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After years of reading reports of wonderful events like the Gathering, Gulf Games, and Avaloncon/WBC, I finally made it to one. Gulf Games VII. Orlando. Days filled with mucho gaming and the chance to meet some friends I've known only via the Internet.
Coming all the way from California, it was an unexpected turn of events and a wonderful wife that delivered me here. Originally I had a business trip to Cape Canaveral planned for mid-February, and was looking forward to a game session with Orlando gamers Brent Carter, Eddie Bonet, and Richard Borg. That trip was postponed for reasons beyond my control (honest!), ending up right after GG7 in Orlando. A few changes in travel reservations, a vacation day from work, and a phone call to Greg Schloesser were all I needed to add Gulf Games to the front of my work in Florida. My wife Candy just said, "I think you should do it." Ain't she great? :)
So on a Thursday night I left Los Angeles on the redeye flight to Orlando, arriving at 5:30am. Goodbye to sunshine, palm trees, and Disneyland built where orange groves used to be, hello to . . . uh . . . pretty much the same thing. Weird!
Since GG7 had officially started the day before I arrived (and unofficially a day or two before *that*), I didn't expect any nightowl gamers to be there at the crack of dawn. I didn't have long to wait, though. By 8:30 I'd met Greg as he vacuumed the floor of the gaming room, and by 9:00 I was in my first game. (Second if you count the solitaire game of Al Cabohne I played over breakfast!)
That first game I played was a microcosm of the whole event: I met a friend I'd only known via email since 1997 (Mark Jackson), another I only get to see every couple years (Ted Cheatham), one new face (Chip Triplett), and got to play with some good kids (Ted's, Emily & Doug). Multiply that by 25, add in fun contests, mixers, a group dinner, and the prize table, and you get my experience at Gulf Games. Below I'll go over all of the games I played, but first some more about the people.
Greg & Ted I already knew. I met both for the first time during a trip visiting my brother in New Orleans back in '98. I first found Greg on r.g.b., and received hardcopies of his Westbank Gamer newsletter back in the early days. Ted I met through a mailing list, and it was Ted who introduced me to a new game group when I moved to LA (which he'd just moved *from*). Great guys, both of them.
Ty is the one I'd emailed the longest without having met. I didn't expect to connect with him so immediately and so well. Despite being another I met early on a mailing list, Ty and I never really had any side discussions over email. I can see now I've missed out. What a friend!
With all three of these "stooges" (wait till you see Vicki's picture!), their wonderful personalities are matched by their wives & children. If that's what built Gulf Games, I can see why it works.
Mark Jackson, Brent Carter, and Craig Berg are more longtime electronic friends I got to meet "for real." Would love to hook up with these guys more often, if that's possible. The next week Brent invited to his house outside Orlando for more games and conversation. Jim Cobb, Ward Batty, and I had a great time talking on the unexpectedly long shuttle ride back to the airport. Ken Girton's quirky humor even made up for the fact that he snagged Svea Rike from the prize table before me. :)
Gulf Games is about families, and I played games with the Glanzers, LaBranches, Douds, and Cheathams. Kids, too--I enjoyed games with JP LaBranche, Timothy McCarthy, and Ariel Douds. They even taught me the rules!
Even with all that time, there are inevitably some games & gamers you miss. I didn't get in any table games with Derk Solko, Ben Baldanza, or Jim Cobb. I would've liked another game with Craig Berg, particularly Rise of the Luftwaffe. I can always use another game of Entdecker or Medici. :) Ward Batty had played Sid Sackson's poker deck card game Card Baseball, which I wanted to play but thought too obscure and uninspiring to even suggest during the event. Next time!
A big thanks to the southern hospitality and welcome by the Schloesser, Doud, Cheatham, Watson, and Carter families. Several folks asked when I'd be back at Gulf Games. It may be quite some time--this trip was a special situation. I sure appreciate the invite,though.
I did the best I could, remembering names. I've forgotten some already, though, and no doubt botched some descriptions below. If so, please send me a correction via email, and I'll fix this page.
Al Cabohne (*Me*44-35)
I play this almost on autopilot, and have won my last two solo games with about the same score. My pair of two player games ended with the Bean-Mafia winning, once by complete blowout. Is the difference strategy, luck, or hardwired into the rules? Not sure. In none of these games have I bought a third beanfield. In my attempt at trickery, I probably feed the Mafia too much in the two-player games.
Liar's Dice (*Ted* Emily & Doug Cheatham, Chip, Mark Jackson)
I'm *so* bad at this, I simply have to play it more! :)
Lost Cities (me, *Chip*)
A late bloomer for me, I just now picked up a set to try with Candy. Had a hefty lead after two hands, but got greedy, feeding Chip better & better sequential cards while I fished for a handshake. Rookie mistake considering the lead I had. Had. It spelled my doom. At least I finally see the fun of the game (still not sure it's *great*, but that hardly matters!).
Buried Treasure (*Me*, Mark Jackson, Dennis, Richard)
Too chaotic and sensitive to player order, plus a little long for what it is. Enjoyable on occasion, especially when it got me my first & only game box medal. :)
Wyatt Earp (*Brent*, Greg, Ty, me)
The Mystery Rummy series has kind of passed me by--I've only played Jack The Ripper once. This one won me over right away, though. The theme is great, play is both straightforward & fun, and Alea has given the series game a graphic upgrade. Probably my favorite new game of GG7. (And for some reason, that was the question I was most often asked, "What was your favorite *new* game?")
Old Town (Ty, Rich, *Sandi*, *Me*)
I haven't played too many deduction games. I guess it isn't one of my favorite mechanisms, though I don't really avoid it. This game, though, adds some spatial awareness/tile play to the deduction, which is sure to warm my heart. Yeah, the game has some rough edges, but the overall experience was very enjoyable. I do worry a bit about the luck of being one of the few or only players able to get in a deal on the last placement. Sandi and I tied, but for a single card at the endgame either one of us could've won, and won by a good margin. Brent was nice enough to teach it to us, then step out to let someone else in.
Strand Cup (*Me & Mark Jackson*, Brent & Richard)
This was ridiculously cheap, and sounded promising enough to try it. Or maybe it was because Krimkrams or whoever publishes it had put the rules on their website, effectively working as advertising. Whatever, I took a flyer on this little card game. Mark Jackson said good things about it, and planned to bring it to GG. I said I'd bring mine, too, to allow larger games...then I promptly forgot. No big deal--I think I'd prefer the 2-on-2 game anyway, which is the subject. (An extra deck would help with the frequent shuffling, though.) Would love to play more sport-themed card games that work this well (see Games Missed, below).
Orcz (*Richard*, Shanna, John-Pierre, me)
When a game like this comes out, and gets some good word-of-mouth, I try to gage whether it's "good for an American game," or simply "good." I think this one is good without the qualifier. Not great, no, but worth a look. The face up/face down bidding of paired tiles in sequence with other players allows for some wordless communication, and plenty of bluff. Clever! Maybe could use a variable turn order, though (per turn, not round of bidding). One gripe: the players' folded screens always fall over, because the sides aren't tapered like they are for German games (E&T, Modern Art, etc.). You could trim them yourself, but you'll clip some reference info.
Tohuwabohu (Vicki, Gail, Shay, Elaine, Juliett, me...)
I think I missed some. Juliett, maybe? Lots of women, obviously, and they were kicking my butt! Perhaps it's a game you can practice, but moreso I think some people are just good at this speed pattern recognition games, and others aren't. Compared to Set or Bongo (which I enjoy), I like the physical aspect of having to reach for a target piece, stealing/protecting previously scored ones. Good stuff.
Evo (Dennis, *Andy*, Peter, me)
This was at the top of my to-play list. If I'm not the world's biggest fan of the designer's previous game Vinci, then I'm at least in the top ten! Now he tackles my other favorite subject: biological systems. I had high hopes for Ursuppe but was disappointed by the mechanical/processional nature of that game. Would Evo be different? Not so much, as it turned out, and in that respect I was a little disappointed. To be fair, I had unrealistic expectations--I fell for the hype. Had I not played it twice I would still plan or ordering it immediately. Now I'm more content to wait and see.
In our four-player game, while there was some interesting interaction via the novel bid/outbid/rebid auction system for mutations, there was far less than I expected on the board. Most of the time we were struggling with the elements of nature (weather & moving to favorable terrain) rather than each other. You'd think that we'd elbow each other while competing for the best land, but the limited number of dinos, combined with more ability to withstand harsh climates than to move to better ones means we mostly stuck to our corners of the world. A little conflict with your left & right neighbors, a little less with your opposite neighbor in the center of the board. Direct conflict (fighting) utilizes a die roll, and in both of my games the outcome went counter to the 2/3 chance of success almost every time. That'll happen with dice, yeah, but you can understand the gripe. After all of that shrewd bidding on mutation, and maneuvering into desirable terrain, to be stuffed because you can't roll 1-4 on a d6...
The event cards are interesting, and add some good feel to an already strongly-themed game. (In fact, theme isn't even the right world--this is a low-level simulation game, very comparable to Vinci in that respect.) Some of them target a specific player, but the effect in that case will be pretty minor. The rest are more global in effect, and the person playing them is spared mostly by knowing what's up his sleeve, preparing for it as best he can. That's easier said than done--your options are limited. You only see a subset of the cards in each game, so that'll help keep it fresher longer.
The second time we tried the published variant that puts a real squeeze on the mutation bidding: now one less mutation is available for auction, which means someone goes without...and the bids are correspondingly higher. I had mixed feelings about that variant. On the positive side, the mutation auction is one of the best parts of the game, and this only accentuates that. No longer can you blithely bid 1 or even 0 on an item, hopeful that no one else wants the same thing. Now there's a real choice to be made in announcing 1 or 2, even 3 or 4 as an opening bid. Once the bids get that high (these are victory points you're bidding, and a game-winning score is in the 30-50 range after at least six turns), bowing out is a very viable option. But--you can see this coming--these tough choices add about a half hour to a game some feel is already a touch long. And for me, the variant accentuates one of the "most gamey/least themey" parts of Evo, which isn't really what I'm after.
Dragon's Gold (*Mark Engleberg*, me, Ken, Craig, Ted, Dennis)
This was the other game I was looking forward to trying. I loved it! Another hit of GG for me. Attractive components, breezy rules, all that deal-making, and the linchpin of it all: the short timer for working those deals. The scoring is straightforward, but I suspect it took some considerable design & testing to get it right. When I get a copy, I may see if I can't find some rhinestones at a craft store to use in place of the traditional wooden cylinders.
Quick aside: it's just wonderful to drag yourself into bed after playing games into the wee hours, knowing there are more games waiting in the morning!
Johnny Controlleti (Ty, Kenny, Greg, Dennis, *me*, Richard)
Don't blink--you'll miss it! That might not be how this game often plays, but it was the case with us. My number came up a few times, and by zigging (overbidding) when others were zagging, I received a few healthy payolas in a row, winning the game before it went once around the table! The game might be fixable, but why bother? Play something else.
Liar's Dice tournament
So if I can bluff my way to quick victory in Johnny Controlleti, how come I get my head handed to me in Liar's Dice?! Need more practice...
Lift Off! (*Peter*, Steve, Brent, me)
This was definitely the best game I thought I wouldn't like. It's a speed game, right? But the need to play differently, strategically, on different stacks while moving quickly was fun and challenging. The space theme helps,too.
Carcassonne (Mike, Shanna, Jeffrey, *Chip*, me)
This had already won me over, and I have a copy at home. The game made several new fans this weekend, too. Interesting to see folks go through the same experience with the game: first play, they're surprised by the big, game-winning bonus for farmers. Next time, they plan for it, the farmer bonus is modest, and the winner did it by scoring a single big city by himself. Great game whose only blemish is the even greater trouble I'll now have scaring up a game of El Caballero!
Spanish Main (Brent, Ted, Kenny, me)
Cross this one off my list. I'm no real fan of Tresham's games, but had wanted to try this one since I heard about it. Exploration is a powerful theme, and this game also includes the trans-Atlantic voyages, not to mention some interesting, historical asymmetry between the English & Spanish. It just didn't work for us, unfortunately. Not because of fiddly mechanics, as you might suspect. The rules are actually pretty smooth. But it just doesn't gel. Even though we aborted the game, I'm still very happy to *finally* get to try it. As Brent said later, the exploration game that gets it all right has yet to be done (don't say Tikal!!).
Malwurf Company (*Timothy*, me)
My chance to play with just a kid, no other adults. In re-reading old Sumos on the Cabinet I became curious about this one, so I was eager when Timothy suggested it. Very fun! The movement disk flipping is simple, and so much better than a die roll. I spotted Timothy keeping his finger on the key movement disk he needed when they're turned face down and shuffled. :) But he later proudly explained that this was his winning strategy, and I was tickled by this youngster's cunning!
High Bohn (Kenny, Greg, Mark Jackson, Ken, *me*)
Mark Jackson was right--this is the best Bohnanza expansion. Ironic, then, that it wasn't published by Amigo, and it's the only one I didn't buy! You really need to have a table full of Bohnanza nuts to play it, though. It would be lunacy to try to teach a newbie Bohnanza & High Bohn at the same time.
DTM Hockenring (*Mark Jackson*, Richard, Michael, Frans, JP, Robert, me, ?)
One of the best of my trip. Eddie taught the game, then gracefully stepped out to let others try. Wow, I found it tough, dropping from 2nd to last within a half lap! That timer Eddie found should come with the game--I can't imagine playing without it. Can't wait to see how my normally pokey game group handles the pressure! :)
Ace of Aces (me, JP)
The only game played that I brought. I scored four quick hits on JP, but he kept dodging away from the final two. Eventually he flew away, leaving me with a draw. Several people recognized the flipbook combat game, and remembered it fondly. I saw Andy had earlier set out the similar Lost Worlds books.
Evo (*Shanna*, Michael, Jeffrey, me, Ward)
Second try, this time with variant. Comments above.
Apples to Apples (Michael, Ward, George, me, Jeffrey, and others)
I know some folks have played this out, but it hasn't lost any charm with me. Always fun, especially with new people.
Zicke Zacke Hühnerkacke (*Ariel*, Robert, Jeffrey, me)
It's cliché to get smoked by a kid at a memory game--this was my first and I had fun. After a half dozen turns I was still flailing about, unable to remember more than a couple face-down tiles. By then Ariel had mapped them all out in her mind. She promptly lapped us to steal our chickens' tail feathers for the win. Great bits.
One of the other amazing things about Gulf Games, at least for my wife and I, is that I discovered:
I can actually play *enough* games
There are other folks even crazier than I am about this hobby! :)
Hey, not that I wanted to be anywhere else! But after two solid days of nonstop gaming, I was happy to kick back and just watch other folks play, chat with people, or look at some of the more obscure games somebody brought. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have started on Tuesday, let along those gonzos that turn the Gathering into more than a week-long experience. Crazy!
Metropolis (*Craig*, me, Chip, Dennis, Mark)
This might not have been my first choice of games to play (I'm not really a Sackson fan) but I couldn't pass up the chance to play with these *people* one last time. I've played Big City and Chinatown--Metropolis is always mentioned in the same breath, so time to check it out. It was definitely worthwhile. I wouldn't care to play with someone who really tracks scores well, though. As in many negotiation games, someone doing that mucks up the seat-of-the-pants types like me. I make a few deals here, a few deals there, watch out for that guy, and voila! I lose. :) Actually I came in close second to Craig Berg, so there's no shame in that.
Attila (*Greg*, Tim, Shay, me)
It's definitely grown on me. My first play of this game took too long, had to be restarted partway through when the score track was jostled, and had that annoying crossover of player and tribe/card colors. The latter problem hasn't gone away, and the second still threatens (Evo has this problem, too--what's up with that?), but at least now I can see that it's a good game. Better still, I seem to understand it at least enough to be competitive against newbies, which is more than I can say about Web of Power! Drat, I had a commanding lead throughout the game, but when Shay leapfrogged one of my positions I still opted to end the game rather than try to re-establish, and it meant Greg won. I could've counted it out, but that sucks the fun out of a game for me. Besides, I wasn't at all sure how lengthening the game would help me, as I'd used more of my special chits than others had.
Honor of the Samurai (Greg, me, Ken, Jason, Ward)
Shoot me now. Please. It isn't that bad? Maybe not. It certainly looks nice, and the play makes sense with the theme. But the victory conditions invoke dogpile-on-the-leader type of play, and the game provides way too much ability to do that. Or else too little defense against it. This game went much like the last time I tried it, several years ago, with various people inching toward victory, pummelled into a pulp for their efforts, then someone else tries until we all give in from exhaustion. I think it's probably salvageable, and the tweak required may be quite small. Let me know when you find it. :) In any case, similar to the Metropolis game, I probably would've agreed to play anything with this good group of guys, especially to close out my Gulf Games experience.
Wednesday? Gulf Games was over, but I was still in the area for my business trip. On Wednesday Brent Carter invited me over to his house for games, dinner, and conversation. Just trust me when I tell you the dinner & conversation was good--I know you only want to know about the games!
Flickwerk (Brent, *me*, Mike)
I've only played one of the green-haired man's games, Wucherer, and didn't care for it. Maybe that one isn't too representative of most of his games, but Flickwerk isn't, either. It's a realtime puzzle game, which means speed. My main interest was one of format--I'm a fan of the old small-format wargames called microgames, and this seemed to me like a micro-German game. It really was, and is defnitely a good game of its type, an amazing value. I'd take a dozen of these over most Cheapass games any day of the week.
Timberland (Brent, *me*, Mike)
Looks like a kids game, and was marketed as such (I believe, coming from Haba). I think there's more to it than that, and with Klaus Teuber designing and a 9th place DSP award, I'm sure I'm right. Nonetheless, it's a bit hard to strategize effectively when the significant effects of the treecutter and wild boar involve a die roll. I wonder how it would play with a 1/2d6 or averaging die to limit the movement? In any case, I saw enough there that I liked to want my own copy.
Alaska (Brent, Maryann, me, *Mike*)
Brent's wife was home from work and joined us for Alaska, a classic I'd never played. I made a couple dumb moves, but they hurt the experienced players Brent & especially Maryann as well, so they sort of worked anyway. Mike scooted off with the win, my tally right behind his, in what Brent described as one of the best, meanest games of Alaska he's played.