Saturday, November 30, 2013

Divided Loyalties: HAL-CON 2013

The convention scene here in Halifax continues to grow by leaps and bounds. It used to be that the only geeky event we had to look forward to every year was the late, lamented Fleet Con, which consisted of nothing more then a few vendor tables, a Halo tournament and some Klingons with obvious thyroid issues.

Despite its modesty, we loved Fleet Con because it was the one day out of the year we'd spend indoors playing games. Sadly, it eventually foundered and for the longest time we gamers had very little to look forward to when it came to annual events.

Eventually the sci-fi *slash* gaming convention HAL-CON rose from the ashes in 2010 to take it's place. Despite the organizer's best intention, the event's rebirth was a tad rocky.

The Lord Nelson Hotel proved to be a woefully undersized venue for the unexpected turnout. There weren't even any open gaming tables that year, just a few broom-closet sized rooms set aside for pre-registered gaming. Translation: even if you bought a new board game in the vendor section, there was absolutely no place to actually sit down and play it! In fact, we ended up going across the street to the Rockbottom Brewpub to play games there!

Despite HAL-CON's inaspicious debut as a gaming venue, the organizers proved to be a receptive and accommodating bunch. They listened to our feedback and in 2011 the event was vastly improved!  There were tons of game vendors and plenty of places to plunk down and dig into our new acquisitions.

But by 2012 I already started to see a tipping point. A surfeit of of amazing guests distracted me from gaming. Attendance had also grown exponentially and, once again, available gaming space was at a premium. Despite having to defend our open gaming table like The Road Warrior oil refinery, we still had plenty of fun last year.

When guests such as Richard Hatch, J. August Richards, Jewel Staite, and Billy Dee Williams were announced for this year's HAL-CON, I was instantly consumed by turmoil. How much time would I be able to allocate to gaming with so much time-sensitive awesomeness going on around me? 

There was also some question as to who's be going. Only Andrew and I were committed to going for all three days. Mike was planning to be there Saturday and Sunday while Chad and his family, along with Matt and Angela, would only be on site for Saturday. Mark wavered at first but eventually caved in when a free weekend pass became available. And Dean, the big wiener that he was, decided not to go at all.  

Before the big day I made it clear to Andrew that my attentions would be scattered at best. As such, we quickly came to the conclusion that parking in one spot all day long just wasn't going to be practical. This turned out to be a smart move since guarding the same table all day long is the equivalent of tying a dead albatross around our collective necks. Even if we took turns watching over our turf, it was going to limit our options and tie folks down so we decided to go "free range".

Friday turned out to be the perfect day to "test drive" this new approach. Andrew and I got a chance to register, get the lay of the land and lock down our strategies for the rest of the weekend. Just as predicted, I was completely preoccupied, attending signings and workshops, trolling through the vendor section and vainly attempting to video capture the limitless myriad of sights and sounds.

Knowing that I'd be running around like the dog in Up, Andrew busied himself in an epic game of Firefly. Periodically I'd check in on him to see how he was doing and despite some stiff competition he eventually emerged victorious! 'Atta boy!

He also ran into a friend from work named Fraser and the two of them played a few rounds of Mr. Jack Pocket. In Game One Andrew played Jack and Fraser played Sherlock and for Game Two they swapped roles. Regardless, Fraser proved triumphant in both games. At a glance, this one looked pretty intriguing to me and I pledged to try it before the weekend was out.

After all the autograph signings and workshops were done for the day, I finally sat down to play a game, which turned out to be the elegant thriller Hanabi.

As per the R&R games, here's the quick bang on this one:

Hanabi is "an intriguing and innovative card game. Race against the clock to build a dazzling fireworks finale! Trouble is, you can see the cards that everyone holds...except your own. Working together, you must give and receive vital information in order to play your cards in the proper launch sequence. Build and light each firework correctly to win the game and avoid a fizzling fiasco! Game design by famed Seven Wonders designer, Antoine Bauza."

Looking for the full, pyrotechnical details? You can read the game's rules in a flash right here.

Despite a rocky start, I think we did pretty durned good in that first game. At various times Fraser seemed paralyzed by the game's boundless depth and tension, I kept forgetting everything about my friggin' cards and Andrew made some petty bizarro discards. Pretty soon Green and White were locked up at "1" and "2" respectively.

Nevertheless our communication continued to improve and eventually we ended up with an "excellent and crowd-pleasing" grand total of 18 points! Huzzah!

From what I've heard, copies of Hanabi are pretty scarce right now and I can see why! This deceptively deep little brain-burner, consisting of only sixty cards, eight blue Clock Tokens and four black Fuse Tokens is one of the most original game experiences I've encountered recently!

The game shatters expectations right off the bat. In much the same way that Bohnanza prevents you from re-arranging cards in your hand, you can't look at any of the cards you draw in Hanabi. Needless to say this goes completely against every single impulse I have as a gamer. To make things even more challenging, the clues you provide to your team-mates are limited to two formats: "This card is a 'four'" or "These cards are Green" for example.  

This is compounded by a finite number of Clock Tokens which have a tendency to run out very, very quickly. Even armed with a couple of decent clues, plays often boil down to "educated guess" or "complete and total crap-shoot". If the card you end up flopping doesn't start, add to or complete one of the firework chains, then the Fuse ignites, putting a nail-biting time limit on the game.

This is definitely a must-buy for me. Inexpensive, simple to explain and hideously tense, Hanabi is a game that belongs in every board game collection!

By the time Hanabi wrapped up we decided to shove off. Even though I desperately wanted tomorrow to be a "gamier" affair, one glance at the schedule didn't provide a lot of hope. 

Saturday morning began with a memorable tour through the vendor section. One particular retailer was selling a metric shit-ton of board games, the prices for which tended to lean towards the steep side. Curiously enough, this juicy little title didn't have a price sticker on it:

Then, from out of nowhere, the lady behind the counter saw me holding it and spontaneously blurted out:

"That game is twenty-five dollars!"

For a second I just blinked at her. I couldn't believe my ears.

"Um, I'm sorry," I said. "It's how much?"

"Twenty-five dollars!" she repeated.

I couldn't get the money out of my wallet fast enough. Now I know that the concept of spending money to make money is pretty ludicrous, but I certainly made out like a bandito in that particular deal. What can I say, sometime I aim to misbehave.

Lady Luck continued to smile upon me when Andrew led me to another vendor who was selling a beautiful copy of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer:

Since the copy I currently owned had been badly crushed in a tragic Ebay shipping disaster, I quickly jumped as this shrink-wrapped, unpunched gem. After this fortuitous Joss Whedon-themed two-fer, I decided to retreat back to the Game Room with my booty for a brief spell of tranquility. I was gonna need it.

Just before my first obligatory Q&A of the day, Andrew pinned me down long enough for a quick game of Mr. Jack Pocket.

If this one's a complete mystery to you, here's Inspector Asmodee's "Elementary!" description:

"In Mr. Jack Pocket Edition, two players return to the scene of the crime, one to unmask the vile Mr. Jack, and the other to escape into the night. But this time, the game is all new. Suspects are printed on street tiles, and turned to hide their faces from the investigators. Four special action tiles will allow both players to maneuver the tiles and the investigators, one player trying to spot the elusive killer, and the other desperate to hide from sight."

Looking for the full profile on this notorious suspect? Turn your magnifying glass on the game's full rap sheet right here.

In our game I played Sherlock, Watson and their trusty hound Toby while Andrew played the role of that sick fuck Jack.

I promptly went to work, triangulating Holmes and Watson into an effective investigative ("effectigative"?) tag-team and eliminating a couple of key suspects right off the bat. Rattled by my initial success, a distinct lack of sleep and his crushing double-defeat the previous day, Andrew promptly screwed the pooch ("Toby?!? NOOOOOOOO!!!!") by soft-pitching an opportunity for me to eliminate a bunch of key characters. The next turn poor, violated Toby wriggled free from Andrew's sweaty embrace and then gave me a perfect line of sight right to the end of the street!

And with that the killer stood revealed: Jeremy Bert, sketch artist and serial canine molester!

After my quick and decisive victory I immediately proclaimed myself the Mr. Jack Pocket regional champion and then dashed off before Andrew could propose a rematch.

"I'm thinking that I'm just not very good at this game," Andrew lamented just as I fled from the table.  

So, what did I think of it? Well, above and beyond the fact that my win was largely predicated on Andrew's epic blunder, I'm not sure how qualified I am to passing judgement. But, hey, here goes:
  • Throwing the Action Tokens randomly into the air might seem a bit goofy at first but it works perfectly well for the game. The way Actions are divided up amongst the two players is also thematically clever since it allows Jack to take advantage of Sherlock's missteps.
  • Although the "Appeal for Witnesses" portion of the game may not seem like deductive reasoning in the strictest sense, a successful Sherlock player will need to balance Action selection, character moves and a solid memory in order to win. 
  • The game is quick to set up and easy to explain, making it a solid choice for gaming with a significant other. 
I've always been vaguely interested in the original Mr. Jack and playing this version really piqued my curiosity again. There aren't a lot of games specifically designed for two players so when you find a good 'un, it's always worth looking into.

The rest of day was an insane whirlwind of Q&A's and signatures for me. For Andrew, it was an opportunity to get involved in an open session of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords, which they all cooperatively won. After hearing him rave about this one I started reading up on the viability of cloning technology. Man, I really would have loved to give that one a whirl.

As the day wore on, more and more regrets began to pile up. One of the key things I missed on Saturday was a meet and greet *slash* signing with RPG deity Monte Cook. Along with Jonathan Tweet and Skip Williams, Monte helped produce what I still believe is the definitive edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Man, I would have loved to have gotten my Dungeon Master's Guide signed by him.

Speaking of that hallowed tome, when Gary Gygax read Monte's contributions to the 3'rd Edition DMG he actually said that it would help him become a better Dungeon Master. Man, talk about your high praise!

In another painful revelation, I also discovered after the fact that Monte himself GM'ed a freakin' session of his new RPG Numenera for a handful of lucky participants! GAK! I know that saying "There was too much to do at HAL-CON this year!" sounds incredibly churlish, but my inability to be everywhere at once was pretty painful.

By the time I finally came to rest around 7 pm, Andrew had already bugged out, retreating to Chad's house for several games of 7 Wonders, Forbidden Desert and another bash at Hanabi. I must confess, I felt a twinge of jealousy when I heard about this little alterna-con.

Now that all of my obligations were over and done with, my only goal for Sunday was to game my face off. Thankfully Andrew and Mike were willing to accompany me once more into the breach and as a result I was rewarded with a relaxing and insightful day filled with gamey goodness.

Truly this was my first chance to "stop and smell the cardboard", so to speak. I also managed to snap a few fleeting photos that morning in order to document the environment.

This first pic should give you a good idea of the available gaming space. This was taken around 10 am and by mid-morning, every single one of these seats would be ocupado:

A variety of tabletop miniatures games were also well-represented:

Before Mike showed up I managed to finagled Andrew into a game of Jaipur.

In Jaipur players take on the role of traders looking to make a good impression with the Maharaja and score an invite to court. They do so by making early, numerous and lucrative trades for one of six different goods: Cloth, Spice, Leather, Gold, Silver and Diamonds.

On any given turn players can either take cards or trade cards. If you take just one card from the open market you simply replace it with the top card from the draw deck. If you want multiple goods from the market you need to replace them with a combination of cards from your hand or your Camel herd. If you want to beef up your future trading powers you can also snatch up all of the Camels in the market.

Players score Rupees by trading in sets of goods and taking one scoring token for each discarded card. Early trades tend to be more lucrative since the values of the scoring tokens drop as the round wears on. Whenever players trade in three, four or five of a kind they also earn highly-prized Bonus Tokens for their efforts. As an added perk, the player with the largest Camel Herd also scores five Rupees at the end of the round.

The round ends when three out of the six goods have been depleted or there are no cards left in the draw pile. Players tally up their collected Rupees and the person with the highest total score claims the first of three Excellence Markers. The first player to score two out of three Excellence Markers wins the game!

If you want the full skinny on how to wow the Maharaja, click on the following link for the full path to enlightenment.

I felt a little bit like a grifter after I invited Andrew to play this one with me. I'd played Jaipur quite a bit at home lately with Prudence Goodwyf, a very wily competitor who has a tendency to annihilate me in just about every game.

I made some pretty hefty early transactions for Gold and Diamonds. Andrew responded in kind with a five-card trade for Leather, netting a fabulous 10-point Bonus Token. To offset this I also orchestrated my own five-card trade and made sure to stockpile a surplus of Camels before the Gold, Spice and Cloth were all snatched up.



Andrew is nothing if not a quick study and things got a lot more competitive in the second round! He went right after THE GOOD STUFF, scoring the lion's share of Gold and Silver. I battled back, trying to trade in  as many three-card sets for Bonus Tokens as possible. Just before Andrew surged ahead of me I dropped a single Fabric card, depleting the third goods pile and bringing the second round to a premature close.



Although that second round was a real squeaker I managed to snag the second Excellence Marker for the win! 

Many of my comments RE: Mr. Jack Pocket also apply here. Although it's perfectly fine to play a multiplayer game that scales down to two people, its another thing to play a game specifically engineered for two players

Since you can only take goods or sell good, turns in Jaipur tend to fly by really, really quickly. As a result, it's a great game for people with the attention span of a hummingbird. Although early bulk trades are certainly desirable, sniping valuable goods away from your rival can also be a pretty smart tactic. And although nabbing an entire of herd of camels will surely improve your future trading prospects it also turns up a juicy spectrum of new options for your opponent!  

After Jaipur was over I took a peek at the HAL-CON board game library. Man, talk about a wall-full of entertainment goodness! 

So, not only can you bring in your own games from home or pick up something new n' shiny in the vendor section, you can also dip into the library and try out as many games as you want for free! Considering that some of these suckas can run you upwards to a hundred bucks a pop, it's a great way to test-drive a bunch o' titles that you're interested in without gambling with your wallet! 

Even before lunch rolled around the Gaming Hall looked like this:

When Mike arrived we decided to give Hanabi another shot.

I was pretty much mentally wrecked the first time I played it on Saturday so I was looking forward to trying it again. Not only did I have the advantage of familiarity, I was well-rested, caffeinated and raring to go. During the match I used my card rack to great effect, orienting each firework in creative ways in order to keep track of them. That way, everytime Andrew's voiced his stern mantra of "WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT YOUR CARDS?" I could answer quickly and accurately.

Like any other first-time player, Mike had to wrap his head around some of the game's more unique concepts. Despite a couple of missteps which saw the Yellow and White fireworks locked up at three apiece, Mike upheld his reputation as a quick learner and pretty soon we started to fire on all cylinders. By game's end we'd only activated one Fuse and scored a grand total of 18 points in the process! 

This bears repeating: MUST...BUY...THIS...GAME! 

We decided to continue with the "stressful" theme by engaging in a nail-biting play of this bad boy:

Forbidden Desert is Matt "Pandemic" Leacock's long-awaited sequel to Forbidden Island. So what's the big difference? Welp, here's the teaser trailer straight from the Gamewright website:

"Gear up for a thrilling adventure to recover a legendary flying machine buried deep in the ruins of an ancient desert city. You'll need to coordinate with your teammates and use every available resource if you hope to survive the scorching heat and relentless sandstorm. Find the flying machine and escape before you all become permanent artifacts of the Forbidden Desert!

"When we launched
Forbidden Island in 2010, we had an inkling that we had created a hit game but never to the point that we’d be prompted to make a sequel. Well, here we are a few years later with just that in hand. Our challenge to designer Matt Leacock was to create a game that would contain familiar elements (cooperative play, modular board), while offering up a completely different in-game experience. In addition, we wanted it to be simultaneously approachable to new players while upping the ante for those who felt they had mastered Forbidden Island. All this resulted in a fresh new game with an innovative set of mechanics, such as an ever-shifting board, individual resource management, and unique method for locating the flying machine parts. Hopefully we’ve achieved our goals and quenched your thirst for adventure!"

Lookin' for the full specs on this legendary flying machine? You'll be able to rebuild that sucka blindfolded after you peruse the full rules, located right here.

Andrew...Blue Water Carrier
Me...Green Explorer
Mike...White Meteorologist

Initially things went pretty good for us. Andrew did a fantastic job keeping the rest of us hydrated, even after we peeled off to the hinterlands of the board. As we located three of the airship's bits, I used my Explorer skills to dig 'em out of the sand just like Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark, yo. When the Sand Storm meter started to creep up into hazardous levels, Mike used his Meteorological skills to skip a few critical draws.

Like the rest of Leacock's perfectly-tuned games, it literally came down to the last few actions and card draws. While searching for the last component at the far end of the map, Mike became mired in sand. Despite my best efforts, the handy wormhole-like Tunnel also got buried. By the time we puzzled out the location of the airship's prop by process of elimination, our opportunities were trickling away like sand in an hourglass.

Despite being dangerously parched, I decided to press my luck and go for it. Seeing that I was at death's door, Water-Bearer Andrew tried to converge on my ten-twenty.   


Unfortunately a sandstorm blew up, obliterating his path and cutting him off from Mike and I. Then, on the very next Storm Card phase, we drew this cruel fucker:

With the temps creeping up to lethal levels and my blood thickening like melted red crayons, my poor l'il Explorer dude collapsed on the spot.

I couldn't believe that we'd lost so close to victory! If that damned "Sun Beats Down" Card had stayed away for just a few more turns I'm sure that we would have won!

So how does Desert compare to Island?  Here are the similarities:
  • It's co-operative.
  • Each player has a unique role and power.
  • Each player has four actions to spend on their turn.
  • The game gets progressively tougher and the starting difficulty is variable.
  • You gotta find four things in order to escape.
  • Like Island, Desert doesn't suffer from Bossy Veteran Syndrome nearly as much as Pandemic does.
And here are the differences:
  • The tiles don't sink, they blow around and get covered in sand. Not only does this make them impassable, characters and airship pieces can get buried until they're excavated.
  • Water plays a critical part in the game. If you let your canteen run dry, yer pretty much boned, mate.
  • If you excavate tiles with a Gear Symbol you get to draw a piece of Equipment which can help improve your odds. 
  • Tiles with part symbols and directional arrows provide "clues" as to the whereabouts of the airship's components. 
My only gripe about this new version is that a desert filling up with sand just doesn't feel as immediate and intense as an island that's SINKING INTO THE FALKING WATER. IMHO, the streamlined n' stressful original is still the best introductory co-operative game and the perfect primer to more complicated fare like  Pandemic. Having said that, this new variant is sure to please players who've played Forbidden Island to death. 

After Andrew finally won a game of Mr. Jack Pocket by beating Mike's ass, we decided to tackle our final game of the day: Lost Legends.

Here's the adventure hook directly from Board Game Geek:

"Lost Legends is a fantasy card game by Mike Elliott that combines a streamlined Euro game design and card drafting with an interesting fantasy theme and battle mechanic. Players take on the role of heroes trying to assemble an arsenal of equipment in order to vanquish a series of monsters that they will encounter.

"The game begins with all players choosing one of five heroes each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Each player fights their own monster; this is not a cooperative game. The monster each hero will likely face is revealed to them before players draft cards for their equipment. An interesting aspect in this game is you may, if the conditions are right, evade a monster in front of you, and pass it to the hero next to you. But be aware if you do this you have to fight the monster you draw next!

"Players then select an equipment card drafted from a hand of cards, and pass the remainder of the hand to your left to prepare for battle with the monster in front of them. The equipment draft continues in this manner until only one card is left in each hand, which is discarded. Players then compare their drafted equipment to their monster to determine the result of the battle! The game consists of 3 levels filled with monsters to slay and new equipment to pick up.

"Players need Legend Points to win the game! These come in the form of trophies awarded for most monsters as well as sets of monsters slain. Can you defeat the monsters thrown in your path to glory and become the most Legendary?

The full Dungeoneer's Survival Guide can be found by venturing a click in this direction.   



Right from the very first Equipment draft I kinda screwed up my tableau. Instead of being content with a Short Sword I had to go and buy the thematically-perfect Battle Axe, throwing over some pretty decent Leather Armor in the process. Naively I thought this particular card might come back around to me. Yeah, not so much. Despite the fact that I had more Life Points then everyone else, I also had nothing to insulate me from damage except for a set of well-worn Magic Bandages. Needless to say, I ended up getting beat like a rented mule.

To make matters even worse I ended up dumping that damned Axe in lieu of an Iron Mace in the final round. Turfing a bunch of Equipment cards gave me a tidy surplus of Skills, but I quickly burned through them when a lineup of Monsters (notably the Troll and Chaos Dragon) took turns stomping a mud hole in my ass. Even though this made for a challenging early game, I kept increasing my Life Points with every Level Up. Eventually this meant that I wasn't croaking as frequently as my competitors were. By the endgame, I'd collected 5 Trophy Tokens and a total of 19 Experience Points.

Although Mike had a more balanced spread of starting assets, this was off-set by his relative squishiness and his consistent role as a Monster Magnet. In fact, he was the first one to get an unbeatable beastie foisted on him and subsequently he was the first to get ganked. He did end up with a respectable array of Equipment, however. His Long Bow / Long Sword / Silver Wand combo ensured that he could at least compete in every combat, regardless of whether or not it was Melee, Ranged or Magic. Unfortunately, an endless wave of vicious attackers meant that Mike could get very little traction.

Things got even worse when an unending and increasingly-nasty conveyor belt of enemies came after him in the final round. Just as Mike was getting to his feet he usually pulled another lethal McNasty out of the Monster Card Pile or had something big and hairy sicced on him by either Andrew or myself. This insurmountable, endgame pall resulted in a grand total of 3 Trophy Tokens, 1 Challenge Trophy and 14 total Experience Points.

At least Andrew seemed to hit upon the optimal recipe for starting Equipment. By the end of the game he had every possible base covered: a multi-purpose Jade Staff for offense, an Iron Shield and Leather Armor for defense and an Evasion Trinket providing plenty of damage mitigation. Above all, his Mana Potion and Spellbook dove-tailed perfectly with his character's magic skills. This gave him a valuable leg up in those early combats.

But even as well-equipped as he was, he still had a run of bad luck towards the end of the game. In fact, the constant onslaught of Monsters made us wonder if we were doing something horribly, terribly wrong. Demoralized by the game's insurmountable difficulty and fatigued by a long day of gaming we decided to pack it in early. Andrew finished up with 18 Victory Points, 5 Trophy Tokens and 3 Challenge Trophies.

There's a lot to like about this game, primarily the card-drafting mechanism for Equipment, the advancement process and combat. I'm also a big fan of the game's intuitive graphic design; giving cards borders which match up to their appropriate spaces on the Hero Board is pretty clever. Folks who groove on games that involve character development are sure to find Lost Legends uniquely appealing.

"It's just way too difficult!" I observed as we put the components away.

"Yeah, there's a lot of fighting," Mike added.

"I'll skim over the rules to see if I missed something," Andrew said.

After a quick peek at the rule book Andrew made a dire proclamation.

"Welp, I see one thing we did wrong," he said.

"What?" Mike and I asked simultaneously.

"Your Equipment cards don't get Refreshed at the start of every new Phase. Only at the start of every new Level."

"What?!?" Mike and I demanded (simultaneously).

"That's insane," I railed. "That would make the game completely and totally impossible!"

The collective bitching kept up as we beetled our way out of the convention hall. Even after Mike parted ways with us, Andrew and I kept trying to reconcile our issues with the game on the drive home.

"There's gotta be something we're doing wrong. Otherwise the game is just way too difficult," Andrew observed.

"Maybe it's something we can house-rule. What if we just put a limit on how many Monsters we face based on the number of players?"

With that, Andrew started to chuckle to himself.

"What?  What is it?" I quizzed.

"I just realized what we were doing wrong. There's only supposed to be three or few Monsters per player in the Card Pile."

"Oh God!" I shouted. "That why we were getting killed so often! How many were we using?"

"Oh, I dunno.  Something like twenty."

After the resulting laughter died down we realized that poor Lost Legends hadn't gotten a very fair shake. Needless to say, a sooner-then-later replay is now on deck! 


A part of me wishes that HAL-CON could be split into two separate events: one just for workshops, Q&A's, autograph signings and costume contests and another for merchandise, board games and pre-registered RPG's. Maybe then my loyalties wouldn't feel quite so conflicted.

For the sake of full disclosure, the HAL-CON organizers do run a few separate, day-long table top gaming events during the year. Odin-willing, I hope to be in attendance for one or both of these things next year.

Even with these dedicated appointments, I've resigned myself to the harsh reality that every HAL-CON from here on in will force me to make some pretty tough choices.

But, hey, there are worst problems, amirite? 

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