Monday, September 9, 2019

Protospiel Chicago 2019 Recap

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Well, I promised myself that I would get my recap out for Protospiel Chicago faster than I did for Milwaukee earlier this year, so here it is.  Unfortunately this year I wasn't able to make it out on Friday, but I spent all day Saturday and Sunday there.  As usual, I had a blast.  It was a great way to end what was an otherwise pretty lousy week.  I spent three days in the hospital while the doctors ran a whole slew of tests on me to find out why I fainted on Tuesday afternoon.  Turns out it was nothing serious, but they ran just about every test they could think of to make sure it wasn't anything else.  So Friday was spent with the family and catching up on errands, but Saturday and Sunday were spent gaming.

One of the big new things this year at Protospiel Chicago was Chi-Bingo.  When checking in, everyone got a sheet with a bingo card on it.  Each square had a category on it and you had to play a game that matched that category to check off the square.  Once you had enough squares filled in to make a five-in-a-row bingo you'd win a prize.  There were a few games donated for the first few people to complete the bingo, and everyone who did got a little tag to add to their badge.  There were also a few other badges for other accomplishments, too, like "Plays Well with Others".  In all, this was a fun little addition to Protospiel.  It didn't really change the way I went about playing games, but it did spark conversations and was a fun little meta game.  I hope other Protospiels do similar activities at their events.

In all, I played 9 games by 7 different designers, plus I had 2 of my games played: Beard Snacks and 8 Seconds speed variant each played once, and I didn't play in either of those.  I played other designers' games for about 10 hours and had my games played for less than 2 hours (plus rules and feedback on both sides).

Here's a recap of the weekend in Chicago.  As usual, I'll include the designer, who I played with, and also three ratings, from 1-5.  The first is how close to finished I felt the game was.  A 1 means it was a super early prototype and a 5 means it was very close to publication ready.  The second is how fun the game was in its current state.  A 1 means it needs a lot of work and wasn't really playable or much fun at all.  A 5 means I had a great time playing and would love to play again.  Finally, the third number is the potential the game has of becoming a really great game.  A 1 means I wasn't a huge fan of the game (luckily there weren't any of those) and a 5 means I thought the game was pretty awesome.

So a rating of 2-2-5 would mean that it was a pretty early prototype, wasn't a whole lot of fun yet, but had quite a bit of potential to be a pretty good game.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Title: Invisible Cities
By: Dan Germain
Played with: Dave Meyer, Katie Heigel-Meyer, Stephen Neale
Game Time: 1:15 hrs
Prototype Rating: 3-4-5

I quite liked Invisible Cities.  The game is a tile manipulation, area control game where players are using action cards to manipulate their tiles on the board in order to control the population within cities on the board.  There are three rounds (we only played two), and in each round four cities (of nine) will score.  On a player's turn you'll first play a card from your hand that changes the board a bit, or gives players bonuses like resources, or other actions.  Then you'll get to move one of your tiles, swapping places with a weaker tile on the board.  Finally, you can spend some resources to take another action that can do things like upgrade your units, etc.  When you move tiles around the board they'll sit in spaces surrounding the various cities.  When those cities score each round you'll gain points based on the population of the city multiplied by your units' influence around the city.  I really loved the way players jockeyed for position around the cities.  There were some rough spots with when cities were scored, and having limited options at times, but I think we talked about a lot of really great ways to address these issues and I really look forward to the opportunity to play this one again.  This was one of the top games I played all weekend, so keep your eye out for it!  (Dan Germain designed Globalization, the best prototype I played in 2017, so keep your eye on his stuff!)


Title: Apogee-Perigee
By: Randy Ekl
Played with: Dan Germain, Michael Miserendino, Mike Wilson
Game Time: 1:15 hrs
Prototype Rating: 2-3-4

This is the second time I've played Apogee-Perigee, the first being at Protospiel Milwaukee 2018.  I enjoyed it then, but felt it needed a lot of streamlining.  Well, in the last 18 months it's been streamlined quite a bit!  The latest version takes care of a lot of the unnecessary complexity and gives a few more engine building options.  While the game ran a lot smoother, there were still a lot of rough spots that need tweaking.  We also felt that the game was starting to grow thematically much further away from the title.  While it's still a worker placement game that uses interesting path mechanics of ships orbiting a star, so there are apogee and perigee spaces in the orbit, the game feels like it's much more about building a space resort in orbit around the star.  We suggested a few ideas to really push that space resort construction theme, and the goal card descriptions really reflect that theme.  So maybe the next time I play this game will have a new name, like RoboNaut Resort, or Spacecation Station, or something more evocative of the emerging theme.  This one still has a way to go, but I think the next iteration will be really solid and fun.


Title: Beard Snacks
By: George Jaros
Played by: Randy Ekl, Deirdrea Lyon, Frank Dillon, Kristie Dillon, Troy Pichelman
Game Time: 1:30 hrs

I am really, really happy with how well Beard Snacks plays, except for one thing.  All the feedback I've received is that the game is great, but the play time seems a bit long for what the theme would suggest.  So I'm looking for ways to shorten the game without really changing it.  Right now it generally plays 45-75 minutes (15 minutes per player, although this one was longer because of some in-game discussions and a bit of a slow start) and I'd like to get it to 30-45 minutes (about 10 minutes per player). This is the same game version that I've had for a while, so I was really observing and trying to find areas that could be streamlined and sped up.  I think I have a few ideas that should be relatively easy to implement, so we'll see how those change things up.  Among them are:
  • Remove Grow Beard from the main actions and move it to the cleanup phase, so that everyone always has a chance to grow at least 1 beard card per turn - this way it's not taking up a main action, so players have an extra action some turns, and it avoids having to wait until your next turn to grow your beard.  I'll also add in 3 new cards that allow you to grow a beard as a Main Action during your turn, so there's always a possibility of growing your beard twice.  I may also allow something (Beard Balm?) to power up that card and make it a free action.  The down side to this is that it may make the Napkin a little weaker if players don't have morsels on their beards as often, so I may need to tweak that a bit, too.
  • Make some cards (level 3 cards?) also grow your hand size.  So, in addition to completing a row increasing your hand size, some beard cards will let you do that, giving you some more options in your hand, allowing you to make snacks and meals a little quicker.  I'll have to watch out for this actually slowing down the game if people are overwhelmed with larger hand sizes, but I think if just level 3 cards have this bonus it may make people strive for the more expensive cards a little more often (but will this slow the game down even more as people take longer to get the expensive cards rather than the quick, cheaper cards).
  • I may cut down to just two levels and move some of the Level 2 cards up to Level 3 and some down to Level 1.  This may make setup a little quicker and cut down on the table space a little, giving the impression of a smaller game.
I'm looking forward to my next version with a few updates.


Title: The Great Pyramid of Dice-cerius
By: Randy Ekl
Played with: Randy Ekl, Deirdrea Lyon, Frank Dillon, Kristie Dillon, Jenny Fleishman
Game Time: 1:00 hrs
Prototype Rating: 3-5-5

The Great Pyramid of Dice-cerius is a roll-and-write game about building your great pyramid.  As you build it, you'll collect a bunch of different resources and coins (which can be used to buy stuff), which will give you stars, which will give you more resources and coins, etc.  There are some great chaining and cascading effects that are similar to games like Twice as Clever.  One of the unique things about this game is the dice that are used.  You'll roll four dice, a D6, D8, D10, and D12, and then add the value of the D6 to the other dice to get values from 2-14, 16, or 18 for each of the three levels of the pyramid.  On your turn you'll get to use two of those values, and when it's not your turn you'll only get to use one.  But you're always building your pyramid, so you must have your numbers in each level go low-high-low, plus, you can't build a block on a higher level until there is at least one block filled in below it on a lower level.  Filling in the blocks with numbers is what gives you resources, and you can spend coins to take resources that aren't associated with the block you just filled in.  There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here and the biggest hurdle the game faces at this point is the graphic design.  It was easy to make mistakes because of they layout of the sheets, but that's something I think a good graphic designer could fix pretty easily.  Aside from that, a few minor balance issues are all the game really needs.  We suggested a variant where the active player chooses only one die to add the d6 to, but I'm not sure the game needs that.  There were enough decisions as it was.  This one is easy enough to PnP, so I may ask Randy if he's willing to send me a PDF of the latest score sheet as he makes updates so I can play with my game group.

Title: A Totally Pirate Game, with Dice
By: Scott Starkey
Played with: Jonathan Chaffer, Paul Borawski, Steve Vesci
Game Time: 1:00 hrs
Prototype Rating: 1-2-4

A lot of Scott's games are cooperative or semi-cooperative and rely on players working together to amass enough stats to complete challenges that are presented to them.  I really enjoyed his game Company of Thieves in 2017, less so his We Fight Crime last year (although that was a very early version and it's changed significantly since then), and A Totally Pirate Game fell somewhere in between.  However I think this one has a lot of potential.  In the game, each player is part of a pirate crew with their own abilities.  There's a captain, first mate, cabin boy, and I was the gunner (there'll also be a role of navigator most likely).  Each role has a different set of colored dice that can be applied to complete obstacles by placing those dice in specific locations to complete the challenges presented by those obstacles.  For example, if a challenge is 3 Cannons, that means the crew must put together three dice with a value of three in the cannons area to complete the challenge.  Or a 19 Sail challenge would be any dice with a total value of 19 or more.  There are multiple different challenge types and each type has a specific color associated with it (red for cannons, blue for sailing, etc.).  If you have that color die in your pool you'll be able to adjust it by 1 up or down when using it for a matching challenge.  You'll also have to exhaust generic crew members in order to complete tasks, so you'll eventually need to spend actions reviving the crew so they can help with other challenges.  If a challenge isn't completed by your next turn, your dice will remain on the board and you'll fill in with generic orange dice that can't be manipulated anywhere.  The longer obstacles remain uncompleted the more they'll damage the crew, so then turns must be spent to heal.  As you do complete challenges you'll get some rewards, like additional crew members, special abilities, or swag.  You'll also get to build pieces of a treasure map that will lead you to an island.  At each island there is a big boss (like the Kraken) that must be defeated to earn the gold that is on that island.  You win if your crew earns a certain amount of gold before you receive too much damage.  As it was, the game felt disjointed and very unbalanced.  There's a lot that needs to be tweaked, but the overall idea was sound and there are some really great nuggets in here.  I think this is something that can really be polished up and turned into an exciting, very thematic cooperative pirate game.  I'm really curious to see how this one develops.


Title: Herd Instinct
By: Troy Pichelman
Played with: Eric Jome, Jonathan Chaffer, Steve Vesci
Game Time: 0:30 hrs
Prototype Rating: 3-2-3

Herd Instinct is a four-player abstract strategy game about trying to be the first to join your animals into a completed herd.  The game has two phases, a setup phase where players take turn placing opponents' animals on the grid, then a game phase where players take turns moving animals or using their abilities to maneuver into a completed herd.  Each animal can do either a standard move, or use its special ability.  For example Gorillas can push a row or column, while Kangaroos can jump over a row or column to the next empty space.  Aside from the thematic challenges of different animal types making a herd, and Australian kangaroos hanging out with African animals, the game played pretty well.  It wasn't too interesting though, and it seemed to devolve into several players just doing what they could to prevent a player from winning through delaying tactics, a tough issue with multi-player abstract area control games.  I'm not sure what can be done to resolve these issues though.  In a lot of ways the game felt like a multi-player Hive, but it wasn't quite as elegant or smooth as Hive.  Maybe with a retheme (sentient ooze particles trying to merge together, or AI robots working to build a mega robot) and some other tweaks (maybe no board like Hive, or hex pieces like Hive but with a board) could make this a bit more interesting.

Title: Killer Cabin
By: Mark O'Malley
Played with: Mark O'Malley, Jenny Fleishman, Deirdrea Lyon
Game Time: 0:45 hrs
Prototype Rating: 3-1-3

This is Mark's first game design (I think - it was his first Protospiel), and it's obvious that it's a game he's passionate about.  The theme is a horror b-movie where the monster is stalking the players in a cabin in the woods and they're trying to survive.  It's a last-player-standing style game, so if you get eliminated early on you could be sitting there watching for a while.  Essentially, every round, players are dealt three cards that they'll play throughout the round.  The cards tell you a room you can move to and an amount of damage you, and maybe other players, will take.  After everyone has played a card the monster will come out into one of the rooms.  If there is anyone in that room, whoever has the most damage already will have to face the monster by rolling four dice.  If a number of gravestones comes up you may die, based on what your overall damage is (as you gain more damage throughout the game you'll die with fewer grave stones).  After all three cards are played by each player the round ends and three more cards are dealt to start another round.  Rinse and repeat until only one player remains.  There are a number of issues with Killer Cabin, but biggest among them is that there are no real choices.  You can choose the order that you play the cards from your hand, but they all pretty much do the same things, and you have no control of if you take damage or not, or even if you move or not.  You have no ability to avoid the monster other than pure luck, and encountering the monster is also pure luck.  It's unlikely, but possible that you could be killed after just one turn in the game.  So there's a lot that needs improvement.  The good thing is, there are a lot of easy tweaks that can be done to improve the game.  We suggested that cards give you the choice of either moving to the depicted room and taking the damage or staying where you are at and having the damage affect other players.  Also, there are other symbols on the dice other than gravestones, so those can have other effects, like letting you peek at or even manipulate the monster deck, or manipulate your hand of cards.  We also suggested giving players four cards and playing three every round (or even just have a hand of two or three and a simple play a card, draw a card mechanic).  We also suggested giving each character a few one-time-use cards with thematic special abilities that could be used throughout the game.  And we also gave some ideas for avoiding the player elimination aspect of the game, my favorite being to end the game as soon as someone dies, then the survivor with the most damage is the winner.  The game theme was campy and fun, but the mechanics weren't.  However, I think with some simple tweaks (most of which wouldn't even require any new components), this can can still be a light, fast game of survival.  I really hope Mark takes our suggestions to heart because I think he can have a fun game on his hands.


Title: Cats or Dogs
By: Maxine Ekl
Played with: Maxine Ekl, Randy Ekl, Deirdrea Lyon, Rick Daken, Kendall Byington
Game Time: 1:00 hrs
Prototype Rating: 3-3-5

I've played this trick-taking game several times now and it keeps changing, but still has the core mechanic of allowing multiple tricks to be active at the same time.  I really love that aspect of the game.  In addition to that unique aspect, there's a cool set collection element to the game as you're trying to collect either cats or dogs for points each hand.  Unfortunately, I think this iteration was a slight step backward.  The scoring is improved, and adding in the wild cards and wild animals (the boxes) were generally good, however they added a bit too much confusion in their current state.  They definitely need to be tweaked and adjusted to bring back the simple elegance that the game had the first time I played.  I think the game is real close though and even though the additions to the game were a step backward for enjoyability in their current state, I think they'll overall be a huge improvement to the game once they're polished.  They reminded me of when I added the Outreach cards and made a few other changes to Pharmacology.  Initially those changes really broke the game, but I rebalanced, cleaned up the mechanics surrounding those new elements, and came out with a better game than I started with.  I think the same will be true here once the rough spots are polished smooth with the wild cards and new abilities.  I can't wait to try this again.  It's been a fun journey!
Sunday, September 8, 2019

Title: Lockup: Catacombs and Shadow Kings
By: Stan Kordonskiy
Played with: Jim Wesley, Steve Ungaro
Game Time: 1:45 hrs
Prototype Rating: 4-5-5

I love Lockup.  It's grown on me the more I've played and demoed the game.  I demoed it seven times at Gen Con this year and played a handful, too.  Now Stan is working on an expansion that fits into the base game seamlessly.  I won't go over the details of the base game, but definitely check it out if you like the idea of a worker placement game with area control, bluffing, and deduction.  Catacombs and Shadow Kings adds two new modules to Lockup that can be played separately, but really feel well enough integrated that I wouldn't recommend leaving either out once you have them.  You'll get a new character added to your crew, the Digger with a strength of 1.  There will also be several Catacombs Door tokens added to some of the rooms during setup (so their locations will change each game).  During the worker placement phase, you'll be able to place your Digger just like any other unit.  However, during resolution, if your Digger is the strongest Digger (including the rest of the team with him) and you're in a room with a door token, your Digger can work on digging a tunnel in the Catacombs.  The further you dig, the more points you'll earn and the more opportunities you'll have to find treasures.  But, some advancements will cost some resources.  Since you have an extra guy, you'll always place your last unit, face down, on the Shadow King, which will be resolved after the Library each round.  There will be a new Shadow King each round - a super Goon that will give the strongest player there a pretty nice bonus, or sometimes the weakest player a good smack down.  This keeps the placement in the rooms balanced with the standard game, even though there's an extra unit, but essentially let's you have an extra hidden unit (the one on the Shadow King).  I really liked what these two elements brought to the game, and, just like with the Monsters & Minions expansion for Roll Player, this expansion doesn't add much overhead to the game at all.  The Shadow King adds a minute or so to each round for resolution, but it's super fast since each player only has one unit at that location.  So it adds about 5 minutes to the game, and the Catacombs adds even less.  So with both modules of the expansion you're looking as more choices, great thematic additions, and more depth, all without adding any more complexity and only 10 minutes or less to the game time.  I can't wait to see this on Kickstarter!


Title: 8 Seconds - Speed Variant
By: George Jaros
Played by: Stan Kordonskiy, Deirdrea Lyon, Kendall Byington, Nathaniel Torbett
Game Time: 0:15 hrs

I've been playtesting this speed variant that plays in 15 minutes or less for a while now and it's been working out very well.  Everyone really seemed to have fun and caught on quickly.  The game plays fast, but without feeling too hectic or overwhelming, so I'm very happy with all that.  I did get a few ideas for some rules clarifications, and Stan gave me some contacts to reach out to at a few publishers with his blessing to drop his name and say he suggested I reach out to them because he liked the game.  So I'm super excited about that.  I really hope this goes somewhere soon because it's one of my favorite games to play, of any games, not just my own, and I think the speed variant is breathing new life into it (keeping in mind it's a game I've personally played over 100 times).  


Title: Endless Winter
By: Stan Kordonskiy
Played with: Stan Kordonskiy, Eric Jome
Game Time: 1:15 hrs
Prototype Rating: 3-5-5

I really liked this one and am super happy I got to play before Protospiel was over.  Thematically this is about your tribe or early humans growing, crafting, exploring, and surviving at the start of the ice age.  Mechanically it's a worker placement, deck-building game with elements of resource management and area control.  Each round consists of up to four turns per player and there are six rounds total (well, there were supposed to be seven, but we felt the game was drawing to a good conclusion in the sixth round, so that's where Stan decided to end it).  During your turn you'll go through three steps.  First is a refresh phase where you'll do some basic cleanup steps, like drawing up to a hand of five cards if you haven't already, etc.  Next you'll get to do your actions.  First you can play any tool cards from your hand for the actions they give (things like drawing more cards, gaining food, manipulating camps on the land tiles, adding to your hunting capabilities, etc.).  Then you'll get to take one tribe token (a worker meeple) and place it on one of several different worker placement locations.  The first player to use a location gets a bonus, then you can pay 'hands' or manpower to use the ability of the location with the more hands you add the stronger the ability becomes.  You'll have different tribe members in your hand that each count as one hand, but for certain actions they may count as two hands.  You can also spend food to add hands and make the ability stronger.  Then you'll get to use the ability, which may be training or promoting more tribesmen, crafting new items, hunting, migrating, or settling.  Through these abilities you'll grow your tribe's skilled workforce, build tools that give you more benefits, add more food resources to let you strengthen more actions, and explore more area by expanding outward and establishing camps.  There's a lot going on in this game, and like many engine building games, you start out feeling a bit helpless, but by the end of the game you're doing tons of awesome stuff.  Aside from a bit of balancing, the game played great mechanically.  The theme was great, too (I can see it having awesome art and components, like Rise of Tribes).  Even though there's a ton going on, it's pretty straight forward mechanically and would be easy to teach to experienced gamers (it's not a gateway game by any means, but it's not difficult once everything clicks if you're familiar with the core mechanics).  Stan has a slew of hits recently, and I fully expect to see this one on Kickstarter or store shelves sometime soon.


So that's it for Protospiel Chicago 2019!  Even though I missed a full day, I feel like I played some great games and got some great ideas and advice for the two of mine that I had played.  There were a few others that I would have liked to get to the table (I had MiniSkull Quests, gEmotion, Trick Builders, and more that I would have loved to play), but for a very truncated experience, I'm happy with how it turned out.  On top of all that, I got games donated by Maxine Ekl, Deirdrea Lyon, and Joe from Gray Matters Games for the Charity Auction Fundraiser for Extra Life.  So it was a great weekend!  This may be my last Protospiel for a while since I think I'm going to take a break next year and hit some conventions where I can focus on pitching, but I can't wait until my next one and will miss it dearly.

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