A survival guide for millennial thirty-somethings.
I work for Barnes & Noble, and it’s the opportunities like those I was presented with these past few weeks that prove to me that I am in the right industry. About a month ago, I noticed that the games selection at my store was expanding and mutating in exciting ways: Suburbia, One Night Werewolf, Gravwell, Coup.
A plethora of buzzworthy games began to fill my shelves over the proceeding weeks and it was all I could do to keep my paycheck intact. Some confusing acronyms and a short investigation later, I determined that our board game buyer had changed to the local Publisher Services Inc. (PSI). I was pleased with their taste and I was content to have a larger selection of excellent games to sell.
Then, I had good fortune enough to notice an e-mail – an invitation for local area employees to attend the PSI games conference in Atlanta, GA. I confronted management immediately as to why I had not already been slated to attend, of course so that I might expand my workable sales knowledge of the games selection currently being made available and get some perspective on new titles that may be on the horizon for our stores nationwide.
The upshot of this is that I went downtown last Wednesday evening to a finely furnished hotel lobby where I was served drinks and desserts, played several new games, and got the opportunity to speak with a variety of game representatives. This is my takeaway.
After making a few confused circles in the parking lot, I found a place to leave my vehicle behind and walked up to the hotel. At this point, I was prepared for the worst, even through my excitement – likely this would involve a set of marketing presentations or stuffy slideshows, perhaps some bullet-pointed ‘features’ of new game acquisitions, and I felt like I could count on filling out at least one feedback form. What actually greeted me blew even some of my wilder hopes out of the water. In these two rooms were twenty tables with games open and ready to be played with twenty smiling publisher representatives ready to teach me everything I might need to know.
Luckily, Suzan from PSI found me in my stupor and gave me an official nametag that, I was told, would grant me free drinks. I decided to scout the rooms and assess priorities; the event was only slated to last three hours.
These guys were set up right by the door, and I’ve known them to make a quality product since I was collecting comics and cards as a kid in the early 90’s. An initial glance showed the expected fare: card sleeves and boxes, many of which we already carry. I was prepared to walk on by until I was sucked in by the playmat centered on the table.
I was in love, but sadly doge was not on the list of things they were allowed to give away to passersby. It did provide a nice jumping off point to talk about their other products which might be worth a spot on the shelf. Ultra-Pro provides gaming peripheries for the hard-core enthusiast who doesn’t mind paying a little more for premium goods, which is exactly what they brought to show. Their set of balanced, laser-cut, metal dice felt really good to roll and theoretically generate numbers as even and random as dice are able to do. They also showcased a high-end bag with swappable covers and zippers and pockets galore. These are luxury items, sure, but the value was apparent to any pen-and-pencil gamer.
For the boardgamer, they had a smorgasbord of sleeves for cards of all sizes and a sizing sheet to help you find the right sleeves for everything from your Power Grid factories to your Twilight Imperium event deck. I spoke with the representative more afterward and he told me that their number one product is actually binders – the collector mentality that comes naturally to the tactically-minded gamer provides the backbone of their business.
Dead of Winter. This game has gotten a lot of buzz and, after seeing the review the guys at SU&SD did a few weeks back, I absolutely had to try it out. Once I finished looking at the Ultra-Pro shinies, I made a bee-line for the Plaid Hat table and tried to contain my glee that there was an open spot at the table. To be more accurate, all of the spots were open except for the one with the Plaid Hat rep in it. I claimed my seat across from him and he gave me the rules rundown as we waited for the other seats to fill. Suzan and another PSI employee joined us and we were off, trying to survive just five short rounds with way too many mouths to feed in our frigid post-apocalyptic commune while zombies pounded at the door.
Let me say right now, for the record, that I am not into zombies. I don’t watch the shows or play the videogames or put on gory makeup for ‘zombie walks’. So you need to believe me, your opinion on the walking dead aside, when I tell you that this game deserves every bit of hype it has received.
What makes the game good is that it keeps the tension high from start to finish and uses that as a foothold to let you tell an amazing story.
I controlled two survivors, the mayor and the pilot. My personal and secret objective was to build four barricades around the central colony before game end. With this in mind, I sent the pilot to the police station to grab some equipment. She took some fuel to gas up a car so she wouldn’t get ambushed by zombies along the way, a risky move, since the colony was already in crisis, clamoring for fuel and food. The mayor stayed behind and added some of my hard-earned food to the crisis control stockpile and built a barricade to keep the undead menace under control. My pilot, having spotted some interesting equipment on her fly over the town earlier, turned up a gun as she rummaged around. Determined to outfit the entire colony, she threw up a barricade of her own in expectation of rummaging around again next turn.
The survivor controlled by the Plaid Hat rep headed out to the grocery store and made quite a bit of noise as he looked through the bins, which was risky, but clearly needed to be done if the colony was to feed itself that night. Curiously, by the end of the round, there still wasn’t enough food to feed all the hungry mouths, causing me to narrow my eyes in suspicion at him. There is, of course, a possibility that one among the players is a betrayer, trying to make the colony fail from the inside out. A slim possibility, but enough that the trust level between players is never 100%.
The next turn, one of the other survivors attacked a zombie at the colony and got infected and decided, rather than lay down and die, to fight and risk an epidemic. Tragically, the infection spread, killing everyone in the colony. Morale was, needless to say, dangerously low.
The remaining survivors were spread out across the wasteland, but someone needed to get home and clean up the trash that was piling ever higher and risked extinguishing the last bit of morale and ending our game then and there. I suggested that the Plaid Hat rep use his turn to do so and prove his loyalty to our cause. He did so, borrowing some fuel from another survivor to ensure a zombie-free trip home. He got there without a hitch, and took out the trash promptly, provoking a sigh of relief until the trash pile was counted again. The discarded fuel can from his trip had pushed the pile right back over the edge, and the colony collapsed into anarchy and despair.
We had lost, yet I felt that we had all shared an experience we wouldn’t soon forget. It was not until later that I realized that the Plaid Hat representative at the table was Colby Dauch, the founder of the company. Perhaps, should we meet again, he will have forgiven my suspicions.
Sadly, Dead of Winter is sold out of yet another printing, so my store and I will have to wait for some future date before we can enjoy this gem.
The next table over from Plaid Hat was AEG, home to one of my favorite licenses: the Legend of the Five Rings. The demo game at their table was Love Letter, a game we already carried that I was quite familiar with as a fun light game perfect for killing some time or warming up for an evening of more involved games. The rest of the games on their table were also in small portable boxes and promised 20-30 minute playtimes: the perfect sort of add-on to any gamer’s shopping list. Agent Hunter and Say Bye to the Villains caught my eye as other games I would have loved to try, given the chance.
I couldn’t help but ask about a product I’d been particularly looking forward to: Doomtown: Reloaded, a reboot of a steam-punky western card game with sleek new bits. The representative intoned that the game was on the menu, but couldn’t confirm or deny if this would be something available to my store in the near future. My fingers are crossed.
Z-Man brought two items from Matt Leacock’s Pandemic family of games, though only one designed by the man himself. I couldn’t get a seat at the table, but I did read through the rulebooks and watch some play.
The Cure is a simplified dice-based version of Pandemic that plays quickly and easily. This game strikes me as a great gateway game for non-gamers and children, perhaps performing that role even better than the original Pandemic.
Contagion is a card game that lets you play from the disease’s point of view. On your turn, you mutate and grow, trying to out-infect and out-resist the ominous WHO deck that keeps trying to wipe you off the planet.
I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the upcoming Pandemic: Legacy, where the results of each game have permanent repercussions for all future games played out of that box, but it’s not scheduled for release until next year.
Another game I couldn’t get a seat to play was Ca$h n’ Guns. This is the second edition of the game after the sleeper hit success of the original game. It comes with a set of foam guns and a stack of loot to be divvied up. Everyone draws their weapons at once in a standoff and people slowly back out for fear of their lives. When the triggers are pulled, it could be that the guy pointing at you loaded a blank, and you can safely wipe the sweat off your brow and choose your rewards. The constant crowd at the table speaks volumes for the appeal of this dramatic bluffing game.
The next bit of plastic goodness I got to sit down and enjoy was Krosmaster: Arena. I’d seen the game on our shelves recently, but I didn’t know anything about it that wasn’t gleaned off the back of the box. Seeing the gorgeous board all awash in vinyl trees and glittering gold coins convinced me I needed to get over there and check it out.
The game plays like a quick-fire Final Fantasy: Tactics duel. A team of characters clamor to gather up gold to spend on power-ups and blast the other team off the map. We played with two characters a piece and the game ended after the first death, which was, sadly, my archer. (See bottom left corner of above picture.)
The game was fun and the pieces are gorgeous hunks of cartoony vinyl. You can, of course, expand your team choices with expansion packs of figures, meaning it’s a great game to get into with a group of friends.
There is a draft format, which I would have played if I’d thought I had the time. But three hours goes by quickly. I had time for one more game.
My one more game was not Golem Arcana, but I did feel obligated to stop, watch, and ask some questions about this interesting hybrid of miniatures and videogaming. On a board covered in squares, impressively detailed figures were moved about, jostling for position. Spells, attacks, or other abilities are handled by the digital component. You touch your stylus to your character sheet and then to the opponent’s miniature, and the damage and effects are applied on screen with the appropriate animations.
While the game and its ability to handle your maths does look like it would appeal to a certain audience, I wonder if this particular combination of the digital and analog gaming worlds doesn’t highlight the weaknesses of both.
My last stop of the night was at the Mayfair table, where I asked to look at the rulebook for Mad City. I instead, got a chance to play a little one-on-one.
Each turn, each player grabs a stack of 9 city tiles from the bag and everyone has until the end of a one-minute timer to flip over their tiles and arrange them into the best possible city. Points are scored for grouping residential, commercial, and industrial zones, creating a long continuous road, and one player will get to score his parks (if he’s the fastest to complete his city and snatch the tree from the center of the table). We played the base game; further zoning stipulations and scoring mechanisms can be added on with the stuff in the box. This game was fun and easy to learn, though I will admit some of the full game features seemed a bit labyrinthine, even to me.
The Mayfair rep, Mr. McCarty, took time during and after the game to tell me about some other offerings coming up soon.
Hot Tin Roof is a job-taking game where players try to build bridges across the city and get their cats to the right places at the right times. The game promises a lot of nice mechanics, like the group ante every turn ensures that every job gets picked up eventually.
Bedpans and Broomsticks is a co-operative game where you control elderly heroes trying to escape from the nursing home. If for whatever reason that doesn’t sell you right there, how about the fact that no-one can remember where the exits are, so the board is built as you go, or that each hero has the ability to reveal a secret passage on the board that only they remember?
Extra! Extra! is a worker-placement game of sorts where each player is sending their reporters and photographers around the world to gather material for the front page of the newspaper. Each player’s newspaper values different subject matter differently, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be competition for stories. After all is said and done, it all has to actually fit on the page, adding a bit of tetris-style puzzling on top of everything else.
Everyone had mostly cleared out by the time I finished talking with Mr. McCarty, though I had to snap this picture of The Duke, still being played, as I left. This game aims to be a more complex chess and whether or not you believe that can or should be done, The Duke demonstrates a sense of refinement and elegance with its carved wooden pieces. Best with a red wine.
I left, that night, invigorated by the passion and enthusiasm of these designers and distributors. Board games are on the rise and events like these are perfect examples of how easily communicable cardboard fever can be. I left, not just with more product knowledge, but with a reference point for the inner chambers of the gaming business and how a person like me might fit inside.