I just got back from the 2014 World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA. This event is the “brain” half of the split vacation my wife Cathy and I generally take every year, the “brawn” half being summer weapons camp. WBC is a solid week of tournament tracks in strategy and war games of all kinds, with a huge open pickup gaming scene as well. People fly in from all over the planet to be here – takes less effort for us as the venue is about 90 minutes straight west of where we live.
Cathy and I aren’t – quite – steady world-championship-level players. I did make the Power Grid finals (top 5 players) two years ago, but have been unable to replicate that feat since. Usually we do make quarter-finals (top 64 to 125 players) or semi-finals (top 16 to 25) in a couple of our favorite games and then lose by the slimmest of margins to people just a hair better (or at least more obsessive) than we are. That’s pretty much what happened this year.
I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow of my whole week, but rather try to hit the dramatic high spots in a way I hope will convey something of the flavor to people who aren’t deeply immersed in tournament gaming. I think the best way to do that is to organize by game rather than chronology. The section titles link to game descriptions.
I’ve been enjoying this one a lot lately and was very pleased to be able to fit a pickup game in on the first night. Three to six players, 2.5-3 hours, fantasy-themed – contending factions with magical powers trying for interlocking levels of area control on a multicolored hex grid.
This game is strategically deep and tricky to play – very “crunchy” in gamer slang. Suits me fine; I like my games super-crunchy, which is an elite taste even among strategy gamers. If Terra Mystica becomes a WBC tournament game (which I think is extremely likely to happen within two years) a trophy in it will earn more respect than one in a lighter, “fluffier” game.
Some of you may be entertained to know that my joke name for this one is “Eclipse: The Gathering”. For the rest of you, this hints at similarities to a game (Eclipse) I often play, and another (Magic: The Gathering) that I used to play.
The one flaw the game seems to have is one that’s common in games with asymmetrical player powers; the factions aren’t quite balanced, with some chronically stronger or weaker than average (this sort of thing can slip through even careful playtesting sometimes). The Darklings, for example, are often said to be about the winningest side; my one time playing them I did very well, pulling a strong second.
This was about my fifth play of Terra Mystica, maybe fourth. This time I drafted the Engineers – I’m trying to get to playing every one of the 14 factions. I cannot recommend them. I had to work hard to pull second even though all the other players were less experienced than me; the Engineers have real trouble getting enough workers to expand even though my first couple of actions were the expensive ones required to reduce my terraforming cost to 1 worker. Copping the bonus for most area controlled and maxing out the Air cult track helped a lot.
I love ancient-period wargames. Phalanxes, peltasts, barbarians, war elephants – I actually prefer a straight historical to fantasy-themed stuff. I’d say my favorite single period is the wars of the Diadochi (lots and lots of war elephants, hurray!), but anything set from the late Bronze Age to the fall of the Western Roman Empire will easily catch my interest.
Commands & Colors: Ancients is, in my opinion, one of the best game systems ever devised for this span of time. While not as crunchy as some of the older simulationist games like the PRESTAGS system, you will get authentic results when you use period tactics. Knowing what historical generals did, and having some idea why, actually helps significantly. There are expansions and scenarios for hundreds of different historical battles.
Alas, the game is flawed for tournament play. The problem with it is that when two highly skilled players meet, they can counter each others’ tactics so well that the outcome comes down to who gets good breaks on the battle dice. I’m quite a good player, but I had skipped competing at WBC for the last few years because I found it too irritating to lose to the dice rather than my opponents.
This year, however, I had a hole in my WBC schedule where the C&C:A tournament was and decided to give it another try. The scenario was the battle of Bagradas, Carthaginians vs. Romans during the First Punic War. With elephants!
Three games later I had: 1 narrow loss to a player who afterwards shook his head and said “You played that very well, I just got better dice”; 1 solid win against a player not quite as good as me; and one heartbreaker of a loss to a player about my equal where we both knew it came down to one failed die roll on my attempted final kill – which, by the odds, I should have made.
That wasn’t good enough to get me to the second round. And it was just about what I expected from my previous experience; the tournament game is a crapshoot in which it’s not enough to be good, you also have to be lucky. I prefer games in which. if there’s a random element at all, luck is nevertheless relatively unimportant.
I’ll probably sit out C&C:A next year.
TTR is a railroad game in which you build track and connect cities to make victory points. It’s relatively fluffy, a “family game”, but has enough strategy so that serious gamers will play it as a light diversion when circumstances aren’t right for something crunchier.
I am difficult to beat at the Europe variant, which I like better than the American map; the geography creates more tactical complexities. In my first heat I kerb-stomped the other three players, coming in 19 points ahead of 2nd and sweeping every scoring category and bonus.
The second heat looked like it was going to go the same way. I built both monster tunnels (St. Petersburg-Stockholm and Kyiv-Budapest) on succeeding turns for a 36-point power play, then successfully forced an early game end in order to leave the other players with unused trains (and thus unscored points). When we started endgame scoring everyone at the table thought I had the win locked in.
Sadly, in order to get rid of my own train tokens as fast as possible I had to give up on the longest-continuous-track bonus. Another player got it, and piled up just enough completed route bonuses to get past me by 1 solitary victory point. Hard to say which of us was more astonished.
My schedule was such that it wasn’t possible after that to make the second win that would get me to semifinals guaranteed. But I was a high alternate and might have made it in anyway; I was just checking in with the GM when my wife ran in to tell me I’d squeaked into the Puerto Rico semifinals running at the same time – and that’s a game I take more seriously.
Ah well, maybe next time. I think none of the WBC regulars in this tournament would be very surprised if I took gold some year, if I’m not preoccupied with more serious games.
Puerto Rico was not quite the first of the genre now called “Eurogames”, but it was the first to hit big internationally back in 2002. The theme is colonization and economic development in the 16th-century Caribbean; you build cities, you run plantations, you trade, and you ship goods to Europe for victory points.
This game is to Eurogame as apple is to fruit, the one everyone thinks of first. It looks light on the surface but isn’t; it has a lot of subtlety and tremendous continuing replay value. It has outlasted dozens of newer, flashier games that had six months or a year of glory but now molder half-forgotten in closets.
My wife and I are both experienced and strong players. The WBC tournament referees and many of the past champion players know us, and we’ve beaten some of them in individual games. We seldom fail to make quarter-finals, and some years we make semi-finals. I think each of us can realistically hope for gold some year.
But maybe we’re not quite good enough yet. Cathy got two wins in the qualifying heats, good for a bye past the quarter-finals into semis. I scored one utterly crushing victory at the only three-place table in the second qualifying heat, playing my default factory/fast-buildout strategy. Then, only a close second – but that made me second alternate (one of the guys I beat in that game was last year’s champion) and I got in because a couple of qualified players dropped out to do other things (like play in the Ticket To Ride semis I passed on to play in these).
Cathy pulled third in her game; she says she was outplayed. Me, I got off to a roaring start. Play order in the initial round is known to be important from statistical analysis, so much so that in championship you bid competitively for it by agreeing to deduct victory points from your final score. I got fourth seat (generally considered second-best to third) relatively cheaply for -1.5.
Usually I plan to play corn shipper when in fourth seat. But, due to the only random element in the game (the order plantation tiles in the game come out) and some good money-accumulation moves, I managed to build and man a coffee roaster very early. That pointed me back at my default strategy, which aims at a fast city build-out with minimal shipping using Factory as a money generator – one coffee crop comes close to paying for the (expensive) Factory.
Damned if it didn’t work perfectly. I had the only coffee in production, which scared other players off of triggering production, particularly styming the bulk shippers. For most of the game it looked to everyone at the table like I was cruising to an easy win. There were admiring remarks about this.
The one drawback of this strategy, however, is that it has a slow ramp-up. You make most of your points quite near the end of the game through big buildings. If anyone can force game end before you’re expecting it, you take a bigger hit to your score than shippers who have been making points from the beginning.
That’s how I got whacked. There were these three or maybe four guys down from Quebec specifically for the Puerto Rico tournament; gossip said they weren’t playing anything else. One of them – Matthieu, I think his name was – was sitting to my left (after me in the turn order) and pulled a brilliant hack that shortened the game by at least two rounds, maybe more. Doing this deprived me of the last, crucial rounds of build-out time when I would have pulled down the biggest points.
Those of you who play the game know that one way to accelerate the end is to deliberately leave buildings unmanned so they suck colonists off the colony ship faster; when those run out, you’re done. There’s a recently discovered ambiguity in the rules that makes this tactic work much faster – turns out that someone playing Mayor is allowed, under a strict reading, to refuse to take his colonists, casting them into the void and leaving his building empty to pull more out of the boat on the next round.
The resulting vanishing-colonist play may be a bug produced by poorly crafted rules or a bad translation from the original German (wouldn’t be the first time that’s been a problem, either). The tournament referee is not happy with it, nor are the WBC regulars – it screws with the “book”, the known strategies, very badly. The ref intends to brace the game’s designer about this, and we may get a rules amendment disallowing the play next year.
In the meantime, nobody could argue that the guys from Quebec weren’t within their rights to exploit this hack ruthlessly. And they did. Three of them used it to finish at the finals table. Matthieu, the one that dry-gulched me, took the gold.
There was a lot of … I won’t say “angry”, but rather perturbed talk about this. I wasn’t the only person to feel somewhat blindsided and screwed (though we also admired their nerve and dedication). These guys were monomaniacs; unlike most top WBC gamers, who (like me) play up to a half-a-dozen games very well, the Quebeckers were laser focused on thus one game and studied it to the point where they found the hack that would break the standard book.
Sigh…and that’s why no trophy for me this year. (Everyone in the final four would have gotten one.) Cathy and I will try again. Nobody would be surprised at either of us making the finals, but it could take a few years’ more practice.