Misery Farm On The Road: Misery at Gavcon II

This week we bring you the next in our sporadic series of event reviews, in which we bravely leave the house to give you an exclusive report from one of the hottest board game conventions in … a little area north of Southampton, England.

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Ok! Perhaps, more accurately, we bring you an exclusive report of what it’s like to host a small board game convention between friends. Apologies for the lower quality photographs than normal, Dr Photographer (link) decided he’d rather spend the convention ‘having fun’ and ‘playing games’ than working for us, for free, all day, so most of the photographs have been taken by Lizzy. At least this time she remembered to wipe the lens of her digital camera first, instead of just getting confused as to why all of the photos were blurry.

Gavcon (lovingly called Gaviscon* by everyone except the eponymous Gav) is the now-annual convention run by one of our good buddies we went to Essen with in 2013. A year later Gavin ‘went rogue’ and, while wildly shouting “I don’t play by your rules!”, tried to save on his yearly trips to Germany by hosting his own mini-convention, for about 20+ people, friends and friends-of-friends. This is our report from the second annual Gavcon!

How does Gavcon work?

Gavcon is unlike any other small (or large) conventions we’ve been to, but it seems to work really well. The host, Gav, charges everyone about £30 (that’s about 40 euros, 45 USD, 12,500 Hungarian forints, etc). In exchange for this unusually large sum for a convention he will book a hall and buy one game for each paying participant.

The room preparing for Gavcon
The room preparing for Gavcon

So suppose he gets 12 paying participants. He sets up a list on BoardGameGeek where everyone nominates and votes for the games they want to be able to play; we often pick new releases, things we’ve not played before but heard about, recent recommendations. Based on votes, variety and availability Gav will pick 12 games to buy and bring them all to the convention. There’s a full day of merriment, playing, food from the bar, seeing your friends who inconsiderately moved to Cambridge but are down for the convention, etc.

As the day wraps up, maybe 5pm, the real game begins! Gavin will have the names of everyone who paid their £30 on a piece of paper and in a hat. One by one a name is drawn, to applause and envy, and everyone will get to pick one of the games to take away and keep! Hopefully throughout the day people will have played a wide enough variety of games to make sure they can choose something they like, and if not they can get by on recommendations from others.

Since the £30 entry fee gets you a free game at the end of the day it turns out to be a pretty good deal. And people who can’t afford the fee or didn’t get around to paying are still encouraged to come along, they just won’t get to take away a game at the end of the evening.

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Now for the low-down on this year’s Gavcon from Lizzy, our Chief Gavcon Correspondant.

The first trick to running a small games convention, it would seem, is to pick the location very carefully. You need the space, you want somewhere that sells beer and food, but most importantly you want it to be both conveniently close and incredibly difficult to find. Gavcon meets each of these criteria, hosted just north of Southampton while simultaneously being in the middle of nowhere at all. Even when you can see the building, somewhere in the woods, it will take the driver at least ten minutes to find the entrance to a carpark. This is an important part of convention scheduling; you want the players to feel like they’re warming up, being challenged, playing their first game, getting their first victory in before they’ve even arrived.

Red7

The first game we started off with was Red7: a small and quick card game, but with some fun mechanics. It consists of the numbers 1-7, each in seven different colours.

P1020518To play, you have a choice of putting a card in front of you or in the middle. Cards in front of you will add to your ‘palette’, which is where you get your points from. Cards in the middle will… completely change the rules of the game, depending on which colour you’ve chosen! After you’ve played your turn, either changing the rules, adding to your hand or both, you need to be winning. If you’re not winning after your turn, you’re out! The round will end fairly soon and everyone will count up their score and start again.

The game is quick, easy to learn but great fun. A very good ratio of interesting tactics to difficulty. Recommended as a neat small game.

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Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Have you played Suburbia? Good. Well, it’s that game, made by the same people, but better. You have to build the best, maddest castle for the Mad King, with the rooms that become available to you. There are lots of ways that a room can score you points, and lots of exciting combinations you can work towards.

How about instead of a photo of this game you just accept this photo of a duck and ask no questions. Good.
How about instead of a photo of this game you just accept this photo of a duck and ask no questions. Good.

It’s another great one for interesting mechanics; each player takes a turn being the ‘master builder’ and decides how much money each room will cost the players to buy. They’re incentivised to make the more attractive rooms as expensive as possible, since everyone will pay them the money for the rooms.

Slightly more complex, but good fun. It’s great to play a game where you can see several paths to victory and you have to make a tough choice about which one to take.

Witness

Oh hell. I don’t even know. The day made sense earlier, what happened? Help!

P1020555Witness is a… surprising game. I don’t even know. What did they just say? Shit. It’s a combination of Chinese whispers and a puzzle game, and I don’t know how a group of four smart human adults could be as awful at it as we were. There’s a lot of information to memorise and you’re not allowed to write it down until the end. You’ll find yourself reaching over to whisper to someone and suddenly realising you’ve forgotten all of the names of all of the participants. There’s laughter, there’s tears.

A very quick game which gave us a lot of fun, but we’re not sure how much we’d want to play it after the first few runs.

Letters From Whitechapel

Chief Commissioner Moustache
Chief Commissioner Moustache

This was, to Lizzy, the most fun game of Gavcon. Since seeing a review for it she’d been mega-keen to give it a go, and voted for it to be a part of the convention both years. This year she was successful and she wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to play it!

The game requires one person to be Jack The Ripper (Dr Photographer was incredibly keen. He’s always had that serial-killer glint in his eye) and the others to be the noble investigators. There’s scrambling, hidden movement, murder and a lot of roleplaying if you get into it properly.

Quite a long game, but simple rules and very enjoyable. We’ve since reviewed it in full, here.

Murder scene
Murder scene

Colt Express

A lot of people would say that this game is worth getting just for the model train. They’re probably right.

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P1020547_FotorIt’s also fun, but if I owned it I probably wouldn’t play it that often. I don’t think that’s just because I lost. It’s fairly simple but also seems to involve a fair bit of luck, and how much the other players get in your way! It has some fun pre-planned movement mechanics that are always a laugh. Fun as a game to play through, but not for strategy, perhaps.

A pretty medium game for me, in both length and enjoyment. But maybe that’s just because the standard of games was so high! (and did I mention  how badly I lost?)

The end of the day

As the dust settled, we all gathered round for the real game to begin. We all screwed up our faces and stared intently at the hat of names, trying to get our names pulled out as early as possible to grab our favourite games. Good tactics at this point are to run around to all of your friends and try to find out which games they enjoyed the most.

Lizzy came some point in the middle but it was enough to win her Letters From Whitechapel; she was pleased as punch. Last year she was chosen first (still managing to look incredibly smug about it, despite it being luck) and managed to grab Glass Road, which is also now a favourite of the team’s.

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Gavcon works really well, but it does so because of the small number of people and the fact that they all know each other fairly well. Then you can be sure there aren’t too many grumpy disputes about anything like the money, the game you win at the end, etc. The atmosphere is friendly and the hosting seems fairly relaxed. It might not work on a larger scale, but if you’re interested in hosting your own board game events with a similarly-sized group of friends then we found this format to work really well!

As always, the real winner is board games.

*Gaviscon is the name of some kind of heartburn medication over here, by the way. Honestly, it’s a very witty joke if you’re from the UK.**

**Disclaimer, joke might not be witty.

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Glass Road: Why would you build a road out of glass?

Brutus rating: 4 daggers in the back out of 10
Pairs well with: Bavarian beer, some sort of spirit in a flask that can be carried around while toiling in the German forest.

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But why would they build a road out of glass, though?

Glass Road is a self-proclaimed ‘celebration of the 700-year-old tradition of glass-making in the Bavarian Forest’.* Just hearing the rules being read can make someone on the other side of the room sit up and ask ‘Are you playing Agricola?’. That’s right kids, it’s an Uwe Rosenberg game! For those that don’t know, this guy is arguably the king of European board games. His other offerings include Agricola and Le Havre, a game Briony has owned for more than a year and never played. It is said just looking at the rules booklet can cure insomnia. If you’ve any experience with European board games generally, and Rosenberg’s games in particular, you might reasonably expect this one to be heavy on the worker-placement, fairly abstract, and deeply German. Surprisingly, it’s only one of those things, and even then not as badly as some others**. It’s not even hideously long or punishing, and doesn’t make you curl up in a corner after screwing up your 3 hour long strategy in one single turn.

Let’s take a step back and tell a story. It’s the beautiful tale of why this game makes sense on both a conceptual and mechanical level, and is nerdily satisfying in the same way that all good game-lore is satisfying. Imagine you’re a rural baron in pre-Industrial Germany. You have a fair6D-32-202 bit of land, though a lot of it is green and covered in trees. Lizzy informs us that these are called ‘forests’. You also have lots of extremely hard-working peasants who are happy to do your bidding. They’re invisible, but they’re there, toiling in the harsh German sunshine. For some reason you also have a glassworks and a brickworks. This is a bit odd because you don’t have any of the raw materials to make glass and brick yet, but just go with it. I’m sure you’ll find some sand and mud soon enough.

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Why?

Your neighbourhood barons seem to be making a lot of money off this whole ‘production’ trend, so you decide to jump on board. You hire experts in the fields of farming and food production, irrigation, building, and quarrying to help you turn your land into useable raw materials. You can even get on board with a local feudal lord who has some excellent architects on exclusive retainer (‘The feudal lord is suitably fat. That’s good’ – Briony). Your invisible hordes of hard-working peasants, as soon as they’re given sufficient food and resources, immediately set to it in the glass- and brickworks and before you know it you’ve got some luxury items. These you invest into building factories, luxury second homes, and highly-efficient farming conglomerates. Eventually the buildings and luxury items earn you a bunch of cash moneys and then the game ends. Whoever has the most cash money at the end of the game wins. In this it’s very much like real life, and also extremely like Puerto Rico.

There are, of course, some complicating factors. If your neighbouring barons also want the use of the expert artisans then you will have to split the amount of work they can do. If you hack and burn all your forests to build farms there will be no pristine land to place a successful hunting lodge. If you accidentally over-feed your workers they’ll continue to produce glass and brick even when what you really wanted were the raw materials they were sitting on. Briony has a degree in geography and says that this is sort of how rocks and stuff work: cool stuff is usually underneath other more boring stuff, and it’s a shame medieval peasants didn’t know about taking core samples.

6D-32-192This game is actually kind of adorable and well-designed (though it is, according to Briony, geographically inaccurate). Some of the little resource tiles have unique bits of illustration, and spotting them is a treat. Not gonna lie, it has some haters, who seem to dislike it for the same unusual mechanic that other people love. That is, the big individual cardboard dials that tally6D-32-199 your basic resources (coal, food, etc.) and determine when they get used up and turned into the more luxurious brick and glass. Tzolk’in lovers will probably have some familiarity with this from that game’s corn-and-worker gear machines, while Caylus players will enjoy the familiar feeling of not having tallied their resources properly and fucking up their entire turn. Some people blame this on the game rather than their own fuzzy-minded planning, but that’s on them. A more reasonable criticism of Glass Road is that it has no easy or clear way to tally point-scoring. There’s just an awful lot of counting at the end of the game, again a little bit like fuzzy-strategies during Puerto Rico.

At the start of the game it’s pretty difficult to know what you’re trying to do. However, like most worker-placement games, collecting resources is usually a good start. Each player begins by selecting 5 of the 15 cards which represent your agriculture/industry specialists (a water carrier, a slash-and-burn farmer, a sand-quarrier (is that a thing?) etc.). On playing these experts you will be able to transform the cardboard tiles representing your land (initially representing such useless things as ‘trees’, and ‘lakes’) into resources of charcoal, food, sand, and water. Briony begins by selecting 5 cards more or less at random and plays a fish farmer. Unfortunately she’s apparently either very good or very bad at determining a useful specialist to hire, as both Lizzy and Gord (today’s Generic White Male Gaming Buddy) reveal that they also wish to hire the fish farmer. This means they only get half the use out of their fishing expert. The fish farmer, being a dick, doesn’t like sign a contract of exclusivity saying he’ll finish one job before starting another; he just does two half-assed jobs at the same time. Again, this is much like real life.

6D-32-186Once the great cardboard dials of industry have turned, you may use the product of your workers’ labour to further your cause as a budding capitalist. Buildings have unique effects on gameplay, which can be long-term, such as upgrading your glass factory; one-shot, such as generating a wad of cash; or end-game, giving bonus points with the caveat of certain accomplishments like ‘not turning all your lakes into factory run-off’ or ‘flattening vast swathes of land into sandy Depression-era dustbowl wastes’. Which buildings are more useful and desireable becomes clear as the game progresses. Once Briony and Gord had gotten the hang of their first game she became quite adept at snagging all the buildings that Lizzy wanted.

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Why?

This game requires flexibility as well as forward-planning. A perfectly-devised strategy is likely to go awry as there’s no way to be sure of which buildings will be available to play, or which specialists you’ll have to share with your opponents. This is why Bob loves this game. She has a lot of very clever, strategically-minded friends who can logic out the best path through a game like a shark swimming through custard. Bob has a slightly more… lateral (ass-backwards) approach, picking up whatever strategy looks best at the time and throwing her toys out of the pram when it inevitably goes horribly wrong (we don’t talk about Black Fleet. So many little cubes were lost that day…). Somehow this really works for Glass Road. Unfortunately, Bob was busy cleaning up gaming-snack detritus and sat out this game.

In conclusion, it’s a nicely designed game, with just the right of in-game mechanics. It’s themed well, and has multiple strategies that my lead to victory that keeps intense direct competition to a minimum. The dials, ever becoming more popular in modern board games, certainly give a new dimension to resource collection. We recommend it highly. Also Lizzy wins again.

Laid out in all its glory. image courtesy of boardgaming.com
Laid out in all its glory. image courtesy of boardgaming.com

*Fun fact, you can totally go to Germany and tour the black forest’s monuments to the real glass road. There are glass museums and craft workshops and everything.

**The most unashamedly German board game is quite possibly Glück Auf (and then only until someone with a name like Rosenmüllentheimermassbergsohn invents a game called ‘Strategic Worker Placement in an Industrial or Agricultural Setting’***). It’s set in the Industrial Revolution-era Ruhrgebiet (basically the Black Country of Germany) and is about coal mining profits. The title is traditional German pit-lingo for ‘good luck’.

***’Strategische Arbeitereinstellung in einem Industrie- oder Landwirtschaftsszenario’. Catchy, no?

Photo credit and thanks to Dr. Photographer