My boardgaming was done mostly in the Rio Grande booth, where I played a number of new games:
Thurn & Taxis: This one I liked. It's similar in feel to Ticket to Ride, but it's more subtle, more nuanced, and more directly competitive as everyone is competing to fulfill the same goals, and late-comers get fewer points in general. It's a second-tier type game for me, but it's fun, compact, and short and gives you lots of decisions. I actually ended up playing this a few times. A buy, although it's doubtful that it'll still be played in a year, or even 6 months. There was some discussion over whether Blue Moon City or Thurn and Taxis will win the Spiel des Jahre, and certainly it would be unjust in my opinion if Blue Moon City were passed over in favor of T&T. But there seemed to be some consensus that T&T will prevail, because there is apparently a clause in the SdJ charter barring Reiner Knizia from ever winning. Me, I like to remain optimistic.
Rum & Pirates: Yes, it's light, and absolutely nothing like earlier alea big-box games like Ra or Taj Mahal. But I enjoyed it. It's a risk management game, as most things you do will get you points, but you're making choices about whether to go for more, risker points, or fewer, more reliable points, as well as a variety of resources (gold, rum, and pirates). There is also a tactical game of moving pirates around (which affects which risks are available), and various risks have different synergies, or not. It's not a taxing game, and thus really needs to be played at a brisk pace, but I found it fun for a light game, and light games usually are not my thing. There is plenty of chaos, but on each turn you feel like you have real choices and what you are doing is going to make a difference; and the large amount of die-rolling is fine with me because there are a variety of different (and fun) dice competitions and you can affect them all with rum tokens. Easily a buy. In all honesty, I think many readers will probably enjoy this one less than I did, but for me it was a throwback to the days of fun games like Merchant of Venus or Gangsters, albeit in a somewhat sanitized, scaled-back, somewhat less-thematic (but less-complicated) German package; but I've gotten a kick out of it each time I played it. It would have killed in 1993.
One caveat on the game, though: your first game is very likely to be a touch (at least) on the long side, especially with 5 players. It's also a game where the playing time will drop off considerably once everyone is familiar with all the options. So if you want your friends to like it, the first time you play it might be wise to play only 4 rounds (or even 3 with 5 players) instead of the normal 5 rounds. Then once everyone has the hang of the game, you can play the "full" game. Otherwise the late game may feel protracted, and in my experience nothing will kill the desire to play again like a protracted endgame.
Masons: I had heard this was a possible win for people who don't usually like Colovini games, a market segment of which I am a part. It doesn't have the occasional Colovini contradiction of being a light game with almost unlimited opportunity for analysis paralysis ... but nonetheless it did almost nothing for me. I think the bottom line here is that Masons is about managing chaos. Dice determine most everything that happens, and you are trying to use your couple of decision points to gently massage the board to match the scoring cards in your hand, scoring cards which rapidly cycle. I often like managed chaos games, but to work for me they have to have at least a minimally functioning theme for me to engage on (see, say ... Rum and Pirates). Masons either has no theme at all, or where it has theme, it makes no sense. Not even close to a buy.
Robber Knights: Since I just anointed Rüdiger Dorn one of my most-reliable designers in my Geek of the Week thread, I figured I better check this one out – even though it was from Queen, which is a hit-and-miss label for me personally (mostly the latter). It was a bit disappointing. It's a highly tactical, basically abstract game. You lay tiles to a build up a world sort of like Carcassonne (although there are no edge types, so you can play anywhere), but when you play a Castle tile, you can pour Knights onto the board to take control of nearby tiles. It's a very clean, simple, smoothly-playing game which is not bad, and I'd play again ... but it wasn't really fully engaging either, and was not a buy. Nowhere close to being in the same league as Dorn's previous games, in large part due to the thematic deficit. Not dissimilar in feel to Domaine, including being about the same length, which is a much more textured and interesting game. It also has a substantial bit of hidden complexity because the tile mix, which you are not likely to have a firm grasp on the first game or two, drives a significant chunk of the game's tactics.
18Scan: We usually get together with our friend Mark from college sometime over the Origins weekend, and we have often played an 18xx game (since 18xx games were a staple back then). I have a new resolution on this point: no more gamekits. If I'm going to play 18xx, I'll play 1825, or 1830, or 1853, or 1829 Mainline, but I'm not playing the gamekits anymore. The crux of the problem: the initial auctions. Starting back with 1870, I think that designers gave up entirely on even trying to make the baseline prices of the privates, minors, or whatever else is up for grabs in the start packet auction align with reality, instead relying on the players to properly price them themselves. So in order to make sensible bids, you have to either a) be prescient, or b) have played a couple times. Otherwise you end up with a game that is dumb, as players who get weak offerings are effectively knocked out 5-7 minutes into a 4 hour game. This happened to me, as I was consigned to last early and literally made not a single decision for the last 90 minutes of the game. I am not exaggerating here. Now, I'm not going to tell you that all the 18xx gamekits are bad – while it's true that none I've played have been even close to professional design standards, this is not really surprising, and maybe not even relevant for their market niche. I actually think 18Scan would be appealing to those who play 18xx a lot. But unless you're going to play it at least 3-5 times, forget it.
That was about it for boardgaming. I wanted to play Cleopatra and the Society of Architects; despite the negative buzz, I was somewhat optimistic I might like it well enough ... but not optimistic enough to buy before trying. For some reason known only to Days of Wonder, however, they had only a single demo copy available of their big new release, and I was never able to get into a game. Confidence was not inspired. I wanted to try Bison from Phalanx/Mayfair, but didn't find the time. I did end up buying the Paranoia Mandatory Bonus Fun Card Game though, even though I didn't play it, because I like Paranoia and I thought it sounded cool. It looks like they've done a good job, and I'm reasonably optimistic.
I don't do wargames at Origins anymore, but I picked up my copy of Shifting Sands and the new WW2: Barbarossa to Berlin updated card decks. Shifting Sands looks great, and I look forward to playing. Having the somewhat unhealthy amount of errata for Barbarossa to Berlin incorporated into the cards will almost certainly help that game hit the table more often. I also bought the new MMP reprint of Afrika because it was so cheap ($24), but I wonder if that was a mistake. The supply rules, while simple, are head-scratchingly bizarre. Why even have supply points when letting everyone sit around doing nothing costs exactly the same amount of supply as a full-on offensive? And the use of the rounding rule here is very, very strange (why say that one point can supply a group of ten units, then point out that you can use the rounding rule to round a group of 14 units down to 10, thus meaning that one point can really supply 14 units?). Perhaps play will clarify, or a fan will fill me in in the comments section.
I played two RPGs at Origins: Paranoia and Call of Cthulhu. I had signed up for some Star Wars d20 which was a highly-anticipated event for me ... but sadly, it was cancelled.
Paranoia: We played a modified version of the first part of Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, a classic adventure from Paranoia Flashbacks. It was fun, and the GM did a good job. But it reminded me that Paranoia is actually tough to do well; you can't just give people lasers and trust them to generate some fun when they point them at each other. For example, in the traditional hose-job on the way to the briefing room, you can't just tell them to report to a nonexistent briefing room, you need to also give them some avenues of approach that look promising (although they all are, of course, dead ends), and you also need to make it clear that they will be terminated if they don't get there on time and don't have a scapegoat. The scapegoat bit is important. It'll help if the Computer calls them up frequently to ask how they're doing. The Paranoia mantra is fear and ignorance, but that means what it says: you need both. Ignorance alone is not that interesting.
It also helps if you can use the opening scenes for players to contact their secret societies to get their own personal missions, which traditionally involve killing or otherwise behaving in an unfriendly manner towards other players. It's good for the players to have achievable objectives they can set up while being screwed on the way to the briefing room. Things got a little messed up here because we had so many players (9, I think), so the starting 6-pack of pregen characters got duplicated and had all their names changed, so when my secret society missions says "you might want to kill Tex-Y-DBF", and you look around the table and Tex doesn't exist, the game has lost something.
Anyway, the first third or so of our adventure (the briefing room hose-job) didn't work so well and wasn't terribly entertaining, but after that things got rolling and it was a lot of fun. Clones were terminated; computer property was destroyed, sometimes in spectacular style; Communists were eliminated; treason was committed. Nobody escaped unscathed.
Call of Cthulhu: Call of Cthulhu was cool to play because it's so different from the usual roleplaying games. It's not about problem-solving or character-building in the traditional sense. It's all about playing the role of an investigator in an interesting story who is going insane in hopefully entertaining ways, sometimes slowly, sometimes more quickly. Like all RPGs, I assume Call of Cthulhu comes in many different flavors – more or less distant from the original inspiration – but the genre seems much more about the flavor and ambiance than the usual D&D hack-fest. We had a great group, a very good GM, and a story that was very true to the Lovecraftian spirit. I enjoyed this a lot, and it was my favorite non-CCG event of the con.
A lot of the RPG events at Origins were overbooked both last year and this year, and as a consequence the games Kim and I played in averaged 7+ players. Paranoia had 9, CoC had 7, and Kim's two D&D events both had 7. If I may venture an opinion, 7 players is too many for any RPG, even Paranoia. Fortunately, it sounds like Amorphous Blob (who runs the RPG events I primarily aim for) agrees and is going to be more strict about capping their games at 6 players, even if Origins over-sells them.
Middle-Earth: the Wizards: What more can I say on this game? The one or two sealed-deck Middle Earth events are usually the highlights of Origins for me for a few reasons: a) MECCG is one of my all-time favorite games; b) I enjoy the sealed deck format because I think it really challenges players used to constructed deck, and because I can win reliably; c) the company at these events is usually (not always, but usually) of very high quality; and d) it plays into my fond memories of the tournaments ICE used to run in the mid-90s, which I enjoyed immensely.
True to form, the event was still great fun, and probably even better than it has been in recent years because the numbers of players was respectable, the quality of play was good, and we were avoiding the bizzaro formats (Balrog and Fallen-Wizard sealed deck) of previous years, formats that were good for a go but ultimately too weird. It was ironic that my one and only problematic game at Origins (excessively whining opponent) was in MECCG – but it wasn't enough to put a damper on the overall experience.
As for overall impressions of Origins?
Well, for one thing, the dealer room felt flat. Wizards, Decipher, Eagle, Reaper, Games Workshop – none were present, and there were several big holes in the hall where a big vendor would have been in the past. The Fantasy Flight and Days of Wonder demo areas were tiny. Columbia, GMT, and MMP were there, but had no demos. This all is not good. Mayfair and Rio Grande did have respectable areas, though, and it looked like Fantasy Flight might have been running more games in the main boardgame hall.
The CCG hall felt almost vacant. While in previous years it had been teeming with Magic and Lord of the Rings (Decipher) players, this year it was Pokemon and that was about it. That's still a good number of people, but just a fraction of what it's been in the past.
RPGs are more or less what they've always been since I've been watching, and all the games I've been in were over-subscribed. I wish there were more "other" games – there were no Iron Heroes or Arcana Evolved games, for instance, Star Wars d20 games were very thin, and I have no great enthusiasm for RPGA – but Kim and I have had no trouble at all getting into high-quality, well-run roleplaying events with excellent fellow players in recent years, and they remain the high points of the con for us.
The Puffing Billy area in the main boardgame room was well-attended, with probably 100 players. Richard Borg had a good slug of folks going with Memoir '44 for a while, and Mayfair's Settlers tournament drew well. The miniatures area seemed about as well-attended as always.
CABS' war room and board room were decently attended, at least by recent historical standards. The board room (for general boardgame play) was up to maybe 50 people when I was stopping by; not bad, but for reference I doubt they out-drew our local Bay Area Games Day (Origins is, after all, supposed to be one of the premier gaming con in the nation). The war room probably had a similar or maybe slightly smaller number, with less fluctuation due to the longer games being played. In a sign of the times, I don't think I ever saw more than two copies of any individual title being played at once, and many games were left out set up but unplayed, a wargaming ritual I could live without. The splintered nature of boardgames at Origins (the vendor demo areas, the "tabletop" gaming hall, and the CABS area) is a recipe for some confusion.
As an avid boardgamer, I'm not quite sure what to make of the boardgame situation. It seems to me that boardgames at Origins have been holding at a fairly modest level the past 7-8 years, at the same time that boardgaming in general has seen apparently explosive growth. Part of this seems to be the disinterest on the part of the companies themselves in organized play, perhaps because while games are more plentiful now, they also in general seem to be thought of as more disposable? Back in the late 90s, before they got bought out, Avalon Hill would make some effort to put together good events for their games, and as a result I have very fond memories of playing Acquire, Hannibal, and Successors in well-organized events. The CCG folks have always recognized good, well-organized events at cons as their life-blood, and Iron Crown and Wizards always invested a lot of effort in them. For boardgames today, things are left in the hands of fans and independent organizations for the most part (Mayfair being the notable exception), and it seems to me that there is inadequate leadership and the incentives are either nonexistent or have gotten too far out of whack. The clubs are just individuals who don't always have interests that are well-aligned with either those of the game companies or the attendees, so the results are predictably chaotic, and there is a lack of any accountability. If GMT had been using Avalon Hill's playbook, they would have had a 2-hour tournament scenario available for Barabarossa to Berlin and run an event to publicize the new release, along with a pre-game teaching session. I would have made time for that event. But they weren't. Instead, GMT just had one unpunched copy of the new edition lying around, and I didn't see a single game of Barbarossa to Berlin being played.
I'm not sure what this means, ultimately, other than that I enjoyed the old situation (in which boardgames were more about scheduled, organized events and not just pick-up games) more, and this shift is primarily responsible for the fact that Origins is no longer a boardgame con for me. However, I may be more sensitive to these things because of both the much greater distance I travel to attend, and my more varied interests. I enjoyed playing Thurn and Taxis and Masons and Rum and Pirates and Robber Knights, but for me there is no reason to travel to Origins to play pick-up games. I go to cons to play something interesting, something unusual, something more competitive, something I couldn't or don't get to play at home. Origins currently is falling well short of providing this in the euro and wargame area, and is comfortably succeeding only in the area of RPGs and my favorite Middle-Earth CCG events.