Origins has once again come and gone. Due to various scheduling mishaps with the convention and technical problems, we didn’t get to do much in the way of scheduled gaming, and spend our time looking for things to do. Here’s just a sample of some of the stuff that we did do and I was excited about in the convention.
Dresden Files RPG
Probably the item I was looking forward to the most at the convention, the Dresden Files RPG launched officially at Origins, and as I fully expected, these are two gorgeous hardcovers. We did our best to crash one of the scheduled games, but they seemed to be booked up throughout the convention, and every one we tried to get into with generic tokens filled up. Still, we got to play the 10 minute quick demo at the booth, and that was enough to convince me I’d like it. Thus, I brought the books home with me, and I’m slowly working my way through them… and bouncing back to the novels (I’ve only read one, and now I need to read more.) Those of you who want a full review are going to have to wait a bit. What I can tell you is that this isn’t just an RPG based on a book series. It’s a treatise on the genre of Urban Fantasy that guides the players and GM through the process of exploring a city and making it rife for adventuring and changing with your characters. After just a few chapters, I already feel like the book is compelling me to take The Wire and add wizards, and that prospect intrigues the heck out of me.
While I was at the booth, I picked up Jungle Adventure as well, which a friend has told me she’s going to run soon. Yay for more Parsley.
Of course, Linnaeus’s review was already convincing me to pick this one up. However, taking a look at the book in person and getting the super-short demo from designer Jason Morningstar sealed the deal. I love the genre in the first place, and Saul Bass-inspired art tickles my graphic designer senses. I remain a bit worried about the amount of narrative control that’s required in the game: despite the fact that I’m a very experienced roleplayer and storyteller, there always seems to be an “awkwardness curve” in games like this that can be tough for me and a mixed group of other players to overcome. I still wanted to get the book though and try it out- maybe I’ll be surprised.
No Ultimate Dungeon Delve this year (at all, neither there or GenCon) but we did try our hand at a “D&D Classics” adventure where we all played monsters, with MM3-style monster statblocks plus healing surges. I played a Troglodyte who revels in the fact he smelled bad and constantly talked about Torog, The King That Crawls. He didn’t believe in Heal checks to save dying party members, instead shook his trinkets and called for Torog to heal the downed party member. The adventure was absolutely brutal at the end, with multiple mind flayers, minions, and all kinds of other craziness. One player (a player who hadn’t played since 1e) got his brain devoured early on and said “Well, that sounds final.” My character too got taken out by a mind flayer and raised as a thrall to attack the party. Couple this with a severe lack of healing powers and no daily powers (we were monsters, after all) and it turned into a meatgrinder at the end. Neuroglyph has a more complete write-up of the adventure. There was also another DM Challenge that I didn’t find out about until at the convention. I figured it was time to let somebody else win one anyway.
I also found out later that Brian O’Hallaran, of Clerks fame and media guest of honor at Origins, played some D&D with other con-goers… and nobody made a “I wasn’t even supposed to be here today!” joke. Amazing!
Litko Game Accessories
I featured some of their products in our 4e Game Accessories guide. Nothing compares to seeing them in person, though. Very slick translucent plastic pieces of all shapes, sizes, and colors, plus other kinds of accessories to boot. I didn’t buy their 4e condition tracking markers (since condition tracking is pretty well covered) and instead bought some markers to represent various zones: fire, acid, and ice/electricity. Should make the Wizard’s job of creating zones and walls easier to track.
I really wanted one of these for Gamma World too:
The biggest draw to the Mayfair booth was Settlers of Catan running on the Microsoft Surface. As I said when I played D&D on the Surface back at PAX East, the Surface won’t be for every home, but makes an ideal convention piece. Judging from the attention it was getting, I was right. I only looked at it for a bit, but seemed to be a solid implementation, and one of the demoers told me that they were working on more elements that use the Surface’s capabilities, like being able to roll actual dice onto it to determine resource production instead of virtual on-screen dice.
In addition to their booth, Mayfair also maintains a big demo area at Origins. Originally, I was going to try out the new Settlers of America board game that builds on the Catan engine, but the copies in the demo area were often in use. E and I decided eventually to try our hand at Shear Panic. The Mayfair staff was quite happy to take our tokens, then leave us to try and learn the game on our own. It wasn’t until I made another appeal that someone actually came to help us learn the game (and did a great job teaching and was very nice.) While it eventually worked out, it struck me how different an operation it was than the Looney Labs area, where there is a big team of easily-identifiable demo folks ready to teach and play any of the games.
As for Shear Panic? Cute bits, a bit of a brain burner, and definitely not ideal for two players.
One of the things about a convention like Origins is that it’s a chance for smaller press companies to get their game out there into the hands of the public. One such company was Moosetache Games, with their inaugural game Rowboat. Someone from the company reached out over Twitter to invite me to check the game out, and so I did.
Their booth was certainly impressive, with awesome background art and great visual displays to help show how the game is played. I was given a press kit on a CD with information and graphics for the game, which makes any reviewer’s job easier to talk about your game. The people manning the booth were friendly and helpful. The art on the game cards looks great. That’s all good stuff.
Unfortunately, I can’t say as much good about the game itself. It’s not that the game is bad or unplayable really- it’s just nothing new, plus a bunch of fiddly elements. It’s a trick-taking game, which I generally like, which takes the bidding system of Bridge, with some elements from Spades and even Phase 10. However, instead of the elegeance of those games, there are a number of fiddly rules about what becomes trump and what doesn’t and under what circumstances you need to follow or not. The deck itself is literally a regular deck of cards with the suits and some numbers changed- but instead of the J-Q-K you’re already used to, you have to learn D-M-S-W (which is alphabetical and yet still less intuitive for no added gameplay benefit.) Then each player has 3 side special cards that they can use once per game. One of those cards allow you to look at your opponent’s hand for the length of a sand timer. Yes, the game includes a sand timer only for something you will do once per game, and all it does is punish those with bad memories.
According to the people at the booth, the game took a year and a half to develop. In that time, the final product is one derivative of other popular games, features unnecessary components, contains a few amateur game designer mistakes, and is competing with a deck of cards. Compare to Tichu in the same realm, which adds 4 cards to the deck, doesn’t require the same mental hoops to understand the card progression, and still manages a lot more strategic depth with clean rules.
I’ll finish by saying that it hits two of my big pet peeves. One, always credit your game designer or designers, preferably on the front of your game box. In a game that has a credits section, there is no excuse. Two, putting “Mind Bending Strategy! Mind Boggling Suspense!” on your box tells me nothing about your game. A note to small publishers: look at other successful games and see how many of them just have boastful generic statements about them.
Josh pointed me to the existence of this booth along the side. A company calling themselves “Rogue-like Fiction” was selling a package with their Rogue-like computer game (written in Java for cross-platform excellence) and a clue book made of nice paper with all kinds of legends and clues that tie into the game itself. Clearly a product with lots of work put into it, and a deal for only $20, I had to pick it up for some of my Rogue-loving friends. Legerdemain is also available for free play online, so definitely check it out. This was the product I picked as my One Cool Thing I Saw At Origins since it stood out as very unique.
Mayday first rose to popularity selling their Dominion-sized sleeves (for those like me that put their Dominion sets through heavy abuse), and since last year, they’ve been branching out into their own board games in addition to supplementary bits for other games. The product they were showcasing at Origins that had me most excited though is their mass-produced Crokinole boards. I’ve loved Crokinole, a classic game of flicking wooden pieces around a circular board, for years now. The main barriers have been price and storage space. Not much that can be done about storage space, but Mayday is working on getting the price down to an affordable range. After a series of games in the board game room on one of their sets, I may have to find the storage space for one.
People and the Press
Like most conventions nowadays, I go for the people. Between old friends from college, old friends from gaming, newer friends, and people I had never met except for Twitter interactions, Origins is a great place for that. With a slower pace than GenCon, it’s much easier to slip out and grab some Jeni’s Ice Cream from North Market with friends and chat. And overall, the food options in Columbus blow Indianapolis away, period.
The press treatment was very classy and much improved this year. Admittedly, I didn’t take advantage of much of it. After years of doing Origins and other convention press coverage, I feel like I know what I want to cover and investigate. Just the fact that we were given a press booklet (including a flash drive filled with PR materials) and there was a schedule for meeting different companies and personalities is a big plus. Plus, I heard that the press room wasn’t just a place for bloggers and podcasters to feed their kids, a significant problem for me in the past when I went in there to actually get some work done. Rio Grande’s wifi area helped too, which I’m glad to see will be expanded throughout GenCon. None of that, unfortunately, helped get the internet into the Origins Awards, a problem that has persisted for years.
Origins is a unique convention. Its not the convention to go to for big announcements or a full schedule of role-playing games (though there is still plenty.) The focus is more on board games with lots of wargame and miniatures booths in the exhibit hall. While it’s still a “big” convention (GAMA’s estimate puts attendees at 10,669 people this year) it is by no means as big as GenCon or SDCC. That’s a plus in some ways (more room to maneuver, easier to meet people) and a minus in others (not as big a draw for a lot of game companies.) Still, I plan to come back next year. And there is a rumor that the convention will be moving to Memorial Day in 2012, which will be a very interesting development.