ORIGINS GAME FAIR, June 15-19 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center
by David C. Obenour & Kris Poland
Another year, another kick off of the tabletop games convention season with Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio! Fueled exclusively by Lan Viet‘s bánh mì sandwiches, we took advantage of the expanded exhibitor hall (stretching game demo space into two larger halls), manageable crowds and friendly volunteer playtesters, to get into a whole lot in those few days. So let’s get to what everyone actually cares about: the games!
Salem (Passport Games Studios)
Kris: I didn’t get to play Salem, but I watched over Dave’s shoulder as he finished up his demo. It looks a lot like the dozens upon dozens of Are you a Werewolf? (Or Mafia. Whatever.) style games out there right now. The biggest difference between Salem and the rest of the crowd seems to be that while the rest are more focused on fun, lighthearted social play, Salem is a serious logic puzzle to be solved by serious players.
Dave: Kris is right that thematically, you would think that Salem sits alongside a number of party games already out there – but this is no party game. The research that went into Salem is nothing short of remarkable. The four trials that represent turns take place on the historic Salem Witch Trials and each of the 49 characters represented were real participants and have a few sentences back story written beneath their token. The art is also very dark and fitting of the concept, with heavy ink lines for deep shadows. As for the game itself, Salem plays out like a logic problem or Sudoku channeled through a more involved version of Clue. Having not used this part of my brain in years there was a rather bewildering learning curve, but that too added to the game’s experience as you were forced to make accusations and vote on guilt.
TANKS (Gale Force Nine)
Kris: Gale Force Nine have been killing it of late. It’s truly surprising to me to see a company that began in gaming accessories churn out some very cool-looking and playable games. TANKS looks to continue that tradition with skirmish-level miniature battles that can be setup and played in a matter of minutes rather than hours. The models look great, with nice details and variable armaments, and the price point for entry is incredibly reasonable. I’m very excited to get my hands on the starter set and take TANKS for a test drive.
Dave: X-Wing has brought a whole new wave of gamers to the tabletop and with it a whole new wave of games. Taking its roots from Gale Force Nine’s Flames of War system (even sharing the same tank models), TANKS is a quick to pick up and play game of World War II tank combat. The core set is only $25 and comes with all of the rules and a Panther and Sherman tank. Is TANKS a cleverly marketed gateway drug for Flames of War? Perhaps. Do I care? Guys, we’re talking about battling tanks, here!
Garbage Day (Mayday Games)
Kris: Garbage Day is elegance and simplicity in game design wrapped up into an instantly understandable product. Perhaps it’s just a case of rules overload, but I find it so refreshing to play these straightforward, streamlined games that absolutely anyone can pick up and enjoy. There’s very little depth to Garbage Day, but there doesn’t need to be. There’s the skill element of balancing cards on the trashcan and the gambling element of managing how messy a player’s room becomes. That’s it. This is a must play for everyone from family gamers to hardcore rules lawyers who need to be reminding of the importance of fun in gaming.
Dave: One of the greatest things about the rising popularity of board games is all of the creative concepts that publishers are willing to back. Now, from the gaming company that brought the West monkeys flinging rubber coconuts into plastic bushels, we have the game of avoiding taking out the trash! If that sounds like a dig at all, you obviously haven’t played Coconuts (read our summary from last year’s Origins) or Garbage Day yet. Packed inside a plastic garbage bin, Garbage Day has players drawing from a deck of trash, to then either store in their room, hide in their opponent’s room, or precariously balance atop of the bin. One of my favorite games of the weekend.
The Refuge (B&B Games Studio)
Dave: The Refuge’s art really drew me in but after hearing the run through it sounded like… a more complicated version of zombie-themed checkers? That’s not entirely fair as we didn’t get to play this one. Honestly, Kris seemed a little more into it so I think I’m just going to let him take it.
Kris: It blew me away to learn that The Refuge was in development for two years. The game is incredibly straightforward. Think Frogger but with zombies instead of traffic. Get from one side of the board to the other without dying. That’s about it. There are weapons and ways to switch places with other players and a handful of other elements that ought to keep gameplay from getting too stale too quickly. There’s potential for a lot of fun here, but The Refuge isn’t going to replace Dead of Winter on anyone’s shelf. Hopefully that two-year development time meant that they play-tested the hell out of it in order to make it as balanced and smooth as possible.
Avalanche at Yeti Mountain (Green Couch Games)
Dave: For just being a deck of cards, a couple of plastic holders and a handful of wooden pawns, Avalanche at Yeti Mountain does a great job of feeling like it’s more. Laying out a slope of 12 cards, players ski and rocket jump their way down the mountain, trying to avoid the yeti and outrun the avalanche. Adding to the affect, the avalanche is represented by a stood up card with a track on the top to indicate its speed (which increases with every rocket jump). It’s a fun and clever game designed in a fun and clever way.
Kris: I completely agree with Dave on this one. For such a tiny box, there’s a lot of goodness packed into Yeti Mountain. It’s about risk and reward and the balance between competition and cooperation. Players take the role of skiers testing out experimental rocket boosters. If everyone moves as fast as possible down the mountain, the avalanche speeds up and ultimately consumes them. If everyone plays it too safe, they quickly become Yeti chow. Don’t be fooled by its diminutive appearance. There are great times crammed into that itty bitty package. Kudos to Green Couch!
The Networks (Formal Ferret Games)
Dave: Hire your stars, pay for new shows, solicit advertising and set that primetime schedule, in The Networks players fight for viewers as growing television stations. Turns represent seasons and each new season some shows get circulated reruns, reruns go into the archives, and a variety of new show, ad, star and action cards are available to add to your station. It’s a unique concept that’s translated very well through simple rules with a variety of decisions. I’m not sure how it would work out (for that matter, neither is the entertainment industry) but it could be neat to see an internet streaming expansion.
Kris: The Networks instantly won points with me for its lighthearted graphic design and stylish presentation. It’s a game that immediately looks fun to play. The titles and images associated with the television programs, stars of the small screen, and ridiculous advertisements will bring smiles to the faces of all but the most dour gamers. We only had time to experience two seasons out of the standard five season game length, but it was enough exposure to the game’s core elements to see there there’s a lot of variety in strategy and fun to be had with The Networks.
Klask (Oy Marektoy Ltd.)
Kris: Klask is a weird one. I prefer to think of games of its ilk as games of skill as opposed to games of strategy or even luck. It’s more akin to foosball or air hockey or Subbuteo than to Catan or Axis & Allies. I see this as a positive trend. The more variety in gaming the better! Klask seemed fairly pricey for what it was offering, but I choose to assume that it’s hand assembled from quality parts. Dexterity, patience, precise movements, and a patient hand will all be key components of success for any Klask players. If we get our hands on one of these, I could see tournaments in the Ghettoblaster offices becoming fiercely competitive. I’m comin’ for you, Dave!
Dave: There don’t seem to be enough yet to call it a trend, but more parlor-type games have been showing up at conventions. It’s the logical progression too, after popular games like Space Cadets have reintroduced dexterity and physical challenges to gaming. So here we have Scandinavian publisher Oy Marektoy and their very Ikea-looking take on air hockey, Klask. As the box says, “Get your hand under that table! Try to score but watch out for the hole.. Klask!” Those are pretty much the rules. The magnetized pawn moves as you drag it along from below, trying to knock the ball into your opponent’s hole while also trying to avoid trapping it in your own. Three magnets sit in the middle and if two of them latch onto your pawn, it’s trouble. It was definitely fun, but its simplicity may land it on the shelf for stretches of time between playing.
Bottom of the Ninth (Greater Than Games)
Dave: I didn’t get much more than a brief rundown of Bottom of the Ninth but this might have been my favorite designed game at Origins. The player cards resembled old Topps baseball cards, the tones are all done in a dusty, Middle of America coloring scheme, and there are two sets of double sided baseball discs – one with High and Low, one with Inside and Away – for the batter and pitcher to size up each other with on every pitch. The game only simulates those high stakes last three outs as it’s the bottom of the ninth and the game is tied, so play time is short and exciting.
Kris: Color me impressed. Most baseball simulations do absolutely nothing for me. My eyelids grow heavy and my focus wanders whenever hitting percentages and RBIs are even mentioned. Bottom of the Ninth, however, boils baseball down to the most exciting scenario in any game. It’s the last inning and the game is tied. It all comes down to one pitcher and a handful of batters. The player cards look phenomenal, and the pitcher/batter face-off component is smart. There’s a lot of potential for amazing showdowns here. I’m definitely looking forward to spending more time with Bottom of the Ninth.
Crazy Karts (Portal Games)
Kris: A good (or bad) demo can make (or break) a game in the hearts and minds of gamers. That’s why it is unfortunate that our session with Crazy Karts felt manic and confusing. My heart goes out to those volunteers that spend hours on the convention hall floor dealing with gamers who cover the entire spectrum of interest, etiquette, and hygiene. Nevertheless, my experience with Crazy Karts was less than stellar. There seems to be a lot of spectacle and forced mirth around a concept that is, at its core, fairly barebones. I do believe that there is some potential for fun with this game, but I’m uncertain as to whether or not it’s worth putting in the effort. Just play one of the many versions of Mario Kart for your Nintendo console of choice instead.
Dave: It can be hard to judge a game on a demo because admittedly the play-testers are often running you through a simplified version to save on time. So it’s entirely possible that there’s more to Crazy Karts than what we experienced. What we did experience though felt a little too complicated to be so simple. The straight racetrack tiles were only broken up by intermittent obstacle spaces (without any twists or turns or jumps) and even though the racetrack tiles were double-sided, the illustrated terrain had no effect (the bridge spaces on one tile were effectively the same as the water spaces). The team dynamic of having two players on each kart lead to some exciting guesswork and the real time rush to distribute each turn’s power cards within five seconds of the first team’s completion kept things moving along. There were definitely things I like about Crazy Karts but maybe not enough to make room for it on the shelf.
Beyond Baker Street (Z-Man Games)
Dave: A fun things games can do is take a well known concept but come at it from a different angle. In Beyond Baker Street players take on the role of not Sherlock Holmes or Watson but members of the Scotland Yard, continually embarrassed by this upstart detective always getting their man. Working together, players share evidence but there’s a leak and every time information is shared Holmes gets one step closer to solving the case. The designers execute this through gameplay in a brilliant appropriation of Hanabi’s core mechanic –holding cards faced outwards and giving clues based on the color or number. This was my sleeper hit of convention.
Kris: Every nerd has his blind spots. One of my biggest blind spots encompasses all that is Sherlock Holmes. As with steampunk and Dr. Who, I just don’t care. I guess that goes to show just how much a theme can matter to a game. Ultimately, play mechanics and strategic depth and fun-factor keep us playing. But a good theme can draw in new players. It’s a shame too because the idea behind Beyond Baker Street is great! It’s the equivalent of GCPD to Batman. I’ll have to take a closer look.
— but wait, there’s more —
Come back later this week for the Games of Origins, 2016: Part Two – featuring Dead Last, Epic Card Game, Tiffin, Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, Conan, Ruckus, Battlecruisers, Feuer Drachen, Wasteland Express and Last Friday!