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Great Plains Game Festival 2020 recap | samerv.in

Great Plains Game Festival 2020 recap

Mar 05 2020

Last weekend I went to Great Plains Game Festival. It's a gaming event hosted by the Great Plains Gaming Project, a non-profit organization that promotes gaming in the area. This was my fifth straight GPGF, and my favorite so far: the location was perfect, and nearly every game was fun or interesting.

I played 18 games total, 14 of which were new to me, in three days. I sometimes post informal impressions of new games on other platforms, but this event felt significant enough to give it the blog post treatment.

If you're not familiar with my 4-point ranking system for board games, please refer to my previous post.


Friday games

Silk

Silk is an area control game about farming giant silkworms, moving them around to munch on grass and penning them in to protect them from other players. It's very interactive, as all players share the central board. Actions become available based on dice rolls, but you can spend points directly to modify dice.

Good, but not great. The rules were a little awkward. Some characters have different movement rules, but in ways that are not intuitive, e.g. why can every character except silkworms wrap around the outside of the board? Every resource is public information, so as points are tallied throughout the game it's easy to tell who is winning and losing. This is fine in itself, but it made the last turn or two feel rote for the person in last place.

The game is short enough that not all the mechanics (eating silkworms with the monster, moving silkworms around, penning them in, munching grass) were explored. Maybe there's some replayability there, as each game is different, but it left me wanting more. I don't usually say this, but a longer play time with some extra mechanical investment may have benefitted this game.

Ranked a middling 2. I love the unique setting and wouldn't mind trying again, but I have my doubts.

Modern Art

Modern Art is an auction/bidding game without many extra mechanics. You take it in turns to auction off pieces of art by 5 different artists. Each auction has slightly different rules for who bids and how. Then, once a round ends, you sell any paintings you bought, with more popular artists commanding higher prices for their art.

It's a lot of fun. Calculating how much a given painting is worth to you at the current moment is not too difficult: you add a couple of numbers together. What becomes hard is figuring out how that number will change based on the cards in your hand and the cards that others will auction off. You can never be sure if your bet will pay off. It's very cut-throat.

I'd like to play it again with 4 or 5 players to open up the possibility space and make price evaluation even harder. I still had a blast, though, and am ranking it a 4.

Trellis

Trellis is a tile placement game where you connect vine tiles to each other in order to place flower tokens. Whoever runs out of flower tokens first wins, but you get to place more flowers on your turn if you also place someone else's flowers.

It's very pretty. It is a little dopey, though. We played it twice and each time it felt like the game played itself until everyone got down to about 5 flowers. Then, the next few tile placements were calculated to try to prevent anyone else from going out on their next turn. If that wasn't possible, you just had to pray.

I'm ranking this a 2. I wouldn't say no to someone looking for a casual activity, but as a game it's only barely there.

Cockroach Poker

Cockroach Poker is a small bluffing card game where you try to talk other players into guessing wrong and accumulating cards. Whoever ends up with four of the same animal (suit) loses, and everyone else wins.

I've played this before, but we introduced it to someone who hadn't. He lost after cracking up when I called him out for trying to pass a toad to me.

This game was ranked a 4, and it still is. It's hilarious. One of the best.


Saturday games

Swordcrafters

Swordcrafters is a three-dimensional "tile" placing game, where you build a sword out of square tiles and try to meet certain scoring guidelines. The tiles you're choosing from are split up by the players each round, so it's possible to end up with swords that differ in length, not just composition.

This is an extremely novel concept. The quality of the handles and tiles is high enough that you feel comfortable actually wielding your sword as you build it. The scoring mechanisms are straightforward. Putting the same gems in a row gets you points, and a random selection of e.g. "get the most green and blue gems" cards change the relative values of some of the gems.

I really enjoyed myself. This is a game I could see myself introducing to anyone: children, families, or as an opener for a heavier board game night. It's a 4 for me, though I enjoyed it more than anyone at the table.

note: apparently there is an expanded edition which includes three additional scoring modules. I don't know if this would help others enjoy it, but it sounds interesting!

Ice Cool

Ice Cool (and its sequel, a nearly identical game) is a dexterity game, where you flick your penguins around a square school to try and collect fish or steal hall passes from other penguins.

I played this as part of a tournament. This meant that the rules were slightly different: each card was automatically worth only 1 point, and the "ice skates" bonus of the 1 point cards was entirely removed. This removes essentially all the draw luck of the game and makes a fairer environment. Which was perfectly fine with me: the fun is in the flicking. The only downside was the organization of the tourney itself. It took a few minutes and a few back-and-forth conversations to determine the exact tournament rules, during which we couldn't do anything other than sit and wait.

Playing the game itself against 3 other random people was fun, though! Everyone was a good sport and cheered for particularly good or lucky shots.

I lost to the eventual overall tourney winner by just 1 point, but I still think this game is a 4. It's fun every time.

Gizmos

Gizmos is an engine building game where you are constructing a giant contraption out of cards that you buy with marbles. Each part of the engine has a different trigger, like "every time you build a blue part", and a different effect, like "you draft another marble". The game is in finding multiple-card combinations that will give you lots of marbles and engine parts and ultimately points.

I played Gizmos at last year's GPGF and wasn't sure how good it was. The two people I played with last year both did way better than me, and I was left watching their long turns while I took one or two actions at a time. It still appealed to me, though.

This year, I did significantly better. For most of the game, I was building engine parts that allowed me to grab multiple marbles, and I could use those marbles as other marbles in order to keep turns moving. I did end up winning, but the winning wasn't the satisfying thing, it was the doing. Triggering effects from other triggered effects is fun, in a way that some Magic players might understand.

This rose to a 4 for me. I admit it might be hard to introduce to someone, but building the engine is so dang fun when it works.

Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age

Roll Through the Ages is a roll-and-write game about building a civilization through dice rolls. You roll and reroll dice to accumulate resources and workers to research technologies and build monuments. Each resource is represented by a pegboard slot or a paper checkbox.

I'm pretty partial to roll-and-write games; Railroad Ink is one of my favorite games. They tend to have a satisfying arc: you take your cues from early die results, you use those to build up a strategy over several turns, and then you hope to get lucky to finish your plans or go bust trying. Roll Through the Ages does this very well. There's some added complexity in the steps you must take each turn as well as the math you have to do, but the game plays quickly and allows for interesting decisions.

It's a tentative 4. I got spanked and still found checking boxes enjoyable. We played it 2-player but I think it would work fine at 3 or 4, as long as you can have a conversation with the other folks at the table.

Race for the Galaxy

Race for the Galaxy is a card game about colonizing planets and managing resources in order to build a galaxy-wide engine of abilities. The unique part about this game comes in its variable turns: each player selects which 1 of the 5 turn phases they'd like to do, then reveals them simultaneously, then everyone does all the revealed turn phases.

I played the reimagining Roll for the Galaxy years ago, so I'd always been interested in the original game. It reminds me of many other games; or rather, so many games remind me of Race, which came out in 2007. There are hints of Gizmos and other engine builders. There are hints of Tiny Epic Galaxies and other spaced-themed action selection games. There are hints of Terraforming Mars in the card interactions.

I liked the engine building, though like Gizmos, it could feel a little underwhelming if you're stuck waiting for other people's cool turns. Playing it for the first time with 4 people made me want to try the following:

So it's hard to put a number on this game. I'll say 3 for now.

That's a Question!

That's a Question! is a social game where you challenge other players with "which would you rather"-type questions. Everyone else at the table attempts to guess their answer. You get points for being correct, and you also get points if you ask a "good" question, one that does not have an obvious answer.

This game reminds me of Concept, a favorite at some of our board game nights. The fun part of the game is discussing the topic at hand and the occasional total bewilderment, i.e. "You picked THAT? Why would you ever?"

Like Concept, the scoring in this game is a little arbitrary. It isn't poorly done, it's just that keeping score feels like an antithesis to chuckling about would-you-rathers with your friends.

We won this game in the end-of-convention raffle, so we'll be playing this one again soon. It's a solid 3 for me, like Concept. Social games aren't usually my first choice but they're perfectly fine.

Star Realms

Star Realms is a 2-player deck building game. It's very similar to Ascension (in fact it shares a designer with Ascension). You buy cool cards to augment and replace your crappy cards, then you shuffle and play them until you can destroy your opponent.

I've played a lot of Star Realms. It was one of my first modern board games. I own almost all the unique cards available for the game, including some of the Kickstarter promo cards. You could say I love it. So I decided to try the Star Realms tourney being held at GPGF. A chance to play one of my favorite games and see some opposing strategies, with an outside shot to win some small goodies. Sounds great.

Well, it wasn't great. The organization of the tourney was poor, even worse than the Ice Cool tourney. The event was scheduled to start at 6:00 and I did not start playing my first game until after 6:30. Each round was best-of-3 games to minimize luck of the draws, which is sensible for fairness... but created a ton of downtime for folks whose games finished early. The whole thing took about three hours to resolve for only 10 people!

Star Realms is a 4 by far. However, Star Realms tournaments are getting a 1. I have no desire to watch other people play Star Realms for that long, even though I had a couple of good games in the middle of the event. It's just not worth it.

Castle Panic

Castle Panic is a cooperative game about defending a castle from steadily approaching monsters. Each player has a hand full of cards and can use them to deal damage to monsters, but usually only at a specific range, so you must trade cards and build barricades to protect the castle for many rounds.

This was the palate cleanser after the Star Realms tournament left a bad taste in my mouth. I wanted someone else to explain a game, and I didn't want to talk the entire time. Thankfully, this hit the spot. It's an easy game to play though not necessarily to win. There are nevertheless decisions to be made on every turn: what cards should you trade or discard? Which monsters should be prioritized? The board and its tokens do a great job of communicating the game state.

This is a tentative 4 from me. It was exactly what I was looking for after nearly burning out for the night, and it was fun to play and watch others play next to me.

Skull King

Skull King is a trick-taking game, most similar to the traditional card game Oh Hell. Everyone bids the number of tricks they think they will take, with a special bonus for bidding and taking zero tricks. Each round is played with 1 up to 10 cards.

It's... bad. Here's what's wrong with it:

It has too many special cards. There are two regular suits, numbered 1-14. There is a third suit that is also numbered 1-14, but it always beats the other two suits. There are a handful of pirates that are higher than all numbers. There are flags that are lower than all numbers. There's a special pirate that can also be played as a flag. Oh and there's the Skull King himself, who is higher than all pirates and thus wins any trick he's in. And that's assuming you're not playing with the optional cards, which include Mermaids and Loot and the Kraken as well as new abilities for each pirate.

Ten rounds is too long. Maybe I would have been more forgiving if this wasn't the last game of the night and I was in slightly better spirits, but ten rounds was a slog. A couple of players got very far ahead by round 7 or so, giving the rest of us little hope. One player fell very far behind by round 5 or so, giving her extremely low hope.

The biggest problem with this game is that it makes me want to play other games. The Fox in the Forest only goes to 2, but is much more fun than Skull King. It also makes me want to play traditional card games, like the Oh Hell it's based on, or even Pitch or Hearts. That doesn't reflect well on this game.

Oh, and the score sheet is atrocious. Scores are inflated by 10x, already a sin, but then it tries to make you fill in 4 different boxes for each player each round when you only need to do one line of addition. I'm ranking this a 1, not for the score sheet, but because I'd rather play almost any other card game.


Sunday games:

Matcha

Matcha is a 2-player card counting and bluffing game. Each player has 5 cards from an 18-card deck, which then must be played on 6 face up cards in order to collect resources. Once you collect one of every resource needed to prepare tea, you win the game.

This game is cute. The box is small, the art is pretty, the tokens are perfect. We played this game while drinking coffee and eating muffins and it was a perfect match(a). The game itself is tight, if a little short: we played twice and the game was over in 2 or 3 rounds both times. You are basically required to guess which cards your opponent has before you play any cards in a round.

I'm tentatively putting it at a 3. It was relaxing and light and was perfect in the moment, but I'm not sure it holds my attention over other light 2-player games. The luck of the shuffle feels like a huge factor in determining the outcome of a round, rather than my canny bluffing ability.

Fjords

Fjords is a 2-player tile placing game. You are each the leader of a Viking clan, and must draw and place hexagonal tiles from a deck to construct a landscape. Once all the tiles have been placed, you try to conquer more map spaces than your opponent, using farms you placed earlier in the round to expand outward.

This game is 50% Carcassonne and 50% Hey, That's My Fish. Those are both games I like, so Fjords is a win/win for me. Keeping the player count to 2 (instead of 4+ for the inspiring games) feels a little arbitrary, but it does keep the game focused and the box small.

The game's central decision is "where do I place my farms?", and since you only have 4 farms, the rest of your turns are about trying to improve the locations near your farms. It plays well with that limitation, though, and the game suggests you play 3 rounds to determine a winner. We only had time to play 1 round at GPGF before switching to a new game, but I'm sneaking this in as a possible 4.

Medici: The Card Game

Medici: The Card Game is a press-your-luck card game. You take it in turns to flip over cards, looking for high-value goods to place onto your ship each round before scoring. Each round, whoever has the most expensive load on their ship scores points. Then, all your goods are stored in your warehouse (ignoring their normal worth), and you score a few more points if you have a lot of an individual type of good.

This game reminds me of blackjack. In fact, during the card-flipping part of the round, we were saying "Hit me!" when we wanted to look at a new card. In that way, this has a passing similarity to Skull King, in that it reminds me of a traditional card game with some more mechanics thrown in.

However. Medici: The Card Game does not make me want to play blackjack. It makes me want to play Medici: The Card Game. It even makes me curious to check out the full version of Medici, supposedly similar to Modern Art, which I liked two days earlier! I'm giving this a tentative 4.

Hoard

I didn't play Hoard, instead I ate lunch. But I heard that Hoard was bad, quote: "It wasn't really a game". You have been warned.

Lowlands

Lowlands is a heavy worker placement game about farmers in northern Europe tending sheep and fighting high waters. Over a series of rounds, you'll accumulate resources, construct buildings, buy and sell sheep, and contribute to the dike. If the dike, a communal wall holding back the sea, is not build high enough, it will periodically cause damage to players.

It looks like Agricola, but in the Netherlands, and with only sheep. Apparently Uwe Rosenberg helped with the design, so the comparison makes sense. Lowlands is meaty, but its huge possibility space is constrained by the fact that you only have 3 workers and only five spaces to put them on (not shared by other players). You essentially have 18 "placements" spread over 6 rounds to maximize your points.

The two parts of the design I found slightly frustrating were the sheep market and the dike building. Only a certain number of sheep may be bought or sold at once, and only if the market has room: you cannot sell sheep to a market flooded with sheep, and you cannot buy sheep from the market if they have been bought out. Furthermore, as the dike construction is communal, you may find yourself praying for others to help you build the dike so that your sheep don't get washed away at the end of the game.

Upon further review, though, those two mechanics are the most unique parts of the game. So maybe I'm a little salty that I planned poorly, did not sell very many of my sheep, and lost them to the flood at the end of the game.. But I'm very inclined to try this game again to know. This is a tentative 3, but I really am waiting for the second play to solidify my thoughts.

11 nimmt!

11 nimmt! is a vaguely similar game to 6 nimmt!, from which it takes its name and aesthetic. It's a card game played in turns where each card played must be within 10 of a card already on the table. If you can't or won't play a card, you have to pick up a stack, but if you pick up enough cards, you get a bull that lets you play more cards on your future turns. You win by running out of cards first.

I am a big fan of 6 nimmt! after only a handful of plays and I already might like 11 nimmt! more. The strategy feels a little more intentional, as you can choose whether to go for bulls (to play cards quickly) or simply hang on until the end of the round and hope you can play your cards successfully. It doesn't have quite the same surprises as 6 nimmt's simultaneous play, but it's plenty funny to curse other players for picking up the card you needed.

It worked well even with 5 players and without keeping score between rounds, so I suspect this is a winner. It's a 4.


Winners, losers, and other thoughts

My favorite new game of the weekend was Swordcrafters. It definitely wasn't the best game I played, but it made me feel like a little kid building a giant sword out of Legos which made me really happy.

My favorite game session of the weekend was the play of Gizmos. Building a huge contraption and triggering it every turn was a lot of fun, and took Gizmos from a 3 to a 4 for me.

Honorable mentions go to Castle Panic (for the first category) and Cockroach Poker (for the second), which both managed to hit a sweet spot of fun and funny with the groups we had.

On the other end of the scale, I can't recommend Skull King to anyone, and I'd think twice before investing in Silk or Trellis if you're looking for a game that's fully fleshed out.

The above rankings have made it to my personal board game spreadsheet. If you have access (or would like to request access first), you can check them out relative to other games I've played.

Until next year!

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