The Gathering of Friends 1999

This was the tenth annual Gathering of Friends. It was supposed to be special in some way, but it seemed pretty similar to last year other than being a fair bit larger. A few designers were there, plenty of prototypes were played, lots of good times were had by all, hotel problems plagued Alan, etc. Just like last year.

The hotel was a Best Western, but used to be a Doubletree. It shows. It looks like a hotel that was once nice and has fallen into disrepair. That didn't bother me much, although we wondered how all the rainwater got into the bathtub. That which did bother me was that the restaurants couldn't serve anyone at mealtimes without an hour's wait. Even in the middle of the afternoon, when we were the only customers, getting a burger took 40 minutes. There was exactly one trash can in the 7000 square foot ballroom. It was regularly emptied almost every day whether it needed it or not. The staff was regularly fairly rude and loud. There was no express checkout on Sundays. Oh, well. We won't be there next year. The room was decent, but VERY loud. Then again, 180 gamers in any one room will be loud.

I got to play about 30 new games and a bunch of old ones. New means new for me, which is usually, but not always, the same as released in the last year. Here goes.

Tuesday night:

Die Glucksritter: Immediately upon arriving, I got to play a new game. This is a mildly complicated guessing game. Each player simultaneously chooses two out of six action cards for his turn. Some actions get money, some take cards, some beat up on other players, some build towards the victory. The fewer players who choose your choice, the better/cheaper it is for you. We didn't do much negotiating; I don't know if that'd be effective. The decision seems reasonably interesting, but after the first couple of turns, each turn was more of the same. There are only six actions, and we were playing with six players, so perhaps that was the problem: our goals were simply to figure out what no one else would do so that we could do something reasonably effective. I'd guess it's best with 4 or 5 players, but didn't really thrill me no matter what.

Abduction: I brought this trivial card game I found somewhere. The theme is that we are all abducted by aliens and are trying to escape their ship. It should be short and simple, but our game seemed to last too long as we played very defensively, building lots of dead ends to thwart progress. The big problem with the game is that there's only one bad thing that can happen to a player: to start over. This happens a lot. Maybe I'll fix that and the game will be at least mildly fun. As it is, it's frustrating to start over every couple of turns.

Bamboleo: This is a dexterity game. A large circular wooden plate is balanced on a circular cork atop a pedestal. Many small wooden objects are on the plate. They need to be removed one by one. Of course, the goal is to avoid having the plate fall. It's a pretty good dexterity game, although the basic rules do not reward taking chances. Greg Schlosser made up some rules that seemed to work well, but the second time I saw it played, the group had reverted to the original rules.


Loopin' Louie: Another dexterity game of sorts. This is an old children's game that is a great deal of fun. The idea is that you have three disks in a little slot that if hit will fall down. A little airplane on a rod moves around (by battery-powered motor) the table, on line to knock down everyone's disks. Each player has a tiny paddle attached to the game's base by which he can flip the airplane (Louie) up in the air to miss his disks and maybe hit someone else's. It plays well. Silly, but fun.

Hearts: OK, I've played hearts before, but never with these rules. They played games to 50 with the DJ being worth -10. That means a game can end in two hands. My first round tournament ended in 4. Guess who won? Yup, the guy upstream of the player who got blown out. There wasn't enough time for the rest of the players to do anything about it.

Frog Juice: This is a Casino variant of sorts. Net wisdom is that it's no good and that a game called Monkey Powder played with the same cards is much better. Wrong. Monkey Powder is a trivial game, but Frog Juice has something to it. It's probably best with two players. It has two unbalanced cards, so it may play best with them removed. In any case, it's an adequate 10-minute card game. I'll play it many times, I expect.

Tayu: Tayu is a clever pipe game. The idea is that water is rushing from the center square of the board. Each player in turn draws a 1x3 tile that has pipes on it. The goal is to get as many connections from the center to your side of the board. The game is played in teams of two players sitting opposite each other; the team score is the product of the two players' scores. Of course, since there's no state to the game, it's really a two-player game. It is fun enough to play once in awhile. It takes about half an hour.

Tikal: Tikal was the hit of the week; it'll be nominated for game of the year I expect. It combines exploration with combat with the standard German mechanism of "you can never do everything you want to do on your turn." A round consists of drawing four large tiles to be explored. (I'm assuming a four-player game.) An auction is held with the players spending victory points to choose which tile they lay during the round. Of course, the last player gets his for free. We never spent much on these, but once in awhile it's key to pick a tile. In particular, if a volcano tile is played, a scoring round is initiated immediately. Each player gets an extra turn and scores. It's fairly helpful to score first. On a player's turn, he has ten actions to spend. They can be used to move men around the board, to build pyramids (if you have the most men in the pyramid's tile, you get its height in VPs during a scoring round), to dig up treasure, etc. The board has a neat little scheme. The cost of moving between two hexes is the sum of the number of marks on the edge. Unless it's zero, in which case one cannot cross the edge. So if a zero is opposite a one, it's easy to move. But if it's opposite a zero, it's impossible. That means the position and orientation of tiles is crucial. I found a neat little strategy: I built some pyramids in a way that it'd cost six actions to get a man there. I happened to have one guy right near each of them when I laid the tiles. No one competed with me for those pyramids the whole game, which gave me enough VPs to win. In fact, that meant I was so conservative of men, half of mine never entered the board! I can't wait to play this one again.

Lost Cities: This is a two-player Knizia minigame. It feels a lot like a WotC $8 card game. The board is big and the cards look nice, but the game is quite simple. One has a hand of cards in five different colors. They can be applied to "cities" of the corresponding colors. Cards have numbers between one and ten; one may only play cards higher in rank than the top of your stacks. If you have no cards in a city, you score zero. If you have one or more, you score their sum less 20. For each city, there are a few doubling cards. They have rank zero, so must be played first. There are rules for discarding and drawing that are not completely trivial, but, frankly, the game didn't keep my interest.

The Bottle Devil: This is a little trick taking game with a strange twist. The bottle devil is something to be avoided; one's score is negative if one has it at the end of the hand. Someone must, however, obtain this item, as it has a 19 written on it. There are about 36 cards in the deck, each with different numbers on them. If a player plays a card with value less than the bottle devil, he gets it. If more than one player, however, does that, the highest such card played gains the devil. That's how to get rid of the 1. There's a little cleverness to the scoring and such, but the basic point of the game is trick taking based around avoiding the bottle devil, which is not at all trivial. It's an OK game, but not a great one. There are far better four-player card games, but this is a reasonable half-hour filler... if you can get everyone to understand it!

Battle Cattle: One of the high points of the week, Jim and Sheila Davis ran a miniatures battle where each player was, you guessed it, a cow carrying automatic weapons. We each had special abilities and different weapons and armor. Our goal was to rescue our sweet Buttercup from the barn before the farmer got back. And kill anyone else who tried to beat us to the prize. Most of the players decided that the best way to arrange this was to kill everyone else, be the last standing, and simply walk away with the prize. Unfortunately, a stray shot hit a gas tank early on and set the barn on fire, giving us all a severe time constraint. My cow and one of his buddies (buddiness was created when two of us caught him in a crossfire and he begged for his life) got into the barn and found Buttercup. We were second to do this, so we "negotiated" with the other two cows who already had found her. One of them ran away before Burger King found him ready to serve, but we and the other had to deal when the barn started burning. We got Buttercup loose and headed out the barn fairly quickly, but I had to take care of snipers on the way. We lost a turn when a rogue cow threw a concussion grenade at all of us and tipped poor Buttercup. She was slow enough as is. When I got out of the barn, I laid down enough fire that we had a clear way off the board, but the next turn the barn collapsed and squashed Buttercup just as her horns reached the doorway. Oh, well. We all lost, but I had by far the highest score due to incredible dice rolls---I think I missed only once the whole game. I managed to pick off a sniper who was under cover at the most distant part of the board. And tipped him, too!

Supposedly, there is a real set of rules called Battle Cattle, but they didn't have much to do with the actual game we played. This was entirely the Davis' creation (mostly Sheila's).


Most of Thursday afternoon was spent running an 18-player Target tournament. 19 would have been awful, so I didn't play. Too bad.

Mystery Rummy: Mystery Rummy is a 2-4 player card game, loosely based on Rummy. Jack the Ripper is loose in London; our goal is to produce evidence to catch him. The hand ends when either Jack escapes (he kills five victims and runs off) or someone empties his hand. The game is somewhat simple, but I didn't understand the rules well until I'd played once. I don't know why; they don't seem difficult. Perhaps I was thinking Rummy too much; the game really has little to do with it. Anyway, it's a decent enough card game for $10. The designer has two more scenarios in the pipeline. He says they'll be out in two weeks or a little bit more. Those who played them varied a lot in their preferences; some liked the first one best, and some liked others a lot more. I didn't get to play the prototypes, so I only can infer that the others are quite a bit different from the first one. I like it a little, but I'm not sure if it'll stand up to much repeated play. Some others liked it a lot.

Twitch: This is the WotC game that is vaguely Creights-like. It plays well enough, but I really don't like games that are 100% reflexes. Those who like that sort of thing will like Twitch. Creights provides many more decisions in the play.

Ra: Ra is the new Knizia game. It had mixed reviews, many saying that it has little replay value. I think I'm in the thumbs up camp. The mechnism isn't that complex, but is interesting for two reasons. One must buy tiles at auction in order to score. These tiles are bought in sets of various sizes, somewhat under the players' control. Various combinations of tiles provide VPs, so a group of tiles' value to each player is different after the very beginning. In each round, one has three gold pieces with which to make bids. No two have the same value, and one may only bid one of them. That makes the auction interesting. The combinations of tiles should be obvious but were not to the neophytes. I'm certainly interested in giving it a few more plays. There isn't much strategic depth to the game, but there's lots of judgment needed. It's inexpensive, so if it doesn't have great replay value, it's still a good buy.

Ricochet Robot: This is a cool little puzzle game. A half-dozen or so robots are placed on a board that's approximately 20x20 squares. Each round, a random location (of about 12) is chosen. Immediately, players vie to find a way to get the robot to the location in the fewest moves. As soon as one player calls out a number, everyone has one minute to beat it. If so, the timer restarts. Robots move in a straight line until they hit something: obstacles, walls, or other robots. You can move other robots in order to bounce the moving robot to places not otherwise easily reached. This one requires a lot of thinking, but is a great filler for a few minutes now and then. Those who have practiced will be very hard to beat; some will find this game amazingly frustrating. I like it OK. It should lend itself to some interesting static puzzles.

Big City: Big City is Metropolis without the deal making. The only reason Metropolis is any good is the deal making, so Big City fell flat. It might still be OK, as it has great components, but about half the cool buildings cannot be played until the City Hall is built. Buildings built adjacent to city hall have their score doubled. Therefore, no one builds it, as it is just a way to give others massive points. Perhaps someone waits until he owns all the property around where city hall will go? Not good enough: then everyone plays parks and factories (which can be played anyway) around city hall, making the placing player's cards all worthless. Did anyone playtest this with competitive players?

Verrater: This card game has an interesting mechanism. At the beginning of each turn, six (?) action cards are shuffled. One is randomly removed. The first player then chooses one and passes the rest to his left. Then the 2nd player chooses one and passes the remainder. Each action card allows one to do something specific on one's turn, either draw battle cards, gain VPs, pick first next time, etc. The key card is the Verrater, or traitor. At first, two players are on each side of a war, either roses or eagles. If someone plays the Verrator, he changes sides. This can lead to surprises in battle, as the traitor is resolved just before battle resolution. The ideas seem interesting, but I think the game is missing something to make it fun. Most turns, one won't be able to do very much; about once per game there'll be the chance to turn traitor and gain a bunch of points. Or lose them. That move will determine whether one is hopelessly out of the game or in a commanding position. Searching for the power play is not good enough to make the general tedium worth it.

Svea Rike: This is a Swedish geopolitical game. Or so it seems: the board is the standard sort of map with players owning territories, getting income from their fiefs and merchannts, prosecuting wars and such. In reality, however, it's really a game of sleazing and countersleazing. Each turn, the players draw a card that gives them some special ability. Once. These cards are so powerful that their play dominates the game. Still, they are fun to work with; their use can be a little tricky at times. I'm not sure the game has enough substance to spend two hours, but it was fun nonetheless. It absolutely cannot be played with whiners or players who hold grudges. Each player will be massively screwed over several times in the game. If someone goes on a vendetta because of getting hammered early, the game will be ruined for all. Our game was unusual in that the game system hammered us all constantly; the global events were rather unlucky. For no apparent reason, Russia kept attacking with all their best armies. And kicking us around something fierce. When Russia wasn't crushing Sweden, Prussia, Poland, or Denmark was. Somehow, they all had huge armies. As a result, the scores were 6 to 6 to 6 to 5. I had one of the sixes and had a 1/3 chance to gain 1 VP at the end of the game. I failed my roll, so we went to tie break. The first tie break eliminated me, and the second eliminated another, giving one player the win. It was fun. Don't take it too seriously.


Friday morning was spent running the Bohnanza tournament.

Was Sticht: This isn't a new game, but is still in print. It's an Oh Hell variant, a trick taking game. Each player has a handful of objectives drafted before the game begins. Examples are take the last trick, take the fewest tricks, take exactly three tricks, and take no red cards. Before each hand, dealer secretly and randomly determines trump, both a suit/color and a rank. Then players draft cards from a tableau. Cards become available four at a time, so dealer can't grab all the trumps. As each four cards are drafted, dealer tells the rest of the players who would win the trick if they were played as they were drafted. In about 4 such tricks, the rank (if any) and suit (if any) of trumps will become obvious. The players then try to draft a hand that'd play well for one of their objectives. All except dealer secretly choose one and reveal their choices simultaneously. Dealer's goal is to accomplish one of the opponents' goals and prevent them from doing it. If a goal is achieved, it is dicarded; if the dealer wins, he gets to discard any one goal he has. To win, one must be out of goals.

The main problem with this game is that everyone can know every card in everyone's hand before the card play starts. In practice, the players are too busy trying to determine trump to memorize every card taken, but once trump is known, the remaining cards typically are remembered by most. The reason why it's hard to remember all the cards is that the size of the trump suit isn't known early on. On the other hand, dealer has no such distraction; he knows everyone's hand the whole time. Even if he doesn't have a good memory, he should have a count on the trump suit before starting. With only 36 cards in play, this information is huge. As a result, while the game itself should be fascinating, a little experience will make this into a memory contest. Not surprisingly, as I worked this out first among our group, I crushed pretty handily. Good idea in theory, fails in practice.

Chinatown: This is a game of deal making. Everyone draws business tokens and property lots from a big deck and trades them with others to build contiguous property on which to put together businesses. Shades of Metropolis. Income is derived from the businesses, so efficiency counts. There's little randomness in income, however, so the value of objects can often be calculated, particularly late in the game. They were surprisingly low, it seemed. The game is reasonably fun, but it didn't seem as if there was enough to it to be a really good game.

Colorado County: CC is a completely abstract token placing game. Tokens are played on a grid by means of cards; cards are obtained by hidden auction. Various patterns of tokens are worth victory points. The mechanics are reminiscent of Ra, but the game is far less fun. The secret auctions are more annoying than fascinating, and the patterns are fairly trivial once one gets the hang of them. I was bored.

Giganten: Giganten is about buying oil wells, shipping oil to refineries, and selling the final product. It has different interlocking mechnisms for dealing with each of these goals, but they are all linked via the action card deck. Each player may choose one card per turn out of a set turned up at the beginning of the turn. This card determines how many and which actions the player may take during his turn. One more card than players is revealed, so one can always get something worthwhile. Indeed, all the cards are good...under the right circumstances. Some cards are good for selling oil; some are good for exploring to gain wells or for transporting the oil back to town. Some control the price at a refinery and others hammer opponents. There's a strong bidding aspect; only the high bidder gets to sell oil at any given refinery each turn. There are three refineries, but usually more players. And each refinery is likely to have a different price. This is mostly a game of judgment and resource management. There's some auction work and some outguessing your opponents. When it comes right down to it, it's very nice to find a lot of oil where you happen look for it. The bits are great. I think this one is a fair bit of fun, well-balanced, and interesting. It's not a super deep game, but a good middle-level strategy game.

Schatz des Pharoahs: This is a trivial card game for which I cannot remember being drunk enough so that it'd keep my interest.

Die Heisse Schlacht: A simple but not quite trivial dice game that can be very annoying. If you land on top of someone, you get his next turn, more or less. The underling has to ask his master what they should do that turn in his best bootlicking subservient manner. It's OK as a late night filler maybe. I'd rather play Subway Vigilante.

Plague and Pestilence: Nuclear War in the era of the Black Plague. It's not as good as Nuke War; the cards don't have much variety. Modern Naval Battles is still the king of that genre.


Most of Saturday I spent on the Treasure Hunt. Peter Sarrett build a set of interlocking word games, picture puzzles, and treasure hunting games into a complex puzzle that was supposed to take 2-3 hours. As is normal in all of these such endeavors, it was much harder for the players than the creator. In five hours, no one had finished it, but three teams were very close. Unfortunately, it ran up against other events and had to be terminated "early." Many of the puzzles were fiendishly clever, and the whole thing was lots of fun to do. Of course, all the puzzles revolved around the games we all play. One of my favorites is a puzzle in which games had to be deduced from fanciful pictures. For example, a guy running down the road with a butterfly net meant Netrunner. It was a terrific effort on Peter's part, but I suggest that next time, whomever does it builds exactly what they think will take the full time and then trim half of the puzzles away. Someone will finish on time then. Maybe. Or maybe we are all dumber than we should be :) Despite being cut short, it was engrossing, spectacularly fun, and full of "duh, how could I miss that"s!

Keydom: The only "new" game I got to play on Saturday was Keydom, an extremely limited production that was out of print before copies were available. If you can find a copy for a modest sum, get it. The idea is that each player has eight or nine (one has to produce the ninth via birth!) villagers, each of whom can do one action per turn. In order, players assign villagers tasks, such as digging in the mines, soldiering, being the priest or outlaw, getting magic spells or items, or trying to be king. Not everyone can do everything each turn; indeed, most options are limited to just one villager. To determine who gets to do the action, one turns over the assigned villagers and notes their value; 9 is highest and the baby (1) is lowest. Highest villager gets to do the action...unless there's a tie. Interesting tie breaking procedures are used---therein lies much of the game.

The most interesting token assignment procedure occurs in the simplest of tasks, producing resources. Each type of resource can be obtained by up to 8 villagers per turn. It takes two of them, however, assigned as a pair, in order to build anything. (They make two, though, except if the resource is the player's specialty, in which case, they produce four.) The problem lies in that villagers are assigned to work spots in the standard order, highest, then next, etc. with the normal tie breaks. That means that it's hard to get your villagers to be in both halves of the working pair. No problem: if two different players' guys are working together, they split the proceeds. Unless there's a supervisor. One villager can be assigned to this task (per resource). He chooses the disposition of "shared" resources. This causes a somewhat complicated scheme for playing villagers and for distribution of resources. Sometimes a player can have three villagers assigned to a resource, all of whom help another player and do nothing for their master!

The magic spells produce another game within a game. None is absurdly powerful, but they all break the rules. As far as I know, no timing rules were given for their interaction. We reached a position in which we had a race condition: whoever was allowed to play his spell first gained a huge advantage. Later, whoever was allowed to play his spell *last* gained an advantage. These rules will have to be polished before the game gets a more general printing. When it does, however, I expect it to be terrific. The art on the board and spells is great, the game plays well (although a little long; the short game is clearly superior to the regular one) and the theme is fun. With some rule polishing, it could become a really good one.


Sunday is normally a short day, a getaway day. Despite, however, playing in the Can't Stop tournament (argh! 2nd place...missed it by that much!), I got to play four new games! All were simple card games.

Mamma Mia: Tikal and Momma Mia were the hits of the week. Momma Mia is a little card game by Uwe Rosenberg (Bohnanza). The idea is that each player is trying to fill pizza orders. The crust is easy---everything is the toppings. Orders require various groups of toppings. On a player's turn, he must play some positive number of the same topping from his hand into a pile in the center. He may then play an order if he wishes. He refills his hand *either* from his orders deck (everyone has similar orders) or from the ingredients deck. This continues until the ingredients are used up at which point we try to fill the orders. Starting at the bottom of the deck, ingredients are turned over until an order is found. The player whose order it is may fill the order from any ingredients turned over so far *or in his hand*. If the order succeeds, the ingredients are discarded. In any case, the process continues. As a result, the players don't know what will be available for their pizzas until the very end of the hand. Three rounds are played; whoever fills the most orders wins.

Mamma Mia is fun, fast, and interesting. It'll get a lot of play, I predict. And who can resist putting on a horrible Italian accent to say, "mamma mia, justa one-a more-a pepperoni for my pizza!"

Titanic, the Card Game: This was a silly little game that is not worth discussing. It's mostly a guessing game with a little game theoretic strategy thrown in. The basics are a little game that is used in game theory class and discussed ad nauseum. The greedy strategy (a technical term meaning don't think ahead, just try to maximize one's score ignoring opponents) worked just fine. No replay value. Minimal play value. Pretty cards.

David and Goliath: This is a trick taking game with two twists. One: the low card on the trick takes the highest card and the highest card takes the remainder. Two: one's final score on the hand is the sum of one's score in each of the suits. The suit score is computed: if one has two or fewer cards taken in the suit, then the cards' face value (up to about 12) are added. If one has three or more, each card counts one. It has interesting card play (that's the whole game, so it had better) and plays somewhat similar to Oh Hell. Low cards are crucial; a hand full of middle cards offers no options. I'll play it again if I get the chance.

Lowendynastie: "Lions' Families" in English, this is a Dalmuti-ish card game with a few twists. I don't particularly like the genre, but it might be a fairly good example within it. If you love The Great Dalmuti, try this one. If not, skip it. If you love lions, get it just for the cards.

I saw a bunch of other games being played at the Gathering, but as I didn't play them, I don't know much about them. I believe these are new:

Evergreen (about the music industry?)
Sold! (antique dealing)
Kontor (two/four player tile game)
Die Handler
Union Pacific (Airlines reissue. Sylvia says it is much better than Airlines.)
Europa 1945-2030 (geopolitical game)
Druiden Walzen (two player game)
Kap Horn
Money! (little card game)

Congrats go out to Alan Moon and all his helpers. It was a great event, one of the high points of the year. --Jeff

Jeff Goldsmith,, April 20, 1999