Gathering of Friends 2014

by Gil Hova

I first heard about the Gathering of Friends about thirteen years ago, when I first got back into serious boardgaming. Three years ago, I realized that I knew enough people over there to have a shot at attending. I finally made it in this year; one other new attendee said that he had an easier time getting into college!

All this to say: I don’t want to gloat or boast, but I did have a tremendous time, and I wanted to write out a few thoughts about the event.

(Oh, and if you want to know about specific board games I played, check out my GoF 2014 GeekList. I’ll keep this post to general impressions.)

Stress-testing

The most amazing thing about the convention is that I could playtest one game repeatedly with a bunch of really sharp gamers. I played Prime Time 12 times in all over the ten days of the convention. The first few plays revealed that its economy was too loose, and players had so much money that they wanted money to have more meaning.

Interestingly, they suggested things like “I should be able to spend my money on bigger endgame events” or “I should be able to open up a new timeslot.” But having seen how the game worked in the past, I knew that they were really saying that they found money meaningless at the end of the game. I scratched out a bunch of text on the cards and sloppily wrote some new numbers in. I occasionally crossed out out replacement, writing out a second replacement, then crossing out that second replacement and writing a third replacement that matched my original value. Game design!

This kind of testing meant that I could iterate faster than I ever could before. Prime Time is now really close to done. I know, I’ve said that before…

Contrasting schools of thought

I playtested Prime Time with a bunch of razor-sharp game designers from Maryland, like Dave Chalker, John Cooper, and Jacob Davenport. They subscribe to an ethos of elegance in game design, which I find admirable and shrewd.

But while elegance is an outstanding goal to shoot for, it is not the only way to design a game. A few tables away, CGE were testing their newest games. CGE games aren’t exactly Advanced Squad Leader in terms of complexity, but they are usually complex games. CGE feels that if a rule supports the game’s theme and is fun, it should be in the game. This winds up with games that are occasionally tough to teach, and CGE is usually careful to include well-written tutorials in most of their products as a result.

But I feel if the Maryland folks had gotten to games like Galaxy Trucker or Last Will during development, they usually would have struck out half of the rules during playtesting. This is not a criticism of either school of design, of course! There is room in the world for many different kinds of games. It was fascinating to see so many contrasting approaches in the same room.

Networking

I printed out about 25 business cards before the convention. I figured I’d only hand out a few, but better too many than too few, right?

I wound up using almost all of them! I got to introduce myself to a few designers, publishers, and bloggers I’ve only known about by reading their posts or playing their games. They were all modest, approachable, and friendly.

There were a few other people I had not seen in over ten years. Catching up with them was downright beautiful.

A question I’ve always wanted to ask

I mentioned elegance versus complexity before, and how some designers and publishers are more eager to embrace complexity (assuming it serves the theme or gameplay) than others.

My home playtest group trends towards elegance. This has made me a better designer, and my games are the better for it. However, I have a confession to make: there are times when I play a game like Terra Mystica, and I wonder how those designers get away with it!

So I got to ask Vlaada Chvátil (Through the Ages, Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, Dungeon Lords, Dungeon Petz) and Jeroen Doumen (Roads & Boats, Antiquity, Indonesia) how they got away with it. It turns out that they just have playtest groups who have settled on more complex games, and they’re okay with accepting a certain level of rules density. Although Chvátil admitted that sometimes when he works on a game, he wonders if he’ll be able to get away with it this time…

Sid Sackson and me

One of the highlights of my time at the convention was going on a tour of the board game collection at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. They have a collection of vintage board games (and an impressive collection of well-maintained classic video games as well!), and my group was lucky enough to be allowed behind the scenes to view the games in storage. It was amazing to see stack upon stack of classic 3M and Avalon Hill games.

Even better was going to the archives and viewing Sid Sackson’s diaries. Sackson was a monumental game designer, creating classic games like Acquire and Can’t Stop decades before the age of the Euro. He kept diaries of all his gaming-related activity, from sales of his games to communications with other influential gaming figures of the time like Bob Abbott and Martin Gardner.

A couple of people came across his playtest notes for Acquire, and dove headfirst into them. There were a bunch of gems in there, like alternate rules Sackson tried (like awarding extra shares for a merge), and his playtest notes for the extra powers he included in a later version of the game.

Getting in touch with this figure from the past was extraordinary. It was easily one of the highlights of the week.

Artemis!

And of course, there’s one of my favorite video games, Artemis! This is a spaceship bridge simulator that is really a social game in disguise. It takes up to six players. Five of the players have computers, with each computer showing the different stations of a spaceship, like Helm, Comms, Science, Weapons, and Engineering. One player does not have a computer; this player is the Captain, and will order the other players around.

This means that each player has a tiny amount of information and a tiny amount of control over the entire game state. Science has perhaps the best perspective on what is happening, but cannot actually change the game state. Weapons can shoot other players, but cannot fly the spaceship. Helm can control the spaceship, but has no idea where to go without Science’s input. Engineering has the ability to preserve valuable energy on the spaceship, but may deprive some stations of energy at a critical time. And the Captain has full authority over the crew, but without a workstation, can only issue orders verbally.

It is a marvelous game. I was excited when someone suggested setting it up. As a first-time attendee, I was forbidden from officially running the event, but I acted as an (ahem) “advisor”.

We only ran for a few hours; most of the crew were morning people, it turns out. But I got an idea of how the game fits in with the Gathering crew, and I will most likely run it next year.

This was my first time playing Artemis with multiple spaceships, and it was amazing. I loved seeing how the two ships could work together, even if they technically were not allowed to communicate. We could have also gone for a deathmatch, but opted not to. Maybe next year?

Dropping out of time

One of the most amazing feelings at a convention is the sense of “con time.” It’s almost like dropping out of time, and living outside the world for the length of the con. Until the Gathering, the longest I’ve gone was 5 days at BGG.CON. But being able to drop out and live in the world of games for 10 days was beyond extraordinary.

Man, I hate to sound this gloating or pretentious! But I hope that all board game designers one day get to experience the Gathering of Friends for themselves.