The Gathering of Friends 1998

The Gathering of Friends is an invitation-only week of gaming run by Alan R. Moon. My first time was 1998; here's my first report on it.


Bazari: A fun little game in which 4 players move around the board at once, then secrectly decide which of three types of points they want to obtain that turn. If two players choose the same one, they offer trades of gems (which will score points for he who has the most of each color at the end of each round) for the points in question. The game has lots of scope for judgment and is reasonably fun to play, but near the end has a severe kingmaker problem. Players can give away their gems in categories in which they cannot compete at bargain rates, drastically affecting the other players' positions. It might be fixable by adding some sort of benefit for having any gems, not just having the most in each category.

Fossil: A 2D board game in which one moves one of two rocks (as rooks move) and pick up the fossil parts where they land. One must spend VPs to move the rocks more than one filled space. (Empty spaces are free.) There is no randomness after the first turn, so it simply becomes a look-ahead game. It's not hard to look ahead 8-10 plies. It's not a good game for people who are willing to think about it. The scope of options isn't large; all in all, it wasn't much fun to play.

Choeps: A fairly simple game about stealing and selling beans. (The game calls them scarabs, but they are beans.) The beans are placed on a pyramid much like Suzerain. One places a counter of which there are four types on a square that can be "reached," that is, one in which the two below it are filled. (Bottom squares are always available.) There is a minor constraint in that one cannot place a counter on a square if that would make two identical counters abut. After placing a tile, one generally gets a bean and can either sell it or keep it. If sold, it is worth 10 gold pieces and changes the value of kept beans. Beans kept to the end are worth some amount between 0 and 30 GPs depending on a random table (different for each color of bean) and depending on how many were sold. (Each sale moves down one row on the table.) We found that players usually had few options. Look-ahead was trivial. There was almost no scope for judgment; the game play was rather dull.

Wildlife Adventure: I'd never played this one before, and after one play, I know why it's a classic. It's fun, it's quick, players have lots of choices, and there's enough tension in the game that it keeps one's interest. "Expedition" is a variant of it; I've not yet played Expedition, but from perusal of the rules and board, it seems as if W-A is better. I hope to build a good conversion kit.

Venice Connection: A cross between Nim and Waterworks. It's just hard enough to be non-trivial, but no one could beat a simple computer program. Not much replay value; if I owned it, I'd probably solve it.


Bohnanza Tournament: I played all three rounds of the Bohnanza tournament, coming in a close 3rd. With expert players, it seems that the Cocoabeans provide a major luck factor. In casual play, they don't, but in cutthroat play, getting dealt a few of them is a big bonus. I still think Bohnanza is a great little trading game and is terrific fun. Tournaments don't make all that much sense, though.

Yacht Racing: Brent Carter brought a pretty game of sailboat racing. It is about 30 years old with pretty components. The game play was interesting, but not extremely so. It was light and fun in a beer and pretzels sort of way. I won on the last turn due to a stroke of luck. There's not much randomness in the game (it should have more) but what there is seems to matter a bit.

Elfenland: I'd never played Elfenroads. Elfenland is fast and simple and fun. There is significant player-player interaction, but most of it is indirect. There's only one way to overtly harm other players, but one needs to account for their plays as they want to use the same roads you do. The idea of the game is that each player gets dealt some cards and some chits. The cards are dealt randomly, but the chits are chosen from a set that are face up (but one may take a random chit from the cup if no face up one is suitable). Players go in turn placing chits on roads that connect cities. Only one chit (exception: the hazard chit) is legal per road. Once a chit is played on a road, only that type of transportation (Giant Pigs, Trollwagons, Dragons, Unicorns, etc.) can be used on that road that turn. After everyone has played their chits, everyone moves. One needs the appropriate cards to travel along a road. Most of the time, one card of the right type will do, but some vehicles are slower in certain types of terrain and require two of that card to travel. If one doesn't have the right card, one may use any three cards and "caravan." The goal of the game is to visit all 20 cities and end up at one's secret home at the end of turn 4. The game takes about half an hour and is great fun.

Zoff im Buffalo: A so-so counter placing game in which the goal is to get 2nd or 3rd place in each of a number of piles. Pretty simple abstract game. Not particularly interesting. Has lots of cows, though, so if one is a bovine fanatic...

Durch die Wuste: This is the new Knizia game. The idea is that one controls 4 or 5 chains of camels wandering through a desert. One may extend one's chains by two camels per turn. (Not each, total of two.) The first player to bring a chain to various spots on the board gets 1-3 points per such spot. Each time a chain reaches an oasis, the owning player gets 5 points. (But each color can only reach each oasis once.) (Chains don't actually move; they just grow.) The key rules, however, are the other two ways of scoring points. One gets 10 points at the end of the game for having the longest chain of each color. One also gets 1 point per hex that one cuts off with a chain, much like Go's surrounding of area. No two chains of the same color may be adjacent, so there's room for tactical play to push other chains out of the way. There's no randomness in the game after the board setup, but I suspect that each game will play differently. It's a high-thought game, though; lots of choices at each move, and better players will nearly always win. There is room to gang up on a leader, however, but the game is short, typically around half an hour, so there's not much time between being ganged up on and the game end. Players have control over the game end, too; as soon as a camel set runs out, the game ends, so if one is fading, one can push to end the game. Yet another choice. High marks for this one.

Tonga Bonga: Beer and pretzels game of moving ships around to visit islands. It has a cute movement scheme in which one offers money (VPs) to one's captain and crew. Other players roll movement dice and allocate them to opponents, trying to get that money; high die gets captain's money; 2nd highest gets crew money. The ships move with those dice, so how much to offer for high movement is key. Of course, someone will get your money, so the opponents can let you move slowly and still take your offering if they so decide. The endgame is massively flawed; it seems as if nearly always one has more control over other players' destiny than one's own.

Metropolis: Wheeling and dealing game of building a "city." One needs to control (or negotiate control) of lots of land on which to put buildings. Buildings so built produce VPs at the end of the game. It goes moderately fast, but isn't that exciting; one ALWAYS has to deal to build anything but the smallest of bulidings. There's almost no choice as to which lots are available; most are worthless and clearly so very early. Not a bad game, but there's no stategic judgment; the whole game is making decent deals. It'll fall into a pattern with the same group very quickly.

Sternenhimmel: Token placing game. Tokens are placed on a set of unrooted graphs representing constellations. It's totally abstract, has nothing to do with the theme. It's very simple, but contains some guesswork. Not very interesting.

Falling: A 2-minute real time game simulating falling out of an airplane and hoping to be the last player to hit the ground. One has to move cards around the table at the same time as others do; speed is of the essense. I hate that sort of exercise. Others love it. If you like Spit, you might like this.

Viva Pamplona: A fairly simple beer and pretzels game. It looks a little like Parcheesi, but each player has three tokens to move around the board. The idea is to be near the bull. The bull moves around slowly; players in or just in front of the bull when he rampages score points. One also can push other players' tokens into holes and other minor obstacles. It's not a thinking game, but goes fast and is fun. Good for late at night.


Freebooter: This is a totally abstract token-placing game. The interesting feature is that one may only place tokens in squares for which one has cards. Everyone has control over the Flying Dutchman (just another token) but one needs the right card for it, too. It's more flexible; players' cards specify one square, but Dutchman cards specify either a row or a column of squares. It's fast and fun and easy.

Wucherer: Probably my favorite game of the week. This is a simple beer and pretzels card game played with a large deck of special cards. Each player plays a sleazy landlord, building apartment buildings and filling them with tenants. Landlords get rent from tenants, of course, which is the whole goal. On the other hand, other landlords are doing nasty things like blowing up your buildings, stealing your tenants, moving squatters into your buildings and the like. Fast, fun, and funny. Very politically incorrect artwork. Reminiscent of Groo.

Mare Mediterranea: The only long game I played. It lasts about 1 hour per player. Gathering folks don't like long games. MM is a geopolitical/economic game of trading around the Mediterranean Sea. It is fun and interesting; one rarely ever has enough money to do everything one needs. The random event deck is vicious and used frequently, so players are always struggling to make progress, although they invariably do. There's probably a tad too much randomness for a long game (similar to Empires of the Middle Ages) and because of the severity of the events, there is not a great deal of player-player interaction. The rules are poor---many interpretations will need to be made. If it were $30, I'd get it in a heartbeat. It costs $150; I'll pass at that price. The components, however, are nice, although good use of color printing would improve it still. Since each copy is handmade, that's not happening anytime soon.

Can't Talk about this One: Someone brought a prototype game that is somewhat similar to foosball, only is strictly a 2-player game. It was a challege to get capable at it. I'm not sure if there is enormous room for expert play, but it's fun nonetheless, and there is a strategic element.

Championship Stock Car Racing: looks like a CCG, but isn't. Everyone gets a deck of cards (they are all the same) with which to race stock cars. It's more or less a simplified version of Roadkill (no weapons, sorry) and plays quickly and is fun. I'm getting a copy.

Iron Horse: Iron Horse is a tile-laying game, somewhat like Streetcar. The track is even more convoluted than Streetcar's---great! It suffered from a very severe kingmaker problem. At the end of the game, typically a few players who had no interest in the result had to choose which player would win. We played by a variant set of rules, however, so that might be part of why it seemed broken. My guess is that the real rules have some of the problem, but less than ours. They'll also have less interesting play. In any case, it's only available direct from the manufacturer, which means you'd have to wait for awhile.

Survive: An old Parker Brothers game. Everyone is on an island that is sinking. The goal is to get away from the island onto the mainland shores. There are boats to help, but most will have to swim for it. And become shark food. Sharks, whales, and sea monsters roam the area looking for boats and swimmers. It's not a super strategic game, but it's great fun and quite involving. I believe "Escape from Atlantis" is a new version of the game. At least, I hope it is, because I sent away for Atlantis.


Outpost: We used the expansion rules. Lots of people oohed and ahed over the counters and the new rules. First game, Godzilla showed up and ravaged one player so badly that we felt it was only fair to start over. He should have planned ahead, but went all-or-nothing and lost big. 2nd game was bizarre. No outposts or robots showed up. We were playing with one item of each type fewer than players, which I think is not a good rule. By the end of the game, no one could gain points at all. This may be a result of the population limits due to not having any robots or outposts. Hard to say.

Mu: A trick-taking game that is very popular with the Gathering folk. I have no idea why; it's one of the weakest trick-taking games I've ever seen. It's played with five players and five suits, each of 12 cards. This produces very flat hands; suits of over four cards in length are rare. To counter this, there are usually two trump suits, which are combined into one suit. That has the effect of utterly destroying cardplay. Even finesses don't happen. The bidding is strange. One bids by revealing cards. The player who reveals the most is declarer and has to choose a partner. If declarer goes down, partner doesn't get the bonus for setting declarer, so if declarer is sacrificing, he can take someone down with him. And if he's making big, he has to give someone else the contract points. The player who has the 2nd highest bid names the lower trump suit, which is too powerful, I think. The main tactics in the bidding seem to be advertising to be partner or trying to avoid it, as well as trying to be "Vice" (the second trump namer). All in all, I think it's a very weak form of Pinochle. I do not understand the fascination with this game. The only positive comments I could evoke from its supporters are of the sort, "it's very subtle," or "it's a great trick-taking game." No one could answer my specific arguments, but few there are card players. At least one tinker I see already is that declarer should be able to go it alone, particularly after he's found out that he's underbid as a result of Vice's naming a particularly helpful second trump suit.

X-Pasch: A dice game. Sort of. Each player has a hand of cards representing companies that have numbers on them. One can start a company if one rolls the right numbers. Once a company is started, one can put counters on it if one rolls the right numbers. Three dice are rolled each turn, so a fair number of choices exist each turn. Whoever has the most counters on a card gets its VPs for the turn. Whoever is in last place gets to reroll one die, so no one is really out of it. There's an expansion kit with other cards that seem interesting. Fun and simple. Not sure about replay value.

Wucherer: Played it again. This time I didn't come in last, but 3rd.

Roadkill: The old AH classic. We played with the beginner board, no fuel rules, and no upgrades. It was still fun. Someone else came up with the house rule that Box Canyons cannot be played on the last track segment, just as we did. I guess it's pretty obvious.

Liar's Dice: Trivial game of bluffing and dice rolling. Too noisy and not enough fun for my taste.

Carabande: bottlecap (actually little wooden disks) racing around a board made up from pieces much like a toy train set's. Great fun. It's best with 8 players.


Spekulation: simple stock market game in which one only owns a few shares of stock. There's a fair bit of randomness about when one can buy and sell, but there's also quite a bit of game play. I like it a lot, but don't think it's super-high strategy. It's fast.

Palmyra: Simple economic game. One buys and sells commodities whose price varies from turn to turn. Not very exciting; the abstraction is way too simple.

Auf Heller und Pfennig: Great little board game. It's very abstract, but fast and fun. The board is a square grid on which one places either customers or stalls. One wants to place one's stalls in rows and columns with the good customers, but so does everyone else. Some customers are negative; some special customers either block access to others, double scores, or make only the minus scores count. One has some 2x, 3x, and 4x stalls, so careful placement of the big ones matters a lot. Great game, but not too serious.

Take it Easy: a 10-minute puzzle game. It's all about 2D manipulation; one is trying to get lines on tiles to match up, sort of like dominoes. It can be played with many players at once; we played with 130. It's fun and fast and playable by anyone. It's also a decent solo game; I played it on the plane. High marks.

Serenissima: We only played two turns (by agreement---we were just trying to learn the rules). We were yawning a lot...I'm not sure if we were all just tired (we were) or bored. It is supposed to be an economic trading game, but the board is quite simple, thus provides a small set of strategies. They are quite different from each other, however, so it might have some replay value. The biggest flaw it seems is that someone who goes pirate can easily knock other players out of the game. I don't think it'd be much fun, frankly. There is a major question of balance between the four initial positions. I'm guessing that Genoa will win more than half the games.

Exxtra: trivial dice-rolling game. Nearly 100% random. Somewhere between Cosmic Wimpout and Battles of the Isonzo.

Groo: I like Groo and taught a bunch of others to play.

Carabande: I did better at it the 2nd time around.

Archrival: An arch is built out of plastic boxes and put on a rocker. Players put little plastic widgets into the boxes very gently or the arch will collapse. When the group runs out of widgets, they start taking them out again. There are dice to determine which and how many widgets each player must add or remove. It's fun and crazy. If no beer were around, the game'd last forever.


Big Boss: sort of a 1D Acquire variant. I won, but have no idea why. I didn't own the best stock, had to place tiles to help other players' companies, and didn't seem to do anything right. But one gets as much from a tile placement as one does from owning a share of stock, and I was always building the big companies, even though I didn't want to. I guess that's the winning strategy. Or maybe everyone else shorted themselves on the counting. Beats me. It doesn't have the Acquire problem of needing to be in the first merger as there's always a way to make money. So-so overall.

X-Pasch Deluxe: I'm not sure if the expansion set adds much to this game. Didn't have time to finish it, so I'll find out when I get it.

Bleeding Sherwood: A Cheapass game. It's just about the same as "Before I Kill you, Mr. Bond," which is to say, awful. Give this one a decent burial.

Ben Hvrt: Another Cheapass game. This is about chariot racing and has a card deck. I had to leave in the middle, but it seemed fun until then. I think the 5th-8th chariots start at a severe disadvantage, though, so the game is not well-balanced. It might, however, be fun. Not sure. At $4, I am willing to try it.

Jeff Goldsmith,, April 20, 1998