Misery Farm on the Road: Essen Spiel 2015 Day 4 Field Report

Exhaustion looms, but we’re still truckin’. On the final day of Essen Spiel 2015 we offer some final play-throughs and insights, including our considerations for Children’s Game of the Year.

Bob starts the day late, and hungry. The sheer number of games she and Chris have purchased has completely overwhelmed even her giant suitcase and they’ve had to rope in the aid of Friends With Cars to help lug twenty-something board games back to England. Additionally, Saturday night sushi had been completely de-railed when the previously-awesome all-you-can-eat sushi place failed epically in its mission to, you know, serve sushi to hungry gamers*. Deeply disappointing stuff. It took a generous liver-sausage roll and slice of pleasingly stodgy cake to fortify her for the day’s first mission: get Naïade to sign stuff, take a selfie, and draw us a picture.

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Mission success, though with many a concerned look. Naïade  is very French, and as such does not understand enthusiasm.

Day 4, game 1: A Study in Emerald
Sanity or victory points.. sanity or victory points..
Sanity or victory points.. sanity or victory points..

First actual game of the day was the second edition of A Study in Emerald. The game is based on Neil Gaiman’s cult short story of the same name, which is set in an alternate Lovecraftian nineteenth century in which the royal family have been replaced by Great Old Ones. Sherlock Holmes is there, along with a number of figures from history and fiction. In the game, you play (secretly) as either a Loyalist, faithful to the ‘royal family’, or a Restorationist commie intent on bringing down Britannia as we know and love her. The board is divided into locations which allow certain actions with varying ease, as well as a draw pile of cards. It’s effectively worker placement combined with deck-drawing mechanics, to reasonably solid effect.

DSC_0438Bob liked it, Briony didn’t. It may be that Bob really wanted to like it as she’d bought it on day one and it had sold out, but equally it’s possible that Briony hated it due to being hungry combined with a shockingly poor game demonstrator explaining the rules**. Certainly it’s simpler than the ‘glorified beta test’ original, and much cheaper and cleaner to boot!

Team Misery divided, and wanting everyone to know about it.
Team Misery, divided and wanting everyone to know about it.
day 4, Game 2: M.U.L.E.

Next, Bob and Lizzy tackled M.U.L.E., the boardgame based on the 1983 Commodore 64(?) game. It is absolutely charming. It starts off as a farming/resource management game set on an unexplored planet called Irata, where all you have for company is a robot-mule worker and your fellow explorers. Then suddenly there’s a capitalist market-trading mechanic and a magic money-generating Wampus and a mystical mine of purple crystals which change value in each game round. The board is busy but in a very Stonemaier-Games way in that all the initially-confusing symbols are actually there to clarify any potential misunderstandings and remind you of available actions. The winner is the Bob with the most space gold, while the loser is the Lizzy who has forgotten what their plan was to maximise their resources.

After that economic thrill ride any form of grown-up game seemed an impossible task. Our brains were just too full to absorb any further information such as ‘rules’ or ‘strategy’ or ‘tasks’, so we took refuge in Push-a-Monster, the award-nominated children’s game of monster-crowding. It’s very simple: try to fit your monster on an already-crowded monster platform, without knocking any monsters off the platform. If you knock a monster off, it gets hurt and has to go to monster hospital, so everyone else gets a point. Best of all is the lack of numbered scoring. No one needs that shit. Instead the monster-points are different sizes so the player with the longest string of monster-points wins. The illustrations are adorable to boot; one of the monsters makes exactly the face that Bob’s robot boyfriend makes when he wants to not be part of the Misery Farm.

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Stop. Including. Me.

Two refreshing, addictive little games later and we were ready for more. Not before stopping by the HABALINK stand though, where we found a strong best kid’s game contender in Treasure of the Thirteen Islands. In this tactical children’s game, you explore treasure islands by navigating with your finger, then attempting to follow the route blindfold on a grooved board. If your little airship falls into a groove, you get stuck! If you find treasure, you win! It’s adorable and at least one person bought it.

day 4, game 3: Cash and Guns

Somehow we next managed to grab an eight-person table for Cash n Guns, which was promoting its fresh expansion, a special-edition Cthulhu character with a tommy-gun, and foam Uzi machine guns. The expansion was rapidly scorned as unnecessary, as Cash n Guns is perfectly fun without any extraneous bullshit, and plenty of shoosty fun followed.

Meanwhile, Bob secured a game of ‘Acquire Giant Sausage’, which she promptly then lost by dropping half of it on a surprised passer-by. Strong work, Bob.

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Pictured: Large sausage.
Day 4, Game 4: Architect
The road to victory. Deed-filled victory.
The road to victory. Deed-filled victory.

Briony and co., after being fairly disappointed by the experience of A Study in Emerald went and found a solid worker placement game. Architect fully ticks all of the boxes of worker placement, gasping drought, and being an intricately themed board game. Awesome. In this game you represent a travelling band of folk with different and useful jobs forming a caravan. The caravan travels around small villages and towns in a miscellaneous medieval European region, with a castle located in the centre. The band of travellers must fit the requirements of the specific village/town to be able to build or repair buildings generating prestige points.

Prestige points must be generated to go up each level of the victory track, which will eventually allow a player to win the ultimate prestige from the castle and win a contract. Or something. Honestly we needed a little more coffee to follow the broken English rules, but the game was fun regardless.

DSC_0450There are a nice number of mechanics in this game – the most unique of which is the ‘worker star’. Workers which you buy have different careers which are denominated by the numbers around the corner. After using them to build something you twist the worker around, showing a different number. Throughout a worker’s career their numbers go down, sometimes plummeting to zero if they’re going through stuff, maybe their wife left them or something.

The actions you are able to fulfil are dictated by the worker star also. But in the end, this game is about generating enough build points to get the castle’s favour. Fortunately the whole team was in agreement that this game was fun, quick, and exactly what we needed at that time during the day.

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day 4, game 5: Elysium

So this was the final game of Essen. Sad times. A band of team Misery longingly searched the halls looking for an empty table where they were able to play a game on their ‘to play’ list, and much to their delight found a free table for Elysium.

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The game is card based, and is heavily focused upon mythology. For anyone who likes 7 Wonders, boy is this your game. Half of the table was excited about its similarity, while the other half was excited because of its twist and difference from 7 Wonders. It ticks both boxes. In fact it won an award at Essen this year (and yet only two gaming tables! Why, Essen, why?!). Instead of representing a nation (as in 7 Wonders), you are a demi-god striving to generate enough myths about yourself to advance to becoming a full God. You have two areas where you may play cards: the mortal realm, and the immortal realm.

DSC_0451Each game plays with 5 gods, and there are 8 in total in the box so there’s variation, replayability and excitement! Your humble misery farmers/demi-gods played with Zeus (a classic), Aphesites (god of metal and hammers, stuff), Athena (owls, wisdom and the Hogwarts postal system), Ares (WAR hurr!) and Dickseidon (aka Poseidon but for serious, this guy is a dick and all his cards are dicks and the illustrations on his cards are dicks and his dick-in-ear scale is measured in kilotonnes).

The game plays out over 5 turns split into 3 phases. First is the ‘Agora’ (or ‘marketplace’. Yeah this game has got its Greek down, yo). This was helped by Lukacs, our excellent and friendly game demonstrator (helpful as we cannot read German rules). After that you move some cards into their immortal realms where their effects disappear but become sets (either by colour or number) and lastly the usual maintenance.

Screw your mortal resources, we need only pillars.
Screw your mortal resources, we need only pillars.

The cards have different coloured symbols relating to 4 actual, physical, coloured columns that each player has on their board. To take a card from the ‘Agora’ a player must have the relevant coloured column. Each card has effects, as you would expect – some of these affect only the player while others affect the player and the others players (not as good, obvi) You can also destroy whole coloured columns with barely an evil laugh. Dickseidon’s cards on the other hand usually do not affect the player but dick over other players (such as losing gold, victory points, discarding cards etc). This game is highly recommended, especially for anyone who likes 7 wonders, mythology and Dickseidon.

Rounding up the day

Finally we retired to a nearby hotel lounge, where our easily-bored but deeply punk friend Pat had secured a few big tables and crates of beer. Codenames, Potion Explosion, and Microfilms*** were all brought out and played to great enjoyment. Codenames remains an instant classic while Potion Explosion is shameless fun, and not just because Lizzy is hilariously bad at it. Microfilms needs… a more thorough explanation than we received. A cousin of [redacted], it relies heavily on keeping your cards secret, so if you don’t understand it you can’t ask what your cards mean. It has potential as a quick three-person game though, and our version comes with highly-professional art!

This weekend (FOUR DAYS IS NOT A WEEKEND -ed.) has been beyond intense, but extremely fun. Really we need to add ‘get enough sleep’ to our survival tips, but somehow between the beer, boardgames, and bratwurst that seems to be impossible. Besides, who needs that stuff when you’ve played upwards of 20 different games in four days? Especially when you’ve been playing with friends as good as ours.

We’d like to extend our thanks to the friends who came with us and made this trip as mad and brilliant as it was: Pat, Chris, Martin, Emma, Sina, Dave, Sam, Charlie, Gord, Mac, and The Reading Boardgames Social guys.** Final thanks to all the wonderful game creators, illustrators, vendors and demonstrators who work so hard and put up with the manic excitement of nerds like us. We’ll see you next year.

*Red Sun sushi, you guys make some delicious food but dear god expecting us to wait an hour for each of five courses is insane. We’re sorry we had to sic Bob and her mediocre German on you, making a complaint was physically painful to our English sensibilities.

** She also strongly dislikes deck building games due to unfortunate circumstances in her earlier years. It’s amazing how difficult it is to like a game again after you’ve cursed it to Hades for a truly terrible experience.

***On a side note, Microfilm has a character that looks hella like Briony. Is she really a Misery Farmer, or is she really the American spy?

Spy-Bri
Spy-Bri

Eldritch Horror: Misery, Doom, Tentacles. A normal Friday night in.

Brutus rating: 1/10 knives in the back
Pairs well with: some very strong whisky. Strong enough to forget the horrors you’ve seen.

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The Misery Farm’s friendly photographer-friend enjoys only three things: board games, cameras and suffering. This makes him a good misery photographer but a bad person. It has also adapted him to suit a game called Arkham Horror: a board game that brings nothing but relentless suffering. If you’ve not played it, then rest assured that it’s just hours and hours of trudging around dreary old Arkham before being eaten by a void-born tentacle-god.

When Eldritch Horror came out, Dr Photographer sold it to us as “It’s Arkham Horror, but fun.” Does being fun take the fun out of it? … No, it turns out!

Lizzy's tentacle.
Lizzy’s tentacle.

It’s big and it’s long and it’s tentacley. The board is a great chunky world map which you traverse, and there are lots and lots of extra cards and tokens and doodads which make setting it up annoying but playing it extremely satisfying. Like many ‘big’ games turns take a while and are divided into phases. They are, roughly, Doing Stuff, Stuff Getting Done To You, and Bad Stuff Happens (or ‘action’, ‘encounter’, and ‘mythos’ if you’re being fancy and accurate). The aim of the game is to solve mysteries and stop the hell-spawned Old Ones from rising up and devouring the universe. You will sometimes often fail at this.

10397047_10152420766204337_8447561979145296536_oEldritch is one of those games that gives you some excellent characters to work with if you want to get into the spirit of things with a little bit of the ol’ roleplaying. This makes it an immediate favourite for Lizzy already, and the rest of the team are just relieved that it’s a co-op and they can take a break from having to beat the crap out of her in case she gets ahead. Everyone each gets their own character (until they die, go insane, or the game ends) and a good group of friends will heavily encourage acting, an elaborately developed personality and a funny voice for the duration. The characters each have special abilities of some kind, their own set of stats and their own backstory.

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Of course, the game also doesn’t shy away from other classic Lovecraftian themes such as racial stereotyping. There’s an Asian lady who’s… really good at martial arts? Ok. And the Nigerian’s backstory is about wise village elders and spirits? Yup. Let’s just… yeah. And let’s not put on voices for those characters k? K.

And then there’s our own personal favourite: Silas Marsh. One for the ladies. His thing is that he’s better on sea-tiles. What’s his intricate and carefully woven backstory? He… quite likes the sea.

What?

Yep, that’s it. He just really likes the sea, you guys. He comes from a small seaport town, you won’t have heard of it. It’s in New England somewhere.

"I'm basically just producing slashfic now." -Dr Photographer
“I’m basically just producing slashfic now.” -Dr Photographer

Good.

So as mentioned above, Eldritch Horror is a co-op game, hence the small “knives-in-the-back” rating. It still gets one knife however, in case someone gets a death pact and has to kill one of their friends.

darkpact
You see this face? This is the face of ‘I just found out what a Dark Pact does.’

… Pardon?

Horrors?!
Horrors?!

Yup! That brings us right round to the main theme of the review, the game, and indeed life itself: never-ending horror. As with most good co-ops, at the end of every turn someone needs to trigger what’s known as Bad Stuff Happens (‘mythos phase’). For Eldritch Horror this means turning over a card and letting all hell break loose. Not got enough monsters on the board? Have some more. Not got enough terrifying gates to otherworldly and evil dimensions, floating around? Have some of those, too. Not feeling like there’s enough DOOM floating around? Better advance the DOOM track! Frankly if you’re not feeling overwhelmed and panicky once you’ve resolved all the conditions of the mythos card then you’re playing it wrong.

Big bag o'monsters
Big bag o’monsters

If the DOOM track reaches zero, or you’ve got too many inter-dimensional gates spitting monsters all over the board, or maybe just if great Cthulhu’s great alarm clock was set a little early, then congratulations, the Old Ones have woken up. When that happens you are more or less fucked, unless you can pull out some really fantastic dice rolls and co-operation. So yeah, pretty much fucked. Enjoy being devoured.

But of course, there are several other ways that things can go wrong for a plucky gang of adventurers during the ‘encounter’ phase. There’s that aforementioned “death pact” and other terrifying conditions (you don’t need all of your limbs for adventuring, right?) and there are monsters – those tend to want to attack you if you get too close. Sometimes you’re just on a lovely, optimistic quest for a ‘clue’ and instead you wind up beaten and imprisoned. There are really excellent cards that describe what happens in each situation and which skill-checks you need to pass, and you’ll always find yourself shouting at your character as you read it out.

When the horror gets too much, sometimes you have to turn into a starfish.
When the horror gets too much, sometimes you have to turn into a starfish.

You see a terrifying crypt… good, that’s ok so far… you head towards it to explore… NO I FUCKING DON’T WHY WOULD I DO THAT… and suddenly an arm grabs you… OF COURSE IT BLOODY DOES I’M IN A SHITTING CRYPT WHAT DID I EXPECT? …Make a strength check to escape…  OKAY COME ON ARMS OF STEEL… SON OF A BISCUIT HOW DID THAT FAIL?? …if you fail you get dragged underground where shoggoths pull off your arm and beat you with it.

Strength check you say?
Strength check you say?

The game has an exciting balance of making you firefight all of the things going wrong and actually trying to scrabble your way towards victory. You may want to hoover up all of the lovely clue-juice, for example, depending on the current victory goal that you need to achieve, but you also don’t want to leave open five portals which more terrifying goat-spawn can clop through at any point.

One thing that seemed a little less balanced is the discrepancies between different numbers of players. We left Bob unsupervised once or twice and she had a few solo runs of the game, which she tells us was possibly a little too easy. Obviously we can only explain this by the game being easier with only one player, and nothing at all to do with Briony, Lizzy and the Camera-Man holding her back the rest of the time. It’s also absolutely impossible that she was playing it wrong. She’s a known rules junkie, our Bob, who never takes the ‘eh, that’s probably right?’ approach to little things like numbers of dice or how DOOM tracks work.

Big board o' horrors
Big board o’ horrors

We also didn’t have too much of the “one person controls all” problem that seems pervasive through a lot of co-op board games, but that might just be the particular team of plucky adventurers / arseholes that we are.

“Get the clue, we need it for the next victory condition!”
“… Hmm but I really want to explore Tunguska.”
“But the victory condition?”
“TUNGUSKA!”

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It’s also got great replayability as you can choose from a variety of world-eating monsters to struggle vainly against, and which affect the gameplay quite strongly. If you fancy your misery Shub-Niggurath-flavoured, for example, you’re going to be spending a lot of time losing your sanity to suicidal cultists. If it’s Yig, you’re going to be poisoned by snakes at least twenty times. If you’re in a Cthulhu mood then I’m afraid you’re going to be spending some time in the sea. There are goat-spawn too, and hellhounds.

The expansion adds to this with a host of new monsters, crippling ailments, and a frozen wasteland. Hurray!

To enjoy Eldritch Horror, you do have to enjoy a bit of misery for your adventures. Luckily, this is right up the street of a group of board game reviewers who’ve called themselves ‘The Misery Farm’. We’d certainly recommend it to people who only hate themselves a little. Most of you, probably.

He really likes the sea.
He really likes the sea.

The real winner is Cthulhu. May the dark lord’s tentacles ever be long and terrifying.


Photos credited to Dr Photographer

The big bag o’ monsters was made during a game by the mighty-impressive Emma Field at JustAddCrochet, who is also featured in a photo as a starfish.

Cthulhu Wars: Indescribably Tentacular

A Review by Bob, Lizzy

Number of dicks in ear: 8 inter-dimensional, squamous dicks/10.
Pairs well with: German beer, anti-psychotic medication.

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You may notice that this game review is lacking in high quality Cthulhu Wars photos. That’s because none of us are insanely rich enough to own this game, so we’re relying on Lizzy’s camera from our time at Essen 2014. She hadn’t even realised that the lens was dusty at this point. Sheesh. Some photos have also been professionally recreated in a studio environment. See if you can tell the difference.

(Not actual game footage. Actors were used to recreate gameplay. Crocheted Cthulhu sold separately. Terms and conditions apply.)
(Not actual game footage. Actors were used to recreate gameplay. Crocheted Cthulhu sold separately. Terms and conditions apply.)

Fun fact: If it weren’t for Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu role-playing game we wouldn’t be here today. I don’t mean that in an existential sense, just that this blog wouldn’t be here today.

Powerful stuff.
Powerful stuff.

Back in the mists of time of 2011 our friend Emma brought me, Lizzy, and a select few others together to roleplay some eldritch misery, unwittingly creating a gang of powerful lady-nerds.*

It was my first RP experience and I’ve been hooked ever since.

I've got some army guys and some robots. That's pretty sci-fi right guys?
I’ve got some army guys and some robots. That’s pretty sci-fi right?

Now I don’t have much interest in games beyond playing them. I’ve very little idea of which companies make good games and I’m regularly surprised when a game seemingly tailored to my interests appeared (looking at you, A Study in Emerald) so I had no idea that the cool-sounding Cthulhu game being exhibited at Essen 2014 was by the same guy who wrote the original role-play adventure. I wish I could say that the only time I embarrassed myself was when Petersen himself had to explain to me that he did not just jump on the Lovecraft bandwagon, but did to some extent start it. Unfortunately I also proceeded to get ridiculously excited and fan-girlish about the whole thing (to the extent that his wife told me to calm down), and to address him as ‘Sandy’ (to which he did not respond until I sheepishly reverted to ‘Mr. Petersen’).

In my defence it was a very exciting experience, especially when combined with the chocolate-

Cthulhu card game figurine v. blind bag Pony
Cthulhu card game figurine v. blind bag Pony

covered-chocolate-ice-cream stall just around the corner. Petersen was there like a proud, balding Mormon Santa Claus showing off his game, and one of his sons (or possibly grandsons) had the dubious honour of patiently teaching the game to a parade of smelly nerd troupes** (I think we smelled lovely) in a course of fully-booked two hour slots over the four days of convention. By the power of sheer exuberance I even got to beta-test Petersen’s next game, Gods War, which was still in the sharpie-on-cardboard stage of development. Stay tuned for an extra sneak-peek review of that game at the end of this broadcast.

Hmm. Strategy.
Hmm. Strategy.

The game itself is impressive in scale, and bonkers in execution. It was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, and thanks to that can afford to take a stance of ‘Look mate, you’re either in this entirely, or you’re out.’ I can imagine the kind of board games nerds who get off on the fiddly tactile bits of games getting feverish over this baby. There is a $199 price tag for just the core game (expansions are $59 each), with no option for a less-expensive less-artisanal version. It includes 64 incredibly detailed miniatures of Old Gods, monsters, and cultists. If you look closely you can see everything from the relief outline of the death-masks on the tiny cultists’ faces, to the cleft in the King in Yellow’s butt. Even the marker by which you tally your power is a tiny, adorable tentacle. It must be said, though, that there is something a little bit odd about

Better share the tentacle beard.
Better share the tentacle beard.

monsters which are defined as being unknowable, unnameable, indescribable horrors (H.P. Lovecraft was terrible at detail) being cast in plastic to play with. Takes away some of the awe. We didn’t actually say this to Petersen though, as the whole thing was so clearly his beloved baby and I already felt silly.

The game takes place on a board illustrated with an approximate map of the world. This has lead some of our more soft-headed moon-faced friends to think that the game has completely left the realm of Lovecraftian epic fantasy and entered into Risk-style grognard territory. Now

So many dice.
So many dice.

I’m not going to lie, there are dice. A lot of dice. So many dice that you sometimes need two hands to cast them all as part of a mighty god-against-god battle (it’s awesome). And yes, there is strategy involved. But the game isn’t a simple struggle for physical space. Instead, it’s all about power. There are a number of ways to gain power (and yes, taking up more space is one of them), and gaining power will earn you more super-special doom points, by which you may win the game. The faction you play (Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, Hastur/The King in Yellow) massively affects how you can most effectively gain and wield power, and is further specialised through your faction-unique spellbooks.

Tyrannids! They're monsters! They'll do!
Tyrannids! They’re monsters! They’ll do!

This is both great as it really absorbs you in the fantasy of the game, but also leads to the big, huge, massive, gaping flaw in the game. Namely, if you do not effectively figure out at least a starting strategy which integrates with your faction’s play style pretty fucking swiftly, then you are utterly screwed within the first two rounds of the game. The rules of the game and structure of a turn are hardly straightforward either, so you might need those two rounds to get a grip on what’s going on. This is something I usually hate in games (Terra Mystica! Why!?), and it does completely unbalance it. In our game, and in friends’, you end up with two players massively in the lead duking it out to be the first to flop their enormous eldritch cock across the board, and two players struggling to get out of their starting zones.

In fact we played this game with Emma (of previously-mentioned Cthulhu GM-ing glory) and she never stood a chance. We were merciless, and with good reason.

It's a warzone.
It’s a warzone.

Way back when, during our time as Cthulhu role-players we were very attached to our characters: Smokey Peterson the jazz musician, Old (insane, phenomenally rich) Trewilliger, Prudence and her gin, coquettish Mabel and… Jeff. Oh, Jeff. The only real good guy in the team. He loved corn, kindness and photography. Jeff!

One day something happened to Jeff that we don’t like to talk about. It had wings.

Then, in Essen 2014, just as Cthulhu Wars was starting, Emma picked up one of her pieces and said “Hey… this is the one that took Jeff!”

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And hell did Bob and I avenge our comrade. This also, unfortunately, proved that if one or two people want to gang up on you in the game then there’s not a lot you can do about it. Definitely a whole bouquet of dicks in ear.6D-31- 286

Nonetheless, this game is shamelessly fun. It’s complex but not impossible, with lots of juicy details to get stuck into/drive you into hellish pits of insanity. The rule book  comes with hints and tips toward getting the most out of your Elder God which apparently really helps to solve the balancing problem if you haven’t got a member of the Petersen family handy to keep you on track. Of course this is a moot point because I can’t afford it and this makes me sad.

 PS: Lizzy won.

Extra bonus game review: Petersen’s new epic-style game Gods War!

… It’s the same fucking game.

*This was before she abandoned us to get married and live in the frozen north. Now she makes adorable nerdy crochet guys at justaddcrochet.co.uk

** Don’t get butt-hurt, we were smelly. It was hot in that convention hall, and full of fried foods and bodies.