The inaugural Cardboard Caucus has ended, and I wanted to take some time to really put down my thoughts on the convention itself, as well as the host of games I played and taught over the course of the three days at the convention. Overall it was a really good time, with a lot of foot traffic and tables full of gamers playing games. But it wasn’t all perfect (no convention could be, I imagine, and this wasn’t intended to compete with the bigger ones like Essen, Origins, Gen Con, UK Games Expo, etc.) and so let’s start here with the things I wish could have been done a little differently, although no one of these would be considered to be “bad”. But stick around, because I will be ranking all 16 games I played with the caveat, up front, that I didn’t dislike a single game that was played. Which makes ranking these far more difficult than expected, even with Pub Meeple’s assistance!
Event Advertisement – Yes, there was a website to sign up for events. And yes, they had white sheets of paper on clipboards at the check in table. But I feel like there could have been a little better advertisement about the events. I’m sure many attendees weren’t sure what to expect from their daily flow and so didn’t really sign up for many events (I didn’t sign up for any because I learned that hard lesson at Gen Con). There weren’t a ton of events, but having even a basic flier that they get with all of the events, times, and locations listed would have been helpful to browse between games to see if there might be something coming up I wanted to see if they had open slots for. I probably would have missed the 7 Wonders Duel tournament event anyway (I was tempted into finally getting to play Le Havre around that time), but I know I never really went back to the check-in table after arriving on Friday so the clipboards didn’t help me – others may have had far better experiences with it. Announcing an event with open slots an hour before it began would have been cool, too, because that would likely prompt those extra slots to fill up by impulsive gamers like me.
Play-to-Win Library – Personal taste here, but there wasn’t much in there that grabbed my interest. Not one of them was a must-try for me, although I did end up grabbing three of them over the course of the convention and played a fourth by teaching it to a couple that looked lost (more on that later). They were all smaller and/or lighter games and most were older titles rather than hot games just released this year. And it showed, with the table usually looking to be about 60-70% full most of the times I went in there to check out games. It can be a challenge to manage this well, and it is a 100% subjective thing about your excitement for the titles. But I, for one, didn’t find much on there to be excited for. And I know at least a few others who felt similarly about the selection.
The Hot Games “Room” – I know the BGG hotness on the main page fluctuates constantly, and so I have no doubt the games on display in there were, at one point, part of the hotness. I had heard buzz about several of the games in there, mainly Wingspan and Quacks of Quedlinberg (or whatever it actually is). I was a little surprised at the lack of Tapestry there, and I never saw that area packed. Maybe because the game selection, maybe because it was in a hallway rather than a room. I think the hallway location was both smart and a deterrent. Smart, because it was right outside the game library, so any time you go to check out a new game you see those games out on the table. But a deterrent because it would very much feel like you are on display out there. Even if there had been a game there I was interested in playing, I probably still would have tried to find a copy in the game library to take back into the open gaming space instead because of that location. That’s probably the introvert in me talking and maybe it was a huge success. But it seemed a little odd to me.
Vendor Space – There weren’t many vendors there at the convention. I knew there wouldn’t be any game companies present, as they selected the weekend of Essen to hold the convention. And the vendors that were present were all really neat and friendly. As the convention grows going forward, it would be nice to see a stronger variety in vendor presence, and even some representation from game publishers with booths to at least demo their latest titles. There are a few companies that, if they asked, I would gladly set up, operate, and tear down a booth for during the next Cardboard Caucus convention.
What it did well
Friendliest staff – Every one of the people there helping, whether organizers or just volunteers, were outstanding in personality and helpfulness. I mean, I already knew many of the gamers helping out from playing alongside them over the years but it was awesome seeing how genuinely interested they all were in helping people who needed it, and providing a fun and inclusive environment for gamers of all sorts.
Teachers/Players Wanted Signed – Tall table signs in the form of a large red or green meeple were available in the open gaming room, and were free to take and place to indicate either the need for more players or the need for a teacher for a game. While neither of those had a perfect response rate, after all people might not know whatever game was sitting in front of said people with the sign, it did present some great opportunities for someone looking to find a game to join in or, in at least a few instances I know, to be able to find someone knowledgeable about a game to stop by and teach it quickly. There were three different instances where I was able to lend a hand while between gaming sessions, teaching Crusaders Thy Will Be Done, Caverna: Cave vs Cave, and 7 Wonders Duel to various folks before moving on to seek out whatever might be coming down the pipeline. Having these available in more than one location might be my one suggestion for the next year, but these were outstanding.
The Game Library – It was a massive set of games that were available to check out and play, and the only requirement was scanning your badge with the game in order to check it out. Even at the peak for gaming, there were a ton of titles still available that ranged from HABA games on up to some massive boxes. The later inclusion of a “staff recommendations” shelf was also a great idea, and several times I was tempted to ignore my pre-made wishlist in order to grab one of those titles. All in all it was a very friendly and efficient system, and I liked how they somewhat had things organized in a way that made sense once you figured out there was a co-op shelving unit, etc.
Water & Mints – There were a ton of locations with pitchers of ice water and containers of mints. Both of these were excellent additions to keep players hydrated and to keep the closeness of playing with strangers a little more comfortable feeling, as no one wants to have bad breath when going over lengthy rules explanations, etc. It was a small detail, but an excellent one that was fully appreciated.
Open Gaming Space – There was so much room for open gaming! It always felt full, but never to the point where players couldn’t find a spot to sit down and set up a game. The noise level was a little high at times, and I would have liked a little more natural light in there during the day, but as a whole it was an excellent space and they had everything spaced out in a very good manner. There were a lot of external tables from the main room, too, for those seeking a slightly quieter location to play a game or two.
The Duelists’ Lounge
My one event was on Friday evening and it went from no one signed up to having 8 pairs of players over there playing games against each other for nearly three hours (a full hour longer than planned, which was a great thing). A lot of games were taught and played during that span of time, but even that wasn’t the most rewarding thing. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are the games that were taught and the gist of the reactions from the players:
Circle the Wagons – The first two to make their way over were curious about the little wallet games and so I grabbed this as their gateway into the wallet games. They were delighted so much by it that they played it twice, wrote down the company and game name, and I was happy to also tell them about Sprawlopolis.
Imhotep: The Duel – This was a popular game to want to play, but it only worked out that one pairing got to try it. However, they both enjoyed the game so much that I saw both of them using the lending library’s copy to play with other players during the convention and know it was played at least four more times by different folks, so it clearly was a worthwhile hit that continued to spread beyond that one play. It was enjoyed both by those who have played Imhotep and those who have never played it (like myself)
Hanamikoji– This one was grabbed by a pair of guys who swung by and was the first of the games they enjoyed. They had knowledge of Battle Line/Shotten Totten, which helped a little, but had their mind blown by the action selection, the small number of cards, and the tough decisions. One of them continuously checked out the lending library’s copy and taught it to other players, making it a game I saw out often and was, like Imhotep: The Duel, taught to far more gamers than those who were present at the Duelists’ Lounge because of how much the initial players enjoyed the game.
ORC – A good father brought his little girl over and they started with ORC. Pretty sure they enjoyed it, even though they were already familiar with the game (which helped the little girl, I’m sure).
Skulk Hollow – The Circle the Wagons pair moved on to this game, as it was already set up on the table. After a quick start for Grak, the Foxen Heroes got close before eventually losing to the giant bear. They really enjoyed this game, even though I think it was a change in pace for their preferred type of game.
That Snow Moon – The Hanamkoji guys pulled this out while I was teaching Skulk Hollow, and this was the one and only game in my bag that I didn’t know the rules because I hadn’t played it. Once it became clear it was a card-flipping dexterity game, it seemed to click and they enjoyed it enough to flip sides and play it a second time.
Odin’s Ravens – After ORC was finished, the father asked what other game might be good for him to play with his daughter and I pointed him toward this one. The Loki cards might have been a little advanced, but the core of the game made it a perfect fit for them.
Targi – After Imhotep: The Duel, that pair moved on to Targi which one of them was already familiar with. I failed to get feedback on that experience, but I’m relatively certain it was enjoyed by them both.
Antinomy – The third Button Shy title to get played, and this was the only one I took part in because the Skulk Hollow pairing had lost a player after that game. I taught this little brain melter and, yes, it was an experience full of pauses as we agonized over how to move to where we needed to go to get a Paradox. I went from being up 2-0 to ultimately losing 1-5 and we were delighted with the experience. Hopefully I converted a gamer to Button Shy gaming goodness between this and Circle.
Bushido – The star of the convention came out of Bushido, as the Hanamikoji/That Snow Moon guys moved to this next on my recommendation. The fact that one of them asked to borrow this on both Saturday and Sunday from me, and I know he checked out the gaming library’s copy when I wasn’t there, should be a clear indication of how well this went over. I’d be surprised if this was then taught to fewer than half a dozen other gamers after the one session on Friday evening. Grey Fox Games has a genuine hit here, and if it wasn’t a 2018 release it would easily be in contention for the top honors on 2019 game of the year.
Liberation – This came on Saturday, but I made a point of mentioning to the That Snow Moon guys that Liberation is Star Wars: Rebellion in wallet game format. And so the enthusiastic gamer who played Hanamikoji and Bushido to death over the weekend found me when his Rebellion-loving friend arrived on Saturday so I could teach this to them. The Dynasty side turned out to be a lot harder than he expected in terms of tracking down those Liberation scum, but I think they enjoyed this one as well.
Ranking the 16 Games Played
Now we come to what most of you are probably here to read: my take on the 16 games played this weekend. Again, not a single one of these would be considered a bad game. Most of the ones down at the bottom of the list aren’t there because I disliked the game, but rather because I liked one of the others just a little more.
#16 – Lost Cities: Rivals – As a general rule of thumb, I am not a big fan of auction games. And really that is the majority of what Lost Cities: Rivals boils down into, and requires you to play the players moreso than playing the game. It is what prevented me from warming up to games like Power Grid or Bohnanza in the past, and the same holds true here. I did enjoy the play, apart from the final rounds where a player to my right with a single coin was just auto-bidding on the cards simply to spite me. It also didn’t help that we played the game misunderstanding a rule, thinking you were obligated to discard a card from your winning rather than it being optional. Which was why the player was an exceptional jerk, forcing me to bid on the two cards I need and requiring me to discard one of them. In looking up the 2-player differences (there are none), I also see that we did not have the winning bidder flip a new card at the end of the auction, and we incorrectly included the numberless mutliplier cards when counting to see if we had 4 or more cards in a color. Those all change things pretty significantly, pretty much making my experience obsolete. I think a new play, without said player and with the correct rules, would improve the experience.
#15 – Saboteur: The Duel – This little pocket-sized game only caught my interest as a play-to-win because it was a 1-2 player game in a tiny box. I had some downtime on Saturday between games so I checked this one out – and ended up taking it home as my play-to-win prize. The game is quite the table hog, and in the solo game it is a matter of dealing with obstacles as they flip up which can make your progress slow or completely remove parts of the tunnels you are making to the potentially-lucrative goal cards on the table. While I did enjoy my solo play of the game, I can see where this would be improved tremendously with another player. So had I played it with another, I expect it would have appeared higher on the list.
#14 – New York Slice – There is something satisfying about teaching a game to a random couple who look completely lost, and then get utterly annihilated by them in the game. My second play of this game was a delightful one, being such a quick game to teach, an interesting theme that has table presence, and a clever “I cut, you choose” mechanism that ties really well with the theme. It would be a fine game as that is, but the specials crank the decisions to 11, and can lead for surprises along the way. Such as one player getting both Tiebreaker and the ability to count combo slices as 2 slices. She scored around 40, with her husband as a distant second. I didn’t score a single slice majority, getting all of my meager points from eating Pepperoni and my two specials. I like this one a lot, but I don’t know that it would be very interesting with 2.
#13 – Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle: Defence Against the Dark Arts – I had really high hopes for this game and it failed to deliver. I wanted to like the original Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle, using it as a way to maybe get my wife to play a deckbuilder from time to time and to play a cooperative game. This 2-player version dueling against each other promised to be a much better implementation for our preferences. And it still might be – after all, only one hex was ever played because we didn’t see any hex-giving cards until it was a little too late in the game. With a second play, that aspect might take on a whole new dynamic and improve the overall experience tenfold. But I suspect, even in that case, my wife would never really want to choose it because deckbuilding just isn’t her thing – and if I am going to force her to play a deckbuilder I’d want to choose a better game like Mystic Vale, Eminent Domain, or Core Worlds. So this remains one I would love to try a second time to see how it plays out, but one that we’re unlikely to pick up because it just wouldn’t get played enough times. But if you really like the original game, this will be a great reimplementation of a system you know and enjoy.
#12 Funkoverse Strategy Game: DC Comics – This was my first game played for the con, and it was a pleasant surprise. I expected it to be mostly gimmick with the Funko figures slapped onto a subpar skirmish system. But it has a surprising amount of fun in there, enough that I am genuinely hoping to play it some more in the coming weeks/months. We did the recommended first play version, which was extremely vanilla but was enough to whet both of our appetites to try it some more but, as happens, an opportunity simply never surfaced again. The scenarios will take that game and elevate it significantly into a game that has better legs than expected, and having a few options in the box supplemented by small add-on packs seems like a really smart way to work with this game system they have.
#11 – Tiny Towns – I had high hopes for this game, as there was a fair amount of buzz for it earlier this year. And I can see why, after a play of the game. However, the 2-player game as written in the rules is not very interesting at all because you can very easily anticipate what your opponent is going to choose and can plan accordingly. It still might not help, but it does make things a little easier. The demo gal did make a good suggestion on what could spice up the 2-player experience through using the randomizers for choosing every 3rd resource to gain into the town. I suspect that would make it a better game at lower player counts, instilling chaos into an otherwise predictably stale back-and-forth.
#10 – Everdell – The tree is a gimmick. Now that I have that out of the way, let’s talk about the game of Everdell. It has some nice engine building in the game, and a very simple rule set. Three of us fumbled through it at the end of the night Saturday, when we were all pretty exhausted, and that in itself was satisfying. The problem with Everdell, at least from the first play, was two-fold: the pebbles are too scarce of a resource and too prominent in constructions, and the special goal cards require two very specific cards to come out. The pebbles is an issue because, with 3 players, there is exactly one space to gain them from in the game. When you have 3 players in the game, the first player has a significant advantage because they are the only one to gain a pebble until they take the Prepare for Season action. If you can’t get the right cards, there is no way to overcome this apart from trying to time your Prepare action the turn before they take it, opening up the space for you to use before someone else covers it for another 25-30% of the game. The event cards are another big deal. We went through over half the deck. Out of the four event cards, only one had both cards appear during the play.That isn’t even me being bitter about a misprint on the one I was waiting for all game, as there is no Tower card in there. I did enjoy Everdell in spite of these things, but this seems like a game that is going to require the highly-regarded Pearlbrook expansion in order to make it more playable, as I hear that helps with the Pebble problem at least.
#9 – Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra – It takes a very special sort of Azul to get me excited. The base game, after all, is where I boast a pitiful average of 55.56 points per game (my wife’s average is 72, as a frame of reference here). There is a reason why I never select to play Azul, and usually if my wife picks “Azul or ___” and lets me decide between then, I’ll almost always pick ____. Yes, there are exceptions. I seem to do far better in winning with a 3rd player. But as a whole, Azul is just not my kind of game. And there comes the beauty of this version, because it radically changed the game AND made it a lot more gamey for my tastes. It becomes less of a spatial puzzle and more of a trick to manipulate your worker’s position along the rows, and to fill in as much as possible from right-to-left to cascade into bigger scores. All of which sounds simple enough, but is far more challenging to execute. I really, really enjoyed this version – don’t let the “low” appearance on the list fool you. The games on here are all good, and this is the entry that begins the “next tier” of separation in the pack.
#8 – Antinomy – The more I play this game, the more I come to fall in love with this simple design. I wasn’t convinced, from the Kickstarter, that I wanted the game. But I bought in and haven’t regretted it for a moment. It can be absolutely brutal, brain-burning, and all those other delightful traits that are not conveyed by a cute little wallet package. The fact that every card has three traits, and depending on how you move determines which trait(s) you use – and that a color is always off-limits but is constantly changing…well, there are so many little variables that all add up to a perfect little filler that plays in 15-30 minutes. I can’t recommend this one enough, as it is probably one of my Top 5 Button Shy titles, and is probably only this low on the list because it wasn’t a new experience for me.
#7 – Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small – The 2-player Agricola is an outstanding version of the game which takes a lot less time to set up, tear down, and play. It removes all the hassle of growing your family or feeding your people and allows you to focus instead on expanding your husbandry ability with animals and collecting buildings to make your farmland more effective. I love that most buildings also come with room to house some animals, making it a little more forgiving on those whom like the buildings approach. Animals are worth a shockingly little amount unless you have a ton of them, meaning you’re probably going to need to balance both constructing buildings and raising animals if you want to do well.
#6 – Tiny Epic Mechs – This one was a mixed bag of anticipation for me as I’ve loved every Tiny Epic game I’ve played for the first few plays and eventually they’ve fallen off my radar. I wonder if, at this season in my life where I value shorter games that provide a lot of fun decisions, this line of games is one I should look at a second time. I expected to find it to be an okay game, especially when I realized it was a programming action game. And I did utterly horrible against the two solo AI opponents in my attempts to play this as my final game on Sunday. But the one thing I didn’t expect was the level of fun I would have. Once I grasped the flow of the game, it hit a nice rhythm and provided plenty of tough decisions that I think I would cherish. And without the use of dice, this makes it a game that will be far less swingy than Tiny Epic Quest or Tiny Epic Galaxy can be.
#5 – Call to Adventure – This might be the “lightest” game on the list, yet I found the game to be quite an enjoyable experience with a relatively easy setup and play experience. I’ve seen mentions of getting screwed by rune tosses, but I found there were enough ways to generate extra runes, or to spend Experience for added effects, so that I was never in a dire situation. Part of the challenge is weighing your options and deciding, based on your rune pool, what you can reasonably accomplish for the turn. And in the solo game, you know from the start who your nemesis will be and, by extension, what cards to prioritize for making that rune pool for the final attack. The game is gorgeous, the production is fantastic, and I can’t wait to try out the Stormlight Archive expansion when it drops because I love Sanderson’s books. And need to read the Rothfuss series to get excited about the recently-released Name of the Wind expansion.
#4 – Le Havre – I like a good, classic Rosenberg game apparently. This one was quite interesting. I downloaded the app for this probably 2 years ago and it just never clicked for me in the digital “teaching” of the game. Probably because knowing the cards is extremely important, and knowing nothing on the cards, plus not really understanding the rules, led to some really bad experiences with it. I probably still wouldn’t want to do the app of the game, but the physical game is definitely a Top 3 Rosenberg for me at this point. I’m going to want/need to play this, and Ora et Labora, a few more times before I update my Top 100 list next June. The game flows so fast, and there is no chance of ever doing enough things during the game to where it all felt like an interesting challenge of figuring out the best way to get by and score points. I came in a very close 2nd, even though I had to pivot with my plans more than a few times by the end. Loans in this game are a little too forgiving, costing only 1 Franc per cycle through the ship spaces regardless of the number of loans you have.
#3 – Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale– Flip and write games are a thing now, and this was my first in that category. No surprise, this was a delightful solo experience for me to try out early in the convention. I would love to have a matching set of colored pencils to make the maps pop a little more as I sketch out my towns and forests, etc. onto the paper. I enjoyed Roll Player, and still need to try it with the expansion. I’m pretty sure I like this more than that and I have even higher hopes for Lockup, which I really wish I had taken the time to try over the weekend. When I looked for it Sunday, it was already checked out to my great disappointment. But overall, Cartographers is a game high on my wishlist because of its smallish size, relatively quick gameplay, and because I think it would be really fun to try with my wife as well in the future.
#2 – Jorvik – Feld’s masterpiece, The Speicherstadt, but with an interesting theme on the package. Yes, you can slap a Viking theme onto any game and it’ll be enough to make me want to check it out. But in this case, it takes an excellent game and makes it far more visually appealing. I don’t like auction games in general (as stated above), but this one is an exception to that rule. While I don’t think the base game would be great with 2 players, the inclusion of the expansion in here would enhance that 2-player game potential with the addition of an extra worker per player, a good set of new cards, some new resources to collect, and another half of the board with its own unique bidding aspect. This game has literally been on my wishlist since I heard about the Viking retheme, and the weekend’s play confirmed that I really need to add this one to my collection soon because this is, so far, my absolute favorite game by Stefan Feld.
#1 – Pipeline – There was so much buzz surrounding this game going into Gen Con, and after Gen Con, that I started to wonder if this was succumbing to pure hype. No game could be that good, after all, right? I am beyond thankful that I was not only able to learn the game, but could also experience it with 2 players rather than more. It moved along at a really nice pace once we got through the rules, and there are a ton of approaches to consider for how to go about managing your Pipeline with efficiency. The game can be unforgiving, as the teacher and my friend learned the hard way…ending with a negative score. Maybe I did a good job at indirectly foiling his plans as I fumbled through how to pull the right levers. But somehow I recovered from stupidly taking two contracts in the first year, meaning I had to continuously fulfill them in the second and third years for an inefficient flow of income. I’ve been thinking back to the gameplay and how I should have done things differently ever since the end of our play, which is the hallmark of a great game experience. And with it being a Capstone title, it would fit right in with my other Capstone titles and have a realistic chance of dethroning Lignum as my favorite Capstone game with some more plays. Yes, it is that good. And yes, it is in the running for my top game of 2019. And yes, it is now the very top of my Secret Elephant wishlist…even above all the Lacerda games I know I would love to own.
That was a long post. So I’ll wrap it up by just saying Cardboard Caucus was a ton of fun. I look forward to being more involved throughout the year, if I can, to help contribute to an even better Year 2. And I hope to see you there.