Derek Thompson: Hello! Welcome to our new weekly segment, #TableTopTuesday. We are only able to write about a fraction of the games we play, so this is our chance to talk about games we’ve played this week, and possibly preview upcoming reviews. We’ll end with a “Question of the Week” that we’ll answer ourselves, but we definitely want to hear your answers, too!
Chris Hecox: I’m Chris, and this is Derek. We play board games sometimes.
Derek: What an informative introduction, there, Chris. Just the best. Let’s go a little deeper, though, maybe. Chris, how long have you been playing hobby board games? How did you get started at Geeks Under Grace?
Chris: Oh, let’s see here… I’ve been playing modern (hobby) games since my college days of Settlers of Catan. (Now it’s just Catan, but my friends call me a snob when I correct them.)
Derek: For real, though. We called it “Settlers.” It’s awkward now.
Chris: Yeah, the curse of games being bought out I suppose. I started at GUG maybe two summers ago as a film critic, and as my love for gaming grew, I helped to transition in our new tabletop section late spring of this year.
Derek: So was the tabletop section your idea, or was it more that you agreed to spearhead it when the idea arose?
Chris: Apparently, the staff was milling it about in their noggins since the inception of GUG, but no one on staff had the know-how. After listening to a bunch of Dice Tower podcasts, I decided I wanted to give it a go.
Derek: We’re seriously lucky to have the most prominent channel purely within the board game hobby be spearheaded by Christians. (Dice Tower)
Chris: Which segues beautifully into your introduction. You came on shortly after.
Derek: Yep! I wrote for nearly five years on MeepleTown.com. You can still see most of my reviews re-posted on boardgamegeek.com, and MeepleTown is still up and full of some really fun interviews and some really poorly thought-out editorials.
I’m not sure what gave me the impulse, but I saw Chris post an article for GUG on a Facebook group, and I thought I would look into it. I hadn’t heard of the site before.
Chris: I got a lot of feedback from that first post, let me tell ya.
Derek: For being a religious site? I vaguely remember that. Content warnings for board games? How dare we!
Chris: Yep. Angry people thinking I was trying to convert them. Nah, I just wanted them to play Lords of Waterdeep.
Derek: Anyway, those of you who have heard of Taylor University know that community-wise it’s sort of an automatic clique and a bit of a black hole, so as soon as I found out Chris was an alum (and I’m on my third year as a professor there), we clicked pretty quickly.
Chris: Yes, and it’s an easy ice breaker for us! Plus, I don’t live far from my alma mater, so eventually we will meet up for a game day.
Derek: Yeah. Have you noticed how many reviewers and press people are from Indiana, in board gaming? Must be the Gen Con effect.
Chris: It’s really insane. I feel like we are in the heart of the North American gaming industry.
At first I thought I would maintain a presence at MeepleTown.com, but our work here has pretty much exploded since I began. Which is awesome! Tabletop will be its own section soon, too.
Chris: Yes, we are very much looking forward to that. I’m super glad to have Derek on staff, and his past experience has already opened a lot of doors for myself and getting started.
I think we are primed to continue our growth of the section, and I’m excited to tell more and more people about gaming. It’s way too fun not to tell people about.
Derek: Right, that’s been a two-way street. I knew a lot of people already, but now I can go to them and say “Hey, actually I’m writing for this way larger community now, and could possibly reach people who aren’t already board gamers…”
Chris: Ah, we need to tell them there are more games than Monopoly, Candyland, and Uno.
Derek: Although, to be honest, that Zelda Monopoly keeps winking at me. I think I have a friend I could convince to pick it up…
Chris: Okay, what have you been playing lately?
What We’ve Been Playing
Derek: I live across the street from a sister school, Indiana Wesleyan University—my alma mater. So I game with those RDs and their spouses on a regular basis.
They’re all pretty enthusiastic hobbyists, so I hit them with review copies a lot. But here I think I’ll mention one that I haven’t gotten around to reviewing and probably won’t ever get to.
The first is Isle of Skye, which won the UK Gaming Expo game of the year, and the German advanced game of the year (Kennerspiel des Jahres)
Chris: Which, for those outside the hobby, this is more or less like winning an Emmy or an Oscar.
Derek:Right! And these awards came later than the Dice Tower Awards, which I am on the committee for. We didn’t give this one enough credit, due to a huge crowd and a late release. I should have known better.
I have so much guilt about this. I dismissed it without playing with it, because 2015 was so packed to the brim with great games already. But when I finally had a chance, I’m just so impressed.
Anyway, the game is advanced because it’s tough to make good decisions and is what they call a “brain-burner,” but it’s actually really simple to learn. The rulebook is 2 double-sided pages, and the last one is just explaining some tile icons.
Chris: Ah, iconography! The horror!
Derek: The iconography comes from the game having variable scoring—what counts for points changes each game, like in Kingdom Builder. I just love that mechanism. Even within the game, different scoring happens during different rounds.
For those of you that have played Carcassonne, it’s a similar concept. However, here players each build their own landscapes and score for them, and they do that through buying tiles off of each other. Setting the prices for your tiles is the tough part of the game, but fortunately, everyone is thinking hard simultaneously. That reduces wait time considerably. Even with 5 players, you’re done in an hour.
Chris: So, it’s not turn-based? You are playing your actions simultaneously?
Derek: You buy tiles in turn order, but everyone prices the tiles secretly and simultaneously.
After tiles are bought, everyone simultaneously fiddles around with their landscapes to make their purchases fit, and then you score for the round.
For me, my favorite games are a deep gaming experience in 60 minutes or less. You’re in, you’re out, every moment was hugely important, and if you want you play again. Isle of Skye is about the epitome of that. It looks great, too.
Chris: Gotcha. That is a smart way to mitigate the thinky parts of the game. So, does it live up to the awards hype?
Derek: Hmmm. I think it does, honestly.
I still think Codenames is the best game that came out last year. And Pandemic Legacy was an incredible, unique experience that I got 17 games out of. I’ve played Isle of Skye 7 times but I suspect I’ll play it a good 30 times more, at least. I’ll always suggest it with players who like complex games. I’ll put it this way: it is absolutely the best “traditional” game that came out last year.
Chris: Oh, that’s great. I really need to get the same game to the table more than twice…
Derek:Haha. The curse of the reviewer!
Chris: Well, I was lucky enough to get my grubby mitts on a copy of Minion Games’ followup to Manhattan Project… Wait for it… Manhattan Project: Energy Empire!
Don’t ask me anything about the original, because even though I really want to play it, I don’t know anything about it.
Derek: To be fair, I played Final Fantasy IV before Final Fantasy I, II, or III. So there’s precedent.
If video gamers can do it, so can we!
Chris: I watched Jar Jar before I watched Han shoot first.
Derek: Wait, sorry, are you for real?
You kept watching after starting with Episode I?
Chris: No, heh heh. My jam was the original trilogy, but I was enamored by the prequels when I was young. I still think they have a lot of good things in them. I’m optimistic.
Derek: We’ll have to circle back to this after some Star Wars games hit the table…
Chris: Yep. So in Energy Empire, you are all playing nations, struggling to gain power (literally electricity), build up resources, and construct powerful building upgrades, all the while dropping these blocky technician workers onto spots.
Derek: Ah, so those spots you refer to, that’s how you take your turn?
Chris: Yep. Each spot has a different ability, and by placing one of your workers, you take the action. In this game, you can up the ante by placing energy with your worker, so the next player has to pay MORE energy to place a worker and use the action.
Derek: Oh, cool. So it’s not purely blocked like in traditional worker-placement games, but actually more interactive this way.
Very similar to an older Queen game called Lancaster, I think.
How else do players interact? How do I crush my enemies—er, win?
Chris: That’s the main feature to interaction. Players are also trying to climb up a ranking track for the United Nations, which will give end game points. Players are also purchasing building upgrades, hoping to grab the best ones before anyone else can.
Derek: Okay, sounds like traditional “passive aggressive” interaction like most European-style games.
Chris: There are a ton of cool mechanics in the game, like you can only activate buildings you purchased if you already activated an action of the same color. Also there is an environment on your personal tableau that gains pollution as you become more industrialized. You lose out on victory points if you are too dirty, essentially.
One final thing I want to mention are early game/late game cards. These represent big events in history that cause players to score points based on their pollution levels, as well as potentially get blocked from certain action spaces, or need to pay extra for buildings, etc.
Derek: Are the cards randomly revealed? How does that work?
Chris: Each game has six cards. As players gain pollution, they take those pollution chits from a track. As each stack of pollution chits is removed, you flip a card. This is also the game timer, as the game ends when the last stack is removed.
So it’s a timer, and players can affect it to end the game sooner if they need to. I love that.
Derek: Oh yeah, variable timing for the game-end often makes a game way more exciting.
Let’s go back to the pollution as a whole. Do you feel like that social issue is done properly in the game?
Chris: Yeah, good thought. I think it makes it clear that there is no nation that contributed less to the rise of industrial pollution. Each nation has some starting resources, etc, but still desires power and international standing, so naturally, pollution and industry come with it.
So I would need to look at each nation’s starting resources to find a correlation, but it seems like we are all to blame. Of course, you gain more points for cleaning up your pollution from the environment, so it behooves you to do so.
Derek: Overall, pollution actually seems like a common theme in board games, and it’s usually tasteful. As a society and as Christians I worry we don’t do quite as well as our games do!
Derek: Alright, so our question is, “What games got you into the hobby?” Chris already mentioned Catan, so Chris, let’s hear what your second serving was, after your helping of ~Settlers~ Catan.
Chris:Settlers Arrr Catan is the pirates expansion. In case you were wondering. /sarcasm
Derek: That’s going on a t-shirt, somewhere within the internet, after this is posted. Wait and see.
Chris: I played some 7 Wonders in college, but I very much remember playing Betrayal at House on the Hill.
Derek: Oh yeah! Man, that’s such a different style of game, Betrayal. Did you have a particularly memorable session?
Chris: We bought it on suggestion from an employee at a game store I shot a short documentary film for.
We would barricade ourselves in a conference room, dim the lights, and play some spooky tunes (Monster Mash on accident… so, not that spooky).
It was incredibly fun, but in hindsight, absolutely unbalanced.
Derek: I’ve never done the “ambiance” thing with gaming. We really should, maybe next time we play Mysterium.
I think that’s one of those “experience” games that you don’t necessarily play to win. Although maybe that’s letting the designers off the hook a little easy.
Chris: It might be, but it would be weird to differentiate genres and have “board games” and “board experiences.”
Derek: I don’t mean it’s not a game—take Telestrations, for example. We don’t keep score. We do it just to… do it.
Chris: I do want to hop back up in the thread and hugely recommend ambiance in gaming. I’ve been playing Vikings and How to Train your Dragon soundtracks while we played Blood Rage and Bardagi. Very fun, and not too distracting.
Derek: Oh, that’s great. I’ll remember that next time we play Blood Rage.
Chris: So, jumping ahead to post-college, I didn’t care much for board games until I worked at a Christian camp and retreat center, where I played lots of board games.
Mostly stuff like The Resistance, or other social games, but it got me interested in what else could be out there. We tried out a board game rental website and I was immediately hooked.
Derek:The Resistance is a thing now at Taylor in the dorms, and I take full credit. I use it in my Discrete Math for Computer Science class to teach logic.
Chris: I had to know what the hottest games where. As a film critic (at the time) like I wanted to watch the 100 most acclaimed films in history, I wanted to play all top 100 tabletop games.
Derek: Oh man, but they fluctuate so much now.
I’ve definitely got my own personal Top 40. (Chosen because someone once called me a “Top 40” gamer.) We’ll have to dive into that sometime.
Chris: I know it. I’m realizing it’s best to start with the list, and work your way out from there. At this point, I know what mechanics I like and don’t like. I know what games are great, and also which games are awful (and I don’t care if anyone disagrees because I’m stubborn).
Anyway, from that time at camp, I accrued a large collection, read reviews, listened to podcasts, and before you knew it, I was addicted. I love gaming and I want everyone I know to play with me!
Derek: Yep, that’s a huge problem. When you jump in, you don’t know what your tastes are, and you kind of find out the hard way.
Chris: Of course, which is why people like you and I strive to build up the hobby, learn how our friends think, and teach them games that they will like and understand.
The hobby is absolutely all about learning about people and trying to see things from their perspective. It’s being patient and getting excited when strategy in some game finally “clicks” in someone’s mind.
Derek: I’m getting better at it, for sure.
Weirdly, it ties into my job and our emphasis on “intentional community” as a residential campus. I feel that way among board gaming groups, too.
Chris: Yeah, I think there are some strangely similar ties to the Gospel and how to approach people with board games. I’d like to get into that at some point.
Derek: Totally! I’ll jokingly call it “board game evangelism,” but that’s actually pretty accurate.
Chris: So, tell me about how and when you started playing.
Derek: Alright, so like Chris, Catan was the kindle that got the fire started. However, well over a decade before that, I had begun playing Magic: the Gathering.
Chris: Oh, I should have mentioned that was my curse when I was young. I just love that game to pieces.
Derek: I have no idea how it began, presumably by buying cards at Walmart when I was 10 or so. I took a break around high school, but got back into it during college. Then, during grad school, I went pretty insane with it. I went to Nationals in 2007, and made Top 8 of a few Pro Tour qualifiers and another Regionals.
However, I spent far more money than I ever recouped, and I was, plainly, addicted. I’d still be happy to play a game with someone but I’m happy to be past it. I don’t think playing the game is inherently wrong or sinful but I know that I took it too far.
Chris: I didn’t realize you were THAT into it. Kudos, Mr. Netdecker.
Derek: Hey, for the record, my Regionals-winning deck had plenty of self-designed tweaks! …On a netdeck
Chris: Netdecks are lifeblood.
Derek: Anyway, when I look back, my favorite memories are actually playing silly Commander decks with four or five of us around my parent’s kitchen table. One time, we had no idea how late/early it was until my dad made us breakfast and plopped it in front of us.
So I wish I had a bit more self-control back then and had just focused on that part of it, because it really did give us a bond as friends.
Chris: I miss those days! So you enjoyed playing with friends more than professionally?
Derek: Well, I am super competitive. So I love to compete in tournaments. But the expenses in Magic made that prohibitive.
If Star Realms had tournaments on that level and frequency, I would be there pretty often. I’m very excited to be appearing in that game sometime in the future.
Chris: #origins2016 #neverforget
So when did board games creep in?
Derek: To back up for a sec, I think back to the evangelism thing. For me, Magic was an easy way to make friends in a new city. Even after that was over, when we moved to Auburn, I immediately found a gaming group in Fort Wayne. It’s such an open, accepting hobby, far more than the Magic scene ever was.
Derek:Catan happened in graduate school, and then the second game was Dominion. It was Magic but you built the deck DURING the game. My mind was blown. I played over 5,000 games of it online in graduate school. It’s still a huge favorite of mine.
Chris: Oh my.
Derek: Now, back on isotropic, two advanced players could knock out a game in 5 minutes, since it handles all the shuffling and automation.
Sadly, they were shut down a while back.
I think I like Star Realms a bit better, but Dominion still deserves its credit. Very few deckbuilders come close to the elegance of the original.
Chris: Yes, it certainly has an air of originality to it.
Derek:Star Realms took those two loves—Dominion and Magic—and made a beautiful baby out of it.
Chris: Which made you want to buy more games immediately, right?
Derek: Haha, no. However, it did lead to me writing for MeepleTown not long after. Apparently everyone who gets the bug thinks they can just become a reviewer!
Chris: Derek, I think I can hear electricity sparking in my ears… I think I need to go play more Manhattan Project: Energy Empire.
Derek: And I need to go watch more Attack on Titan, because we’ll be reviewing the Attack on Titan deckbuilding game soon!
And now we’ve circled back to our introductions, so that seems to be a good time to turn the question to the audience. What game gave YOU the bug? And what questions should we answer in the upcoming weeks?
Let us know on Facebook, or in the comments below!
Chris enjoys the simple things in life, like teaching his wife the newest review game, looking up Ketogenic recipes, and playing 10 hour long indie games on Steam. If he's not thinking about the oil drum components from Manhattan Project: Energy Empire, playing Player Unknown: Battlegrounds with his college buddies, or dwelling on the release of Daredevil Season Three, he's probably shooting or editing video, because that's what he does for a living.
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