After a few months of anticipation and several nights without enough sleep, I’m finally back from my escapade to St. Louis, and the Geekway to the West con. This was my first con, since it was well within driving distance for me. After a good friend of mine talked it up last year, I decided that this year I would make the trip myself. Was it worth the miles driven and hotel prices? I would say that it absolutely was worth it, at least eventually.
See, it was not exactly what I expected, at least not initially. In my head, it would just be an enormous 4-day game night, where you would stand around and decide what to play. In my head, I assumed that I would have the ability to play just about whatever I wanted, since there would be a huge game library and over 300 potential opponents. As it turns out, this was not exactly the case. The experience was still positive, but it was much more loosey-goosey than I anticipated. Instead of being able to just jump from one game I chose to another, it went more like this: play a game, wander around for 15 minutes looking for another one. If you see something you want to play, you insert yourself in by asking if you can join. You might find some friends playing something, but if you’re new to the scene it’ll largely be trial and error. This even proved true with scheduled games. I put myself down to play about six games before I even arrived in St. Louis. It turns out that all but one of them fell through for whatever reason. Maybe someone’s previous game ran long, maybe someone isn’t back from lunch, maybe they just didn’t feel like playing. So if you’re the type who likes everything organized and all in a row, that might frustrate you. But if you can roll with the punches and be willing to play everything by ear, then you’ll find a lot of games that you didn’t know you loved, and probably make some pretty cool friends in the process.
That trial and error can result in some dud experiences, to be sure. On my first night I ended up playing Vlaada Chvatil’s Dungeon Petz, the spiritual successor to Dungeon Lords. Dungeon Lords had a good start for me, but it quickly faded down the stretch. So I was excited to see if Dungeon Petz could correct some of my perceived problems with the first game. Turns out it wasn’t a great experience. That’s not altogether because of the game (although I suspect that, like its predecessor, it’s overly complicated without a ton of payoff), but rather the circumstances of the session. No one knew how to play, so they just busted open the rule book and read from it to set up. About halfway through that explanation I knew that it’d be a rough game, because it added a full hour to our time together. And it wasn’t a very outgoing group. I sort of felt like I might have been inconveniencing them with my presence, because I didn’t get more than two sentences spoken to me that weren’t some form of explanation or rules reminder. It was kind of painful, but thankfully that didn’t end up being a theme of the whole weekend.
Vlaada Chvatil was probably my designer-of-the-weekend. Aside from Dungeon Petz, I also got to play Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, and Mage Knight. Galaxy Trucker is already a favorite (I’ll write it up one of these days), but I was also really impressed with the other two games, both of which were new to me. Space Alert is a real-time cooperative game, complete with a CD soundtrack and barks out transmissions to the players. It’s hilariously difficult, and I played with a really fun group. We bungled our way through three training missions and had a grand old time. Mage Knight is a different kettle of fish altogether. It’s massive, epic, and heavy. Think of it as the standard quest/adventure game, but with deck-building as the key mechanic for leveling up and advancing your character. It’s an effective mix, even if the game can sometimes be very puzzle-like. I came away from Mage Knight very impressed, so it’s a good thing I managed to score the only copy for sale there. Expect this one to get the full review when I’ve gotten a better handle on its complexity.
One of the hot games of the con was Eclipse, the new space empire game that has taken BGG by storm. Since it was one of the possible prizes at Geekway, it saw a lot of play from people who hoped to win it. In fact, this was the first of my five scheduled games that ended up falling through. I spent most of the weekend trying to get it in, and finally did it on my last night. It was just a three-player game, and I didn’t have a very good start. I ended up drawing a lot of tiles that made me fight enemies early on, and I assumed I would be bringing up the rear as the game went on. But when all the scores were tallied, I was tied with the other loser, just one point behind the winner. That restored what was initially going to be my only real complaint, one of balance with fewer players. It turns out it was mostly unfounded, so this one gets another thumbs-up from me. If you want a less fragile and more playable version of Twlight Imperium, you could do a lot worse. It focuses much more on the economy and tech, and much less on combat and metagaming. That will not be to some people’s tastes, but it does mean that the game plays quite well with less than a full compliment. Definitely check it out if you get the chance.
And of course there were a lot of games I already knew that saw the table. Lords of Waterdeep affirmed its position as a solid Eurogame, if a little familiar. Alien Frontiers remains the best use of dice in a Euro since The Settlers of Catan. Of special note was a two-player game of Twilight Struggle, which I lost as the US in Turn 4. It was noteworthy because it was the first time I have ever seen anyone win by controlling Europe. It’s nice when a familiar game can surprise you, and it’s always a pleasure to get Twilight Struggle in, especially against someone who already knows how to play. Also played was the German classic, Wallenstein. It’d been about three years since I played so I lost pretty badly, despite the fact I was the only person at the table who hadn’t been drinking all day.
I also got to try Dominant Species for the first time. This hit from GMT is a big ol’ heavy game about evolving a kingdom of animals (reptiles, arachnids, etc.) to make them the best suited to their environment. I was the only person who had never played, but I had a good teacher (thanks, Kit!) and soon grasped what was going on. I liked this one a lot. I find myself drawn to heavier games like this in recent days, and Dominant Species fit the bill to a T. Next time GMT has a sale I might have to put myself down for this one.
The biggest surprise of the weekend came just before I left. Sitting with some great folks from Oklahoma, we tried our hand at King of Tokyo, the new and hard-to-find dice game from Magic designer Richard Garfield. I’ve heard a lot of press about this one, but it’s hard for me to get that excited about a dice game, since my favorite of the genre is probably Roll Through the Ages. I mostly just like that game, so expectations were a little muted for KoT. Turns out it really is that much fun. It’s hard to explain what was so engaging, but it’s an intoxicating blend of risk-taking, player confrontation, and good old-fashioned trash talking. We liked it so much that we played it three times straight. I eagerly await the reprint for this one. If there was any justice it would have been made by a mainstream company so that it would be in Wal-Mart. That way everyone could play it and have as much fun as we did.
But in the end, Geekway was mostly about the people I got to meet. I had an awesome game of Blood Bowl: Team Manager with Tom and Caleb. I even got to meet Jay Little, the game’s designer. I had a blast playing King of Tokyo with John, Ashley, Caleb, and Caleb’s wife. (Whose name I forget. Sorry!) I had a terrific game of Kingdom Builder, of all games. I wish I could have played more with that crew. I even got the chance to playtest a new design by another guy named Nate called Biomechanic Dino Battles, and offer my input on the game. It was great to make a ton of new friends and to connect with people who I’ve only ever met online.
Will I be back next year? I certainly hope so. There was a whole realm of tournaments and competitions that I barely touched, and I wish I had taken part in those. And I definitely want the chance to get in touch with my new friends outside of just interacting on BGG. So if you don’t have anything going on, and if the Mayan Calendar doesn’t kill us first, want to make the trip to St. Louis with me next year?
**edit** As pointed out in the comments, Caleb’s wife is named Cassie. Sorry for the oversight. I met a lot of people that weekend.