Nevi here. Last week (8th – 10th March) I went to AireCon 5. It was great and I’d like to share my thoughts on the weekend including the games I played and some other things as well.
From Sketch to Store Shelves
Jon Hodgson talked us through the fascinating process of board game publishing. He described how a game can go from a sketch to being a finished product. Jon has a shed load of experience in the industry as the former Creative Director of Cubicle7 and now runs his own publishing company, Handiwork Games. This talk peeled back the face of the industry to reveal how exactly the games we play and love get made, from working with designers to how to manage the logistics. It was incredibly insightful and if Jon does another talk elsewhere, I’d highly recommend it.
Data Mining BoardGameGeek
This was probably the most interesting thing I did all weekend. Data Mining BoardGameGeek might initially sound a bit dry, but it was brilliant. The guys doing the talk brought up lots of interesting questions about what is often the face of the board game industry. They confirmed that board game releases have been on an exponential increase over the years, that the Top 100 doesn’t represent the most popular games, and how the most prevalent and most highly rated mechanics are two different things. They are looking to gather more data from Board Game Geek and dig even deeper to see what else they can understand in the future, and I can’t wait to see the results. You can head over to their blog for the full analysis and results. Don’t be put off by the graphs and like “regression” and “datasets”, the whole thing is written to be easily digestible and understandable, and I’m sure if you have any questions they would be more than welcome.
Games I Played
I played lots of games over the weekend, some yet to come out and others that have been out for a while. The Harrogate Convention Centre seemed to exist in its own time zone with the outside world ceasing to exist at times. Here are some initial thoughts on the things I played/was demoed.
The Old Hellfire Club
It took me the larger part of the weekend to find a few moments to chat with the designer behind The Secret Adventures of The Old Hellfire Club, and it was worth the wait. Not only was he extremely passionate about the game, but the game is also the right combination of hilarious and intriguing. Set to the beat of Once Upon a Time, where players are telling a story and playing cards from their hand that represent those events, The Old Hellfire Club weaves that concept into something far sillier and darker. Set in Victorian times, The Old Hellfire Club features real events on all of its cards. From the fact that The Vagrancy Act 1842 banned, among other things, falsely claiming the be an Egyptian or that of the people hired to clean Newgate Prison 7 died from typhus, The Old Hellfire Club shines a light on how ridiculous and awful Victorian times were.
On top of this, The Old Hellfire Club is the most inclusive game I think I’ve ever seen. There is a budget version of the game that comes without a box or tokens so that more people play. There is a version that comes in in bold primary colours, with large block text so that people with reading disorders or sight issues can also play. And the game itself is incredibly diverse. 50% of the characters are women and 20% are not white, a ratio that the designer is committed to maintaining. On top of this, there is an LGBT expansion coming in the future. This is the future of board games. A future that isn’t gated by disposable income, one that is inclusive of everyone and that opens up board games to as many people as possible.
In a time where big box games are only growing and it is more about the spectacle of the purchase rather than playing the game, The Old Hellfire Club is exactly what the industry needs. And if you really want a luscious box, filled with expensive things, then you can always pay for the deluxe edition which comes with actual one-hundred-year-old coins.
We received a demo/preview copy of the game (I think that’s the right term), so hopefully, we’ll get a chance to play it and write up some more solid thoughts on how The Old Hellfire Club plays in the future. Until then, head over to their Facebook Page or check them out on BoardGameGeek. This kind of game deserves a spotlight, and hopefully, it can influence a few other companies to follow in its practices.
Solar Storm is a cooperative game where players are working together to repair and escape a ship before it crashed into the sun. Initially, I was quite taken by the game but after looking back on my playthrough I’m a little less impressed. On the surface, it reminded me of Forbidden Island/Desert. You are moving to tiles (cards in this case) to fix them up, collecting cards with specific icons and using powers to manipulate the board in your favour. My issues with it stem from the same issues I have with those games, the choices are often very limited. Solar Storm is a 3×3 grid and each part of the ship has a special power, making effective use of these powers is key to survival. Each turn a card is revealed that shows which part of the ship is damaged, and you need to repair these or you can’t use their power. The ship will slowly fall apart and you need to power each room to be able to escape.
All of which is fine. I think my problem is that I’ve played the Forbidden games and Pandemic, and the puzzle here is a bit too similar. I didn’t feel like we lost because of bad choices but because of poor luck – which isn’t great. I can see this occupying the same space as those games and coming in a smaller box that all three, so you love them or haven’t tried anything like it then this might be a good fit.
The Grand Austria Hotel
The Grand Austria Hotel was a long game. I enjoyed it, but man I wish it was a little shorter. In it, players all run their own hotel and cafe. They are trying to entice customers, rent rooms, make the king happy and earn the most points. The puzzle of managing your cafe and hotel is engaging but the game crawls along with 4-players. This was a game that soaked up a large portion of one of my days and while I thoroughly enjoyed the game I didn’t feel it needed to be so long, to the point where if somebody asked me if I wanted another game I’d probably decline. There’s nothing wrong with long games but for large portions The Grand Austria Hotel I was not paying any attention to the board because I knew my turn was a good 10 minutes away. This kind of passive euro is great if I either care what everyone else around the table is doing or the turns are fast enough that I don’t become totally disengaged with the experience.
On the plus side, I did get a lot of Instagram posts done and replied to a few emails.
Onward to Venus
Onwards to Venus is a strange game. On one hand, the theme is fascinating – steam powered space exploration, I’m in – on the other the actual playing of the game is a ‘take that’ fest. Players are moving units throughout the solar system, building mines and factors to be the one with the most control on each planet. However, the cards you are each dealt or obtain throughout the game are so random and different that there is little point making any kind of plan. I was just playing cards from my hand that nobody knew I had, and being met with other cards that I didn’t know they had. The entire game was “and now I do a thing” and it was hugely disappointing.
The only possible redeeming factor was the game ‘should’ be semi-cooperative. The problem is that this was never needed. Each planet can have a crisis occur and players can work together to stop this from happening. This might be an alien invasion, robot rebellion or Venus declaring independence. All of which felt like they could add a layer of chaos that would complement the card play already present in the game. Unfortunately, none of it happened. We never worked together, or had to really try and prevent any kind of crisis, they just didn’t happen. Onwards to Venus felt like a pizza with all the promises of delicious toppings but in reality, it’s just a base, and that base is barely cooked.
Game of Thrones: Hand of the King
I have a passing interest in Game of Thrones. Initially, I bounced off the TV show but have gone back to it in recent years, so I only have a cursory knowledge of the characters. However, Hand of the King is a great small box game that you can enjoy even if Jon Snow is the Channel 4 New presenter to you and nothing else. Players are collecting characters from the different Game of Thrones Houses, and the person with the most influence the end of the game is the winner. Each turn you pick all of the characters in one house, in one row or column and move Varrys to that characters space. Play then continues to the next person, and so on and so on. The game is about choosing where and when to move and collect certain Houses and ensuring you don’t give control away to your opponents. There are also special companion powers that add just a little bit extra for a person if they pick up the last person in a House. This might mean killing Ed Stark or moving two characters around. They add just enough to be tactically interesting but not so much that they feel overpowered.
The Hand of the King is a great little 10-15 minute game that I thoroughly enjoyed, and would recommend to anyone.
Throughout the weekend I met lots of lovely people. You always do at board game conventions. Everyone is always so friendly and are there because they love games. The atmosphere is one of collective fun, and it’s great. AireCon also gave the chance to meet up with people I’ve not seen in ages. This year has been so busy that I’ve barely had time to see anyone, so AireCon was like a mini-reunion with a lot of people I’ve not seen in a year and for that I’m unbelievably grateful. Since I don’t see this year slowing down, I’ll probably see you all at the UK Games Expo and not a day before.
We will be at the UK Games Expo again this year. You can check out last years coverage here or here. We also discuss stuff from AireCon in #23 of our podcast, too. Thanks again to everyone who chatted and play games with me at AireCon, hopefully see you are UKGE.