Why I see value in a board gaming bar

Posted in Board Games, Friends, House and Home at 12:37 pm by Jeremiah Wittevrongel

Just down the street from where I live, there was a sad sad bar called Commonwealth.  I was never sure what their concept or target market was, only that it didn’t seem to be me.  I always just kept on walking, wondering how long it would last.  Apparently nobody else was sure if they were the target market either.  It closed its doors a number of months ago, and sat vacant until recently.

Tabletop Commons has opened in that space, and I have to say I am impressed.  Despite my skepticism, there seems to be a market for this kind of place even in a neighborhood like Hillcrest.  It’s always busy, to the point where getting a table on a Saturday night can be difficult.

So far I’ve been twice, and enjoyed both experiences.  They have very reasonably priced drinks especially for the neighborhood, and don’t charge anything to play games (as long as you’re spending money).  I have not yet tried the food but it looks good from what I can tell.

Their game library is also pretty impressive.  Covering everything from Bang to Fluxx to Ticket to Ride to Power Grid to Fortress America and all points in between.  I’m genuinely surprised at the breadth it covers, since I would have expected a more definite slant in the casual / short duration direction.  There are a number of games on their shelves that can easily run into the 5 hour range.

So far it’s been a fun way to try out some new stuff without having to buy it.  In particular, I’ve tried two new (to me) games:

First, I tried Machi Koro, a light tableau building / dice rolling game.  It’s OK for what it is, but it seems like there are definite power plays that tilt the game, and it’s so luck driven it almost feels like whoever can buy those few overpowered cards the quickest is all but guaranteed to win.  Overall I enjoyed it but it won’t be joining my library since I don’t really feel like it meets my bar for repeated plays.

Second, I tried Cryptozoic’s Archer: The Danger Zone more because I enjoy the TV series and wanted something light and fast to play.  I generally feel like Cryptozoic’s games are poorly designed and uninteresting, but even for them this was pretty awful.  I can tolerate the occaisional luck-fest but this was too much. The theme would have been the only saving grace for this game if they had made any effort to really bring it out more.  I was trying to encourage my game partner to get into the theme more, so we could extract some more fun out of it, but that was definitely a challenge even though we both love the TV series.  So this is also a pass for me.

That said, I’m not sure I would have ever tried either of the two had it not been for Tabletop Commons, and so on the whole I view it as a net positive.  I’ll definitely be back.


A Study in Playing Games Twice

Posted in Board Games at 12:21 pm by Jeremiah Wittevrongel

Ok, I have to come out and say it.  While I generally like Martin Wallace‘s game designs, the first time I played A Study in Emerald I was very unpleasantly surprised.  The game didn’t seem to work very well, the rules were confusing, and I didn’t quite “get it”.  It felt very unpolished and I found the artwork difficult to navigate.

I finally managed to get it to the table again for a 5-player game, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Of course, I had invested a lot of time studying the rules, researching FAQs on BoardGameGeek, and generally investing in the game enough so I could re-teach it to my group succinctly.  And even still, I have a lot of concerns with the quality of the overall game.

For instance, I’m very tempted to sharpie several of the game components.  In particular:

  • The starting cards for each agent contain a “Hired Assassin” card, but nowhere on the card does the phrase “hired assassin” appear.  Adding this phrase to the card would make the inevitable rules questions easier to resolve since the players don’t have to remember that it behaves like a hired assassin card and it’s not otherwise special.
  • The “zero” space on the war and revolution tracks is actually the lowest box, so I’m tempted to sharpie them with a 0.
  • The rules summary cards contain an error with respect to the Bismarck card, which could also be corrected via sharpie.

The last one is a simple misprint, but the first two are actual issues with the game’s artwork that I feel should have been resolved during playtesting and production.

Despite all this, I think I’ll wind up keeping my copy.  I was strongly considering selling / trading it, though now that I actually find I like it enough to keep it, and now that the second edition’s announcement has devalued the game significantly in the resale / trade market, it’s probably time to bust out the sharpie…


Coachella 2015: Highlights

Posted in Coachella 2015, Friends, Music, Parties at 7:13 pm by Jeremiah Wittevrongel

The past Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festivals I have attended have all been both insanely fun and insanely busy.  This year was no different, starting with the pre-sale ticket frenzy in May 2014, through the lineup announcement in January 2015 (AC/DC?), and the unforgettable camping experience the weekend of the festival itself.  Although, I did dial it down a little compared to last years, at least in terms of number of sets I attended (only 26 this year).

Starting off with more of a dishonourable mention, Sloan set an example of how to not perform a festival set when you have a considerable music catalog to draw from and a number of fans who liked you in the 1990s.  Their 40 minute set was packed with b-sides and also-rans, which was surprising, since they could easily have done a 60 minute or longer set and only played their hits.  Le Canadian Sigh.

In terms of highlights, mine were:

  • St. Vincent, who absolutely killed it as expected.  Zero surprises but I had very high expectations and she did not disappoint.
  • Kiesza, who had possibly the best dance routine I saw all weekend and played an explosive set packed with more energy than even Robyn can manage.  Definitely an up-and-coming pop powerhouse, once she diversifies her sound a little.
  • Father John Misty, whose sarcastic lyrics generated the right amount of levity and plenty of laughs.
  • Perfume Genius, who wowed a small daytime crowd with his incredible voice and sultry, spidery dance moves.  Powerful stuff.
  • Alabama Shakes, who mesmerized me with the power of their vocals and the soul of their sound. The only similar experience I’ve had previously was watching Sharon Jones, and that’s pretty rarified company.
  • Caribou, whose trippy techno was just the right amount of provocative, weird, and wonderful.
  • Tycho, who I had wanted to see for a long time and who played every song I could have hoped.  They’re even better live than their albums.
  • Gorgon City, whose cover of Underworld’s Cowgirl took me way back.
  • AC/DC, who I will probably never have the chance to see again, and who delivered exactly what  I expected of them.  They played all their hits, and without a doubt they proved they still know how to rock.


Best Music of 2014

Posted in Music at 8:17 pm by Jeremiah Wittevrongel

While I didn’t really keep up with all of the new music released this year, I did much better than I have in years past.  For 2014 I can actually offer my top 5 albums of the year (as opposed to my top 3 of 3 years ago).

5. Hozier (by Hozier)

This grew on me very quickly after only a couple of listens, and I connected with it a lot more than I did with Perfume Genius which I bought at the same time.  It’s mellow without being overly melancholy, and though it’s sonically sparse, it’s quite enjoyable as indie/rock.

4. Kiasmos (by Kiasmos)

This definitely beat out Syro (the new Aphex Twin album) for me, although it’s not really fair to compare them.  Kiasmos gives me a sense of building and atmosphere from start to finish on the album, and Syro was more a collection of related bit disjointed pieces.  Syro is still a good album if you’re an Aphex Twin fan, but I don’t feel like it was really anything new for him.  This was overall a little more upbeat but still introspective and challenging.

3. St. Vincent (by St. Vincent)

This took a while to grow on me, but man, does she ever rock on this one.  A very powerful voice paired with interesting and diverse compositions.  Still the same St. Vincent I saw at Coachella in 2012, but also fresh and interesting anew.

2. Morning Phase (by Beck)

One of my friends described this as pure ear candy, and he was right.  It’s become my favorite Beck album to date.  Laid back yet confident, with hints of Pink Floyd sprinkled in a few spots.  Very rich and inviting, and not the same Beck you heard perform ‘Loser’ all those years ago.  This was a close contender for #1 for me this year, but it didn’t quite clinch it.

1. Awake (by Tycho)

Based on number of listens alone, this was a clear #1 for me.  This is the kind of music I had always wished artists like Aphex Twin would produce.  In a year where I bought 3 new ambient electronic albums this was the clear winner of the three.  Where Kiasmos was great, this was excellent.  Tycho creates a richer and more engaging musical tapestry than either of the others, such that many of my board gaming friends (who generally aren’t ambient electronic aficionados) enjoyed it enough to ask me who it was the first time I played it at a game day.  It’s great driving music, great working music, great chilling at home with a cup of tea music.  If you’re at all a fan of electronic music, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

And now, onward to 2015.  Coachella Lineup Season is almost upon us!


Best Game of 2014

Posted in Board Games at 7:51 pm by Jeremiah Wittevrongel

As the year draws to a close, it’s time to reflect.  It was a good year in gaming, but I wouldn’t say it was a great year.  And, as usual, I’m running a year or two behind the curve in terms of playing new games that have come out.  A quick browse through BoardGameGeek.com shows I only played 2 or maybe 3 games published in 2014.

I tend to buy games a year or two behind once there is a solid body of reviews, and once I’m convinced it’s worth adding to my collection.  I’ve gotten a lot pickier as my collection has grown, and I’m at the point where I need to replace existing games rather than add new ones, so it’s tough for me to justify a lot of purchases.  My group also owns a lot of games between us and we don’t get them all to the table as it is.

But I do have a clear winner among games released in 2014 that I’ve played, and that’s the excellent Five Tribes.   The core mechanic is based on Mancala, and it’s sort of victory point salad in a way.  Sure, I also just described Trajan, but what makes Five Tribes different is the interactivity between players.  In Trajan player interactions are very indirect, and it’s more about min/maxing your own opportunities.  Five Tribes reminds me of Volcano in that it’s not necessarily what you do on the board that matters, but what you leave behind for the next player.  Since you all share the board where you are manipulating the tribes Mancala-style, there’s lots of opportunities to screw up your opponents and leave them bad options, with careful play.  The bidding for turn order is also interesting, and it’s possible to win the game simply by bidding low and making the best of whatever the other players aren’t doing.

It’s also a lot of fun as a two-player game, since you can bid such that you get two (or more, up to 4 possibly) turns in a row, which leads to some really interesting and powerful board manipulation options.

So, there’s my best of the year in gaming.  Next up: music.


The Virgin Queen

Posted in Board Games at 9:41 pm by Jeremiah Wittevrongel

This weekend I had the privilege of playing the Protestants in a six-player game of GMT’s excellent Virgin Queen, designed by Ed Beach.

In summary:

  • Wow, what a great game!
  • Wow, what a long game!

We played through about 3.5 turns in 8 hours, and at that point, and I had a slight edge in victory points over my close rivals the French; the Holy Roman Empire (who had secretly chosen to support the protestants) had an excellent chance of winning had the game continued.  England was making some major moves against Spain, and the Ottoman Empire was pursuing their destiny against Venice and patronizing the arts like nobody’s business after several unlucky plays set them back slightly.

I really enjoyed the rich tapestry the game presents, although at times it felt like things were a little too open-ended.  Possibly as a side-effect of playing the protestants, I was in a constant state of war vs. France and Spain, and was content with continual alliances with all 3 other major powers.  I would have had to turn on the Holy Roman Empire in turn 5 I suspect, and though I really had a one-track strategy for turns 1-3, I don’t feel like that’s a negative thing.

I managed to convince France to not ally with Spain in turn 1, and ally with me instead, which I honored by not taking any religious or military action in France, and instead focused on getting a strong foothold in the Netherlands.  The protestants have some really powerful options and an awesome Home card, but they’re not the usual “move and fight” style actions, so my advice to anyone considering playing the protestants is to pay careful attention to the options for religious struggles when learning the rules and relentlessly use “preach sermon” and “rebellion” actions on every turn of the game.

Even though we didn’t finish, I really enjoyed the game and I’d jump at the chance to play it again, especially with six players.  There’s so much going and the game is engaging on so many levels that I didn’t really notice the downtime at all, even during our 3 hour play of turn 1.

There are a lot of rules with lots of details, but they all fit thematically and once you get the hang of them they’re not too bad.  In our case, we had the paper rules and 2 iPads with the PDF rules at the table, which helped a lot.  Players were able to look up rules in between turns and also quickly clarify things as they came up.

Though it’s definitely not for casual games, Virgin Queen is an excellent multi-player war game that should be taken seriously  if you enjoy card-driven war games and don’t mind spending multiple hours on a completely absorbing six-player adventure.


Where did the summer go?

Posted in Board Games at 6:59 pm by Jeremiah Wittevrongel

It’s been a while since I last posted anything, and it’s already past labour day.  In as much as the summer is ever over in San Diego, it’s over.

I didn’t take the summer off from board games though.  I played a number of new (to me) games over the past couple of months.

Concordia is a typical eurogame with a cliched eurogame theme (trading in the Mediterranean).  Still, it’s quite a brilliant game.  Designed by Mac Gerdts, you might be expecting a rondel, and there is one, sort-of.  You have a hand of cards and on each turn you play one of them.  You can’t pick up the cards you’ve played until you play a specific card to do so.  As an interesting twist, you can buy more cards and they go into your hand immediately which makes for some interesting tactics as compared to a deckbuilding game where you have to cycle your discard pile first.  The scoring is also quite open-ended and you can definitely try different strategies to generate points, though one of the keys to winning seems to be to buy cards as often as feasible, regardless of strategy.

As a mid-weight Euro, it works well and it’s been a hit with my group.  I’m sure it will hit the table many more times.

Another euro that’s gone over well is Keyflower, and each time I’ve played it, I’ve completely underestimated what  it will take to succeed in the Winter round.  I’ll figure it out eventually.  The mix of worker placement and auctions is quite unique and interesting.  The mix of tiles seems to vary enough from game to game so I don’t foresee needing the expansion.

A third game I was excited to try out was A Study in Emerald, but this one fell pretty flat the first time out of the gate.  We played several rules wrong, and unfortunately some of the blame goes on the game’s production in my mind.  The zero spaces on the war and revolution tracks aren’t exactly clear on the board, and the starting “assassinate” card should really be marked as a “hired assassin” card because that’s really what it is.  These might sound like quibbling details, but consider that there is already a somewhat extensive FAQ filled with a lot of edge cases and clarifications.  The rulebook is OK but could have been better organized (and more clearly worded) which led to our first play being more frustrating than it should have been.  I’m convinced there’s a good game there despite some of the odd mechanisms (the zombies and vampires stand out), but I don’t know if I’ll ever find out.  I suspect my regular group will not be willing to play it ever again, based on our first play, so I may have to find another group to get this to the table again.  I have a much firmer grip on the rules now, and that will hopefully help.

Other than these, three games I played recently for the first time were Merchants and Marauders (which I really liked), Tzolk’in (which I enjoyed but in which a single serious mistake was unrecoverable), and Robinson Crusoe (which fit an interesting niche in between “light” co-ops like Pandemic and “heavy” ones like Arkham Horror).

Based on all the buzz from Gencon, there’s one more game I’m likely to purchase: Five Tribes.  Stay tuned.



Elephants and Chariots and Games, Oh My…

Posted in Board Games at 9:10 pm by Jeremiah Wittevrongel

A few games have shown up at my door recently, and another is en route.

First, I took advantage of an Atlus Games deal and picked up Pieces of Eight.  It’s a nice little light pirate-themed game, and its portability means I’ll probably take it a number of places.  The only downside is there isn’t any iconography on the coins to remind you what each coin does, so you pretty much have to memorize them all.  It’s not that bad after the first couple of plays, and the tactical choices and chance to push your luck makes it more intersting than it may appear.  The other downside is the price, but the sale negated that very quickly, and I have enough sets for four players.

Next, I took advantage of a GMT Games sale and picked up Command And Colors: Ancients, Battle Line, and 1989: Dawn of Freedom.  Command and Colors is a game I had always been interested in but was never sure it was the game for me.  Now that I figured out the basics of the rules and tried it once, I quite like it.  It’s simple and straightforward for a war game, and plays relatively quickly.  The rules are obviously more complex than many lighter family / euro games, but I’d say they’re on par with a heavy euro in terms of complexity, and you don’t need to know all the rules to play a simple scenario.  I narrowly lost the first game, but learned valuable lessons about the realities of retreating and evading, so I won’t make the same mistakes next time.

By contrast, Battle Line reminds me a lot of Lost Cities (and it’s designed by the same designer, Reiner Knizia), only with a slightly different bent and a little more complexity.  It still scratches a similar itch for me, and seems to be a good “couples game”.  It’s also less “mathy”.  I’ve played numerous times now and while I don’t think it replaces Lost Cities, I suspect I’ll play Battle Line a little more often than Lost Cities over the long run.

I haven’t yet tried 1989, but from a read-through of the rules it seems quite similar to Twilight Struggle in the basic gameplay.  The rules twists that were added seem quite interesting and I’m looking forward to getting it to the table.

Though it wasn’t on sale and despite the annoyance of it being a Game Salute game, I picked up a copy of Keyflower, which looks like quite an interesting eurogame.  Half auction, half worker placement, half tableau-building, and half victory point salad.  Or something.  It looks to be on the mid-to-heavy end of the euro spectrum, and it also seems different enough from the other games in my collection to warrant its addition.

Finally, I have a copy of A Study In Emerald en route from Cool Stuff Inc.  so I suspect it will go over well with my usual mid-week group.  It’s another game for my mid-week group to digest.  I was less sure about this one, but I’m a sucker for Cthulhu and I really enjoyed the namesake short story by Neil Gaiman so why not give it a try.  I’m not quite sure how the area control / deck-building mechanics interplay here, and I’m also curious how the semi-cooperative mechanics play out.  I’m also pretty sure it will need to be a 5 or 6 player game to get the full effect, but I wonder how much that will draw out the play time.

So three new games down, and three more to go…


Coachella 2014 Retrospective

Posted in Coachella 2014, Friends, Music at 7:41 pm by Jeremiah Wittevrongel

My Coachella 2014 adventure began innocently enough on a Wednesday afternoon.  Packing, shopping, picking friends up from the airport, and reuniting with a number of other friends in Palm Springs at a hotel.

Thursday morning we all made the trek at an early hour to La Qunita where we met up with still more friends and our entire posse entered the campground to do the campground security dance first thing in the morning.

The lines seemed to move a little faster than last year, but once it was all said and done we entered the campground at about the same time.  Little did we realize we were unfortunately in a line destined for exile to the dreaded Lot 4.  It wasn’t really that bad, but not as close to the entrance as where we would have been in Lot 8.  Next year: Stay right!

Thursday camping included an evening snowball fight (fun!) and the silent disco (lame DJs and sound problems).  No biggie, Friday’s festival start was on the way.

Over the next three days, I would see full or part sets from 41 acts (according to my notes).  Too many to really mention here except in summary, and even then…

Day 1

My first act Friday was Wye Oak who are fantastic live.  Austra was good but somewhat forgettable.  Jagwar Ma really impressed me, and was probably the most surprising (in a good way) act all weekend.  Aloe Blacc and Bastille were both predictably good, but the Glitch Mob was high on my list coming into the day and they didn’t disappoint.  Despite the fact that I missed Chromeo and Broken Bells, I have no regrets.  It was easily the best Sahara set I have ever seen.

After hanging at the Replacements and catching part of Girl Talk from the beer gardens (which was a mercy given the looks of the crowd and the craptastic nature of the music), I watched most of The Knife‘s set, which I can only describe as hauntingly beautiful.  I was too tired to go on after that, and enjoyed a shower before heading to bed.

Day 2

Saturday was a later start to see part of Headhunterz (to see what sort of crowd they would draw; I’m not a hardstyle fan) and then my only set in the Yuma all weekend, Aeroplane.  It was a great warm-up dance set for the afternoon.  I did a drive-by of Banks on my way to Chvrches which was quite enjoyable.  Holy Ghost blurred into Washed Out blurred into a giant dust storm blurred into Future Islands from there.  I enjoyed them all despite the weather.

Lorde had a big crowd, somewhat bad sound due to lowered speakers (high winds), and minimal stage presence, so I moved on despite her vocal talents to see Solange.  Believe the hype: she’s every bit as awesome as her more-famous sister.    I caught the tail end of the Pixies which was great musically, but turned out to be a mistake that led to my biggest disappointment of the weekend.  By the time I made my way to the Sahara for Empire of the Sun, it was a lost cause.  There was no way I was going to even get into the tent.  I’m not exactly a small guy, and I was almost knocked to the ground in the crush of douchebros.  So instead I checked out Mogwai which was really cool and then went to the back of the crowd for Pharrell Williams (so I could make an easy escape).  I was tired at this point, and his string of semi-random special guests didn’t really excite me (Gwen Stefani?  Seriously?), so I instead positioned myself in prime spot for the Pet Shop Boys.

One word.  Wow.  My weekend could have ended at 1:00am and I would have gone home very satisfied with the festival.

Day 3

Of course, there was still Sunday left.

Trombone Shorty was too early in the day for me, so my first act was Surfer Blood which was a lot of fun, followed by STRFKR which I also enjoyed.  Showtek got me dancing briefly before I got bored and decided to check out Zoe which didn’t leave much of an impression.  I caught all of Rudimental‘s set which was one of the weekend’s highlights for sure.  Very talented, great crowd, and a ton of fun.  I caught about a third of Superchunk and the last few songs of Blood Orange; I wish I had heard more of the latter.

The Naked and Famous were enjoyable, followed by the truly awful performance of Neutral Milk Hotel. Yes, I said it.  They sucked.  I’m told I should have been at AlunaGeorge instead.  Little Dragon was great but I wasn’t in the right mood, so we drove by the Toy Dolls (odd) and then went back to the beer garden from which we could observe the spectacle of Calvin Harris.  It was the largest and most awful crowd I’ve ever seen for a main stage set, and I was glad to be in the relative safety and crowd-controlled beer gardens.  Lana Del Rey was good, but Beck blew me away.  Very talented performer.  I enjoyed the whole set.  I caught bits of Disclosure afterwards which was fantastic, then headed to the Sahara for Duck Sauce (lame sauce would be a better description).  An A-Trak solo set would have been preferable.

Since the duck-billed duo wasn’t doing it for me, I went back to the main stage to catch part of Arcade Fire.  They were fantastic although I was too tired to really appreciate them, so I left a little early (about 10 minutes before the crowd).


I felt fine Monday morning, and after loading up the car, we started the (long) drive to San Diego.  Sadly, it took 2.5 hours to get as far as… Cabazon.  From Indio.  About 35 miles.  Traffic was that bad, thanks to numerous accidents along I-10 and heavy traffic leaving Indio.  After grabbing a bite to eat at the Morongo Casino, traffic was smoother back to San Diego (well, smoother after we got off of I-10 onto CA-79 that is).

I was quite tired when I got home and unpacked, but all in all it was a fantastic experience.


Top 10 Excite

Posted in Coachella 2014, Music at 9:36 pm by Jeremiah Wittevrongel

Coachella 2014 is in less than 2 months.  Once again, I’m attending and camping with the usual crew.  Here’s the top 10 acts I’m currently looking forward to:

10. Grouplove
9. Chromeo
8. Wye Oak
7. Queens of the Stone Age
6. Fatboy Slim
5. Beck
4. Neutral Milk Hotel
3. Arcade Fire
2. The Glitch Mob
1. Pet Shop Boys

There are tons of honourable mentions too.  It’s looking like another year where I could easily see 16-20 bands a day, if only for the inevitable scheduling conflicts.

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