Friday, May 29, 2009

Play On Con 2009 wrap-up

As I mentioned in my previous post, Hillary and I had an absolute blast at last weekend's Play On Con 2 convention, held at the Alta Vista Hotel and Conference Center in Birmingham. It wasn't a huge con (estimate was around 250-275 paid attendees), but there was rarely a lack of things to do, people to talk to, or games to play.

I touched on the traditional gaming side of things in my last blog entry, but I wanted to write about some of the other experiences we had over the course of an amazing weekend.

On Friday night, we cleaned up at the Blackjack table during the charity casino event. Over the course of two hours our chip totals stayed fairly static, so we decided to go "all-in" on the last hand. The dealer busted, and we cashed out for some pretty good prizes.

Next up was the Chick Flick Trivia Pajama Party. Neither of us know a damned thing about chick flicks, so we attended more for the spectacle than a desire to actually participate. We both surprised ourselves by answering one question each for our respective teams: me with my unexplainable (and somewhat embarrassing) knowledge of "Spanglish", and Hillary with her spot-on Thriller dance from the scene in "10 Things I Hate About You".

Saturday was all about gaming for us. Morning featured a live-action game of Wiz-War, complete with life-sized board, costumes, props, and oversized spell cards. I heard a few people mention that it was their favorite event of the entire weekend, and I can't disagree. Hillary entered the game as a wizard and did very well; I ended up helping the organizer by handing out kill trophies and occasionally entering the map as a summoned bat or fire imp, yet I had no less fun than the participants.

The evening capped off with a hypnotism show in the main programming area, which drew a lot of laughs. Sadly, none of the participants was ordered to act like a chicken.

As everything moved upstairs for the night, we discovered that a few events had been delayed or canceled without notice, causing us to miss a couple of things that we'd wanted to attend. I was a little bit annoyed about the nighttime programming breakdown (hence my unhappy Twitter post that night). I mentioned it to a director, and he was very understanding and apologized profusely (so much so that I felt kind of bad about bringing it up).

Sunday featured a patio picnic and hula hoop party, complete with live surf music. Daikaiju was awesome, as expected. I wish they could have performed a longer set, but they were playing the con as a courtesy and were double-booked for a "real" show later that evening.

The main programming for the evening was a Rock Band tournament. This was not a question of "how good are you at Rock Band" -- there was a Guitar Hero event for the score whores earlier in the day. This was "how much of a spectacle can you make of yourself?", and the answer is "huge". Great costumes and an energetic crowd made the event truly memorable, with a Jimmy Buffett cover band ("James Tiberius Buffett and His Enterprising Young Men") coming out on top.

Monday morning brought a Dance Dance Revolution tournament, which attracted an impressive three participants. Note to organizers: maybe no physically-taxing events on the last morning of a con. It was decided that the three of us were all winners for actually being awake and ready to dance after such a long and sleepless weekend, so we just played DDR for fun until we could barely stand up.

This did not take long.

A "con in review" session and a short Memorial Day ceremony on the patio overlooking the city wrapped up the weekend nicely for the walking zombies who made it through the weekend.

To keep from going over-the-top with praise for the con, I should definitely point out two significant (as compared to the Saturday night programming breakdown) problems that arose over the course of the weekend.

The hotel had opened up a jazz club sometime after the convention organizers booked the place, which meant that nighttime programming on Friday and Saturday had to be moved upstairs. This wasn't a huge issue, but the upstairs areas (especially the RPG/boardgaming area) sometimes felt cramped. Also, it would have been nice to have the restaurant and patio available for gaming or audience-friendly programming.

A somewhat larger issue was the hotel's Sunday double-booking with a local hip hop radio station's "Wet 'n' Wild Pool Party". We had more problems with this conflict, because the downstairs areas became extremely crowded, and the participants of the party kept wandering into our events. There was a bit of culture clash too, but we gaming nerds tend to be very open and accepting, and I didn't hear of any real altercations between the two groups.

Despite these problems, the Play On Con directors and staff were extremely friendly and helpful, and someone was usually on-hand to help or answer questions. The weekend was a shining example of the old "when life gives you lemons" proverb, and the con staff handled every obstacle masterfully.

This post has grown much longer than I originally intended, so I'll wrap it up.

I will say that we've already preregistered for Play On Con 3 sometime in 2010 (dates and location should be announced in the coming weeks), and I strongly urge our gaming friends not to miss it.

If you haven't been convinced yet, let me offer two little words that might do the trick:

Free alcohol.

See you next year!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

16 reasons you should have attended Play On Con

Hillary and I spent the holiday weekend at Play On Con 2009 in Birmingham. If you're not familiar with Play On Con, it's a small (but growing) gaming-themed convention that just finished up its very successful sophomore event.

I'll do a more extensive write-up of the weekend later, but I wanted make a quick post to say that POC2 was the eleventh convention I've attended, and it was far and away the best experience I've ever had at a con.

I know a lot of our friends were on the fence about attending and ended up not going. To give just a taste of what you missed, here's a list of games, contests, and tournaments that we played over the course of the weekend:

  • Blackjack (charity casino)

  • Chick Flick Trivia (and pajama party!)

  • Live Action Wiz-War

  • Pandemic

  • Arkham Horror

  • Citadels

  • Diplomacy

  • Balloon Cup

  • Virulent

  • Scarabs and Scorpions

  • Gamer Triathlon (Suicide Chess, Dice, Memory)

  • Bang!

  • Munchkin Bites and Star Munchkin (tournament)

  • Small World

  • Dance Dance Revolution (tournament)

  • Rock Band 2

Quite a list, huh? And it doesn't include the programming we attended... or all the events we missed because we were too busy gaming (there was an entire floor of the hotel dedicated to nighttime parties and drunken revelry that we didn't even venture onto).

I'll give a more coherent look back at the con once I've recovered a bit (I'm still rocking an awesome sleep/nutrition deficit), but hopefully just seeing the sheer amount of gaming opportunities available will inspire you to attend next year.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tell me what's on your mind

(Hmm... I think maybe my title references are getting a bit too obscure.)

Last night Hillary and I met up with the area boardgaming group, and we got to try Power Grid for the first time.

I'm not going to post a full review, since this is a heavier-weight game than I've been covering, and a single play isn't enough to get a solid feel for it. I'll just give some quick thoughts.

The first thing I noticed is that there's a lot to remember. Even the experienced players were referring to the game turn cheat sheets pretty often. The actual decision-making mechanics are pretty simple though -- there's an auction phase, a resource-buying phase, and a building phase. We've done all of these things before in various games, just not necessarily in the same one. At the end of each turn, players' powered cities pay off, and there's a "maintenance" phase that evolves slightly as the game progresses.

The only real criticism I have from my first play is that it's incredibly easy to get behind early on, and it seems very difficult to catch up. I was struggling to upgrade and fuel my power plants while trying to save enough cash to expand. Meanwhile, the lead player was able to throw around cash like a... cash-throwing-around machine. It's frustrating to find yourself in a deep hole fifteen minutes into a two-hour game.

The game mechanics attempt to balance uneven games by rearranging turn order (the lead player has to go first in bidding and last in building), but in my game the leaders were always able to extend their lead just enough that there was no real hope of catching up.

I definitely want to give Power Grid another spin and see how possible it is to catch up after poor decisions (or bad luck) early on. The theme is solid and the mechanics are engaging, so nobody will have to twist my arm to get me to play this one again.

On another note, we also played Incan Gold, which is becoming one of my favorite "filler" games. It often gets panned for being too simplistic -- the only decision players face each round is "stay" or "leave" -- but the games I've played so far have been quite fun. It's kind of like Apples to Apples: ridiculously simple, but everyone is laughing throughout the game. I should write up a full review in the near future.

Friday, May 15, 2009


I really didn't mean for this to turn into a boardgaming blog, but it's what we've been into the last few weeks. Maybe I'll surprise everyone and give my thoughts on the finales for Lost, Dollhouse, and Star Trek in an upcoming post.

PlayOnCon is coming up Memorial Day Weekend. It's a gaming and "fandom" convention in Birmingham and was apparently fairly successful last year. I'll probably spend most of my time in the open gaming area (24 hours of random boardgames), but I'm looking forward to the programming as well.

Aside from several panel discussions and gaming events, Daikaiju (a crazy psycho-surf band from Huntsville) is playing on Sunday night. After seeing them at WorkPlay, I can wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone who enjoys fun, high-energy music.

A draft of the programming schedule is now available. There will also be 24-hour open gaming, room parties, and more.

Today is the last day for preregistration, but weekend and daily passes will be available at the door for a slightly increased price. I know a ton of people following my blog are Birmingham-area gamers, so hopefully a bunch of you will come check it out!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Generic reference to the bad guys on Deep Space Nine

I wrote up a review of Dominion last week and forgot to post it. Oops. Hillary and I also got to try out Zooloretto with our local gaming group, so I'll get a quick review of that one up too.

Dominion is a medieval-themed card game where each player attempts to build the best personal deck by buying cards from various face-up supply piles in the center of the board. Gameplay flow is simple: play an action from your hand, buy a card from the supply area (which goes into your discard pile), and then discard both your hand and all cards played this turn, drawing five new cards to replace them.

Yeah, you read that right. You chuck your entire hand every turn. Use it or lose it. I was a bit confused when the rules said that any card I bought from the supply area would immediately go into my discard pile. It didn't take long before the dynamic made sense, though; as soon as a player's draw deck is empty, the discard pile is shuffled to form a new deck. Since players are going through cards so quickly, all purchased cards will end up in the draw deck within a few turns.

Ideally, you want to find a balance between buying Treasure cards (the currency that allows you to buy everything), Kingdom cards (which grant special abilities or bonus resources), and Victory cards (which score points at the end but are absolutely useless when drawn into your hand). Everything you buy ends up in your deck, for better or worse.

Winning conditions are simple. Once any three supply piles are empty, or as soon as the high-scoring Province supply deck is gone, the game is over. Players go through their deck counting up Victory Point cards, and the player with the most points is the winner.

The rules are clear and simple; no complaints there. We figured out the gameplay flow within the first few turns of our initial game and rarely had to consult the manual while playing. The language on the cards is very clear, and it's easy to tell a Kingdom card's benefits at a glance.

There's not much to say about the physical components; you get several decks of cards that are fairly standard CCG-style quality. The artwork is decent (but not spectacular), and the cards are visually distinctive enough to tell them apart at a glance. The game box contains a plastic tray that keeps the individual card types separated -- it works well, but future expansions might complicate this a bit.

I've heard complaints that Dominion suffers from the "game playing the player" syndrome, and I can't completely disagree. In a given hand of five cards, the best play is often obvious. Still, with sixteen supply piles on the table, there are always decisions to be made. Maintaining a good deck balance is key -- victory cards are useless when drawn into a player's hand, but they directly determine the winner. It seems contradictory to say that a game offers so many options every turn and yet lacks strategic depth, but this has been my experience so far.

My main problem with Dominion is that there isn't much player interaction. You're building your own deck, and your actions (other than the occasional "Attack" card) don't affect your opponent. The supply piles are large, so there's no danger of resources running out until toward the end of the game.

It would be nice if there were more options for interfering with your opponent's plans. I can imagine situations where an obvious winner would emerge halfway through the game, yet the other players would be powerless to do anything about it.

I posted a draft version of this review over on the SA forums, and several posters mentioned that Dominion works much better with three or four players. After seeing how well Pandemic scaled down for two players, I had hoped that Dominion would do the same.

Having been absolutely blown away by Small World (admittedly a very different type of game) barely a week ago, it would take a lot to impress me; Dominion isn't quite there yet, but I'm optimistic for future plays. And replayability should be high, since the game comes with 25 different Kingdom card types, of which only 10 types are used each game.

I'll report back once we've tried a game with more players, but for now I give Dominion a very reserved "thumbs up".