Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Unpub Mini Vancouver

I love playing boardgames. I hope by now that's obvious. I love finding new ones or rekindling my love for old ones. But discovering new classics before they're even on the market is a rare and wonderful privilage, and last weekend I had the joyous opportunity to disscover not one, but several of them on the same day!

Unpub Mini Vancouver was a one day event organised to allow local game designers show off their prototype games, and a chance to have them playtested by a whole lot of new people outside their usual circle of friends. One of my regular gaming buddies, Chase, brought along his game, Berlin Noir which I've played several times and seen go through various iterations over the last few months. Another of the prototypes there was from one of the organisers, Marcel, who brought For Greed or Glory, a game I played at Terminal City Tabletop Convention earlier this year. With so many others on offer, I didn't play either of those, but luckily I'm friends with both, so technically I can pester them to bring their games over and play any time I want.

I arrived at the venue, Magic Stronghold around 11:30am, and there were already a few people playing various games. I was trying to be there by 10:30, but got utterly lost on the way. Apparently, they moved recently, so, while Google Maps dropped the pin on the current location, when I asked it to route me to the store, it took me to the old location. I just didn't double-check, blindly climbing aboard the indicated bus! Anyway, I got there eventually, and with more than enough time to game!

The first prototype I played was Town Builder, by Eric Raué, who happened to be the other organiser of the event! This is a drafting card game, where players collect and construct buildings in a town, competing over projects and materials for the top score.

One of my favourite touches was in the layout. This game was visually beauitful, with wonderful, colourful card art, and fantastic, clear card layout. Each card serves a dual purpose of both building and material. If you want a card as a building, you take it and lay it sideways to represent that it's under construction. But every card can also by materials to construct your projects, repersented by the material icons at the base of the card. If you want a card to be contruction materials, you take it and place it upside down under a project you're currently building. The materials icon is upside down in relation to the rest of the card, but rightside up when it's used as a resource! Genius! The only game I've ever seen have a similar design feature is the original Cheapass Games The Big Idea. I loved it there, and I love it here.

The art on Town Builder, by Fillipe Martin, is gorgeous. Eric claims there's still a lot to be done, but apart from one greyscale card, I loved how the rest looked on the day. The difference between "complete" and "nearly complete" seemed to be in object definition, with completed cards having buildings and elements outlined in sharp, clean lines. "Nearly complete" had this soft, almost impressionistic feel to them, a slight haze that made the scenes depicted into a dreamy, summer day. I really liked that style, but I can also see what Eric is looking for.

Play is clear and fast, with almost no downtime between your turns, even in a 4-player game. The whole game took a little over 30 minutes to play, even with having to explain the rules to two new players. Players draw two cards from the central face-up cards per turn, so you can decide to start a new project, or work toward completing a current one. It's worth noting at this point that it's a whole lot of fun to steal a building another player wants, just to throw it away as a resource for one of your own buildings!

But what's Town Builder like as a game? Honestly, it's great! I mean, Eric says it needs more polishing, and I'm sure he knows best, but I loved playing it as is. We all ended very close to each other in the final scoring, even though I was playing a 4-player game against the designer and another designer who had played a few times before. I got an awesome combo right at the end, triggering, if I recall correctly, four cards and completing two buildings! It plays fast, borrowing a gameplay mechanic from Bohnanza. The game ends when the discard deck is resuffled twice. The first play through the deck is the longest. When the deck is shuffled once, players already have a lot of cards out of it in play, either as buildings or resources. The second shuffle is a bit smaller again, and everyone knows the end is coming fast, so completing buildings becomes a top priority.

With a 30 minute playtime, Town Builder is a fast, fun drafting game that is easy to learn and beautiful to look at. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Kickstarter next spring for this one, and I'll be letting you all know about it when it comes up!

The second game of my day was the even faster real-time co-operative monster masher, World Defence Force, by Adrian R. Walker. Players work together to trade and swap coloured cards in order to build up a stock of single colours to buy attack cards from central, shared piles in three minute rounds. At the end of each three minutes, whatever monster is showing on the Monster Deck takes its frustrations out of the Population Deck, eating a bunch of them and diminishing the players options. With only 100 cards in the Population Deck at the start, it's pretty devestating to watch 20 of them get munched on, then another 20 three minutes later and then another 15!

World Defence Force is frantic, but less stressful than something like Escape The Curse of the Temple, which can feel overpowering at times as players talk over each other and all continue to act simultaneously. In World Defence Force, players take actions individually, going clockwise around the table in standard turn order. Every turn is "Draw a card, discard a card, swap a colour set with an Attack card, if possible, and draw back up to five cards", all of which can be done fairly quickly, and planned, roughly, during other players turns. If one player takes 20 seconds to make a decision, that affects the time for everyone, but most players turns are over in less than 5 seconds.

The card design in World Defence Force is super clean and clear, something I really love. Each Population card is just a big block of colour in a thin boarder, and Attack cards are similar colour blocks with number printed big and bold on them. Each colour has its own unique pattern as well, which is just visual flavor, but really appealed to me during play. I wonder if Adrian has tested the patterns for colour-blind players, or if it's just a neat feature? Ensuring the patterns are visually distinct without the colours would certainly broaden the reach of this game.

World Defence Force was a blast to play. We had six players, including the designer and three others who had played a version of it before. Only myself and one other were totally new to the game. I certainly had a good laugh playing it as it stands, though there was a lot of discussion after about adding additional mechanics. I kinda like it for how clean it is, though additional, optional, mechanics might be nice once you've started to master the basic version. Another winner in my book, but there seems to be a while to go before we'll see it pop up on Kickstarter. There was a lot of blank monster cards, and Adrian is looking into options for the round timer. Maybe an app?

After breaking briefly for some lunch, The Shrine, by Shad Millar and Jay Cormier was the third game I played at Unpub Mini Vancouver. This is a strategy game where players place cubes on a 4x4x4 play space. Each cube is one of four colours, and has either two or three symbols out of an available four, with the same symbol on opposite facing surfaces. So some cubes might have two dots, two squiggles and two X's, while others might have four X's all around, and two squares on opposing faces.

Players chose one cube to play from four revealed cubes out of a big bag of possibilities, placing the cube in the playspace. Cubes placed on top of or next to other cubes must have matching touching faces. When a player places a cube they gain resources of the colour they placed and any touching cubes. Those are used to buy cards that count toward victory.

Once all the cubes are placed, the number of each symbol facing upwards on the final tower is counted, defining that symbols value. Only those sides facing up count toward victory, not the ones exposed to the sides. Then that value is multiplied by the number of those symbols on the cards you have, giving you the score for the symbol.

The Shrine is interesting, because when we played it, both myself and the other player in our two-player game thought we had broken it very early on. My opponent had a lot of dots on his cards, so for him, dots had a high value. With three dots facing up early on, he simply built three towers of four cubes straight up, guaranteeing him that high score right off the bat. I couldn't place cubes fast enough to block him by creating voids. Voids are created where two blocks facing each other with a single space between have different symbols on their facing sides. Because all cubes have the same symbols on opposing sides, this is an impossible to fill space, so a void cube is placed in that space, blocking the symbol on the cube beneath from scoring.

However, by the end of the game, we realised that the benefits of that strategy were somewhat deceptive. While my opponent built straight up, he left me to fill out the base layer, stacking it with symbols that were of benefit to me. While I lost in the end, his dots netted him significantly less than my squiggles, because hight doesn't count for anything during the scoring. I had seven squiggles facing up. With my six squiggles on my cards, I scored 42 points in one go. Had I played a bit better, I could have won, while allowing him to waste his time building his towers.

I really enjoyed The Shrine, and would love to play it again a few more times. I'm not sure if there's any problems with the mechanics, because I got so distracted by what seemed to be a huge issue while we were playing, but turned out to be seemingly balanced on the whole. It's certainly a fun game, and a level of strategy I can get my head around. It's in no way basic, or simple, but it is clear and easy to learn the core mechanics of, while the strategy emerges through play.

Finally, I wrapped up my long day of gaming playing a game I wanted to try since before I walked through the door. I first saw Sloops!, by SĂ©bastian Bernier-Wong and Peter Gorniak back in March of this year at the first annual Terminal City Tabletop Convention. Back then I simply didn't have the time to play it, as I was playing so many other games over the one day I had. So when I heard it would be at Unpub Mini Vancouver, I put it at the top of my list of games to play. So it was with just a smidge of irony that Sloops! became the last game I played of the day.

Sloops! is a game of naval combat with a worker placement element for drafting an action deck and gaining resource tokens. The turns are divided into two phases, an Island Phase and then the Sea Phase.

The worker placement mechanic is during the Island Phase, when you place crew around the island. All players take turns to play theier three crew one at a time, and then purchase cards that go into your deck. Unlike a lot of deck building games, purchased cards are first placed into your hand, rather than your discard pile, so that you can immediately use them in the next phase.

The Sea Phase is all about moving your ship and dealing damage, awarding victory points. Cards are played from hand to maneuver your ship or fire cannons. Damage is dealt with cannon blasts or ramming other ships, or rocks if your hand of cards really sucks. Ramming damages both ships, but only awards a victory point to the aggressor. Each time a ship takes damage, the player gains a Damage Card into their deck, which has no ability and just clogs up your later hands. The game ends when all the Damage Cards have been distributed.

As we started our 4-player game so late in the day, I didn't get to experience a full game. We cut it short, playing out three or four full rounds. Still, that was enough to know that Sloops! is a hilariously fun game. The theme is really well implimented, and feels like a core part of how the game plays, rather than a skin wrapped over some mechanics.

The worker placement element is great, with lots of choices and decisions to make. Do I want to claim a card I can't afford first, hoping I can claim the required resources with the next two crew members, leaving me open to being blocked by the other players? Do I spend a turn pooling resources for the next turn? Did I forget to grab some Cannon resources, meaning I now hold a Fire Cannons card I can't use? Yeah... yeah... I totally did. Dammit.

The Sea Phase is the action part of the game. Players play cards to move their ship around the ocean and islands, hoping to draw near other ships and wreck havok. We had great fun pulling along side each other, unleashing a hail of cannon shot, and then parting ways in a most gentlemanly fashion! There was a lot of ramming ships as well, with some player turns ending up as a series of ramming and being rammed.

Everyone had a lot of fun playing this one, and laughter at the table was an ongoing and regular feature. Turns are very clear and straight-forward, aided by the division of elements into the two seperate phases. Despite the two phase turn, Sloops! plays very fast. Players only have three crew to place on the island, and the Sea Phase is just a matter of going around the table as players play cards from their hand and move or fire their ships. I look forward to getting to play a full game of this in the future, and watching how it grows and develops, mostly in terms of components, which are mostly stand-ins for now.

Given that there was a wide selection of games on offer at Unpub Mini Vancouver, I'm delighted to be able to report that I really enjoyed the four that I played on the day. It probably helps that most of those games are well into their development cycles, and, though still evolving, they each have a solid grasp on where they want to be.

Whatever my experience was, it's clear that Vancouver is home to some incredible board game developers, and I look forward to adding many of the games on display at Novembers Unpub Mini Vancouver to my shelf in the future!

Related Reading: Check out Loaded Dice's review of the event and what they thought of the games they played in their Recap post.

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