for-all death battle between assassins at a costume party, knocking off characters and narrowing down the field. The rules are fairly simple, I gambled and checkmated my character by losing a die roll, and I think it could be a fun, light game. I'm a little concerned about how light the game is, and how there's not a lot of actionable information going on, but I can see a game with lots of players being really fun, albeit having a bit of a stale endgame once most of the characters have been killed off.

Ascension: Skulls & Sails: I've played plenty of Ascension sets in my day, but there were some unusual tweaks that caught my eye here. There's a board, with ships that you sail around it! These ships let you stockpile a resource called "Crew", which you can use to purchase cards or defeat monsters next to your ship. Instead of a row of cards in the center, the cards are arranged around the sides of a track, and having that extra resource at hand lets you amp up the power of your deck quicker, if you plan ahead and move your ship accordingly. I can't say if it would be fresh enough to overcome some of my gripes with Ascension, and it looks like Mechana's constructs are yet again mega-powerful, but the Lifebound faction seems to have gotten a lot more potent, and playing off of the board does let the designers introduce some new mechanics to the set. Novel, not sure if it has staying power.

Shards of Infinity: More than anything, this game reminded me of Star Realms. You're whacking at your opponent's life total, there's four factions with different approaches, there's attackable cards you can play with ongoing effects, and you acquire cards from a central row. However, it feels a lot more polished and differentiated, with a couple of elements that actually add some depth to the game. In this game, each player gets an actual character with two possible unique abilities that will eventually go into their deck. This character can "level up", and when you hit a certain level, you put one of those abilities into your discard pile, and they are potent. You also start with a couple of cards in your deck that get more powerful as you level up, and when your character hits the maximum level, one of those cards gives you infinite damage, acting as a game-winning card. What's neat is that A: this gives you another resource to balance, besides just attack and healing (which are really two sides of the same coin), and B: there's a secondary win condition. I'm deeply interested in this game, and given how inexpensive it is, I may have to snag it for myself!

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