Every year I go camping up in Michigan, in a nice shady campground on the Lake. Activities generally include relaxing around campfires, relaxing on the beach, relaxing in the water, and eating. Oh and boardgames.
Yes, despite the outdoorsyness and dirtyness inherent in camping, it’s still a great time to break out the games, as people are already in a patient, carefree mood, with little obligation and no hurry to get anywhere. This is where Settlers of Catan was introduced to me and my family, and it remains a popular mainstay at the picnic tables every year.
Fortunately, with all the families around (I have a VERY large extended family) there’s plenty of people at any time ready to learn something new, and myself now being the source of pretty much all new board games, I had quite the time of it. I brought 2 sacks full of games and my Dominion set, and almost everything got played. Here’s a little report from what was essentially a week-long gaming session.
Shadows over Camelot: This was the first new game introduced and the most popular. With a strong, recognizable theme and fairly simple mechanics, not to mention a large player limit, we played Shadows several times a day. My younger cousins are quick to learn, smart, and tough players and they mastered the traitor-free cooperative game extremely fast. Unfortunately we kept playing with newbies and so had to put off adding in the Traitor mechanic, but we did get it in there eventually. I will have a full review of this game soon. I was previously suspicious of the difficulty of this game and wondered how it would even be possible to win with a Traitor involved, but now that I’ve played it a lot with an experienced team, it’s become too easy without the traitor. I can’t wait to get more betrayal and backstabbery going on, but in the meantime it was great to have a cooperative game that didn’t cause any bickering between the kids. And it makes one feel quite heroic to sacrifice their life so the team can win, which happened a few times. Even my mom and sister played and had fun, and they usually aren’t eager to learn new games that look complicated. My mom was the traitor, actually, and luck was against her (we finished the Holy Grail quest after 1.5 times around, followed by Excalibur with Heroism shortly after), but she kept us on our toes with catapults and it was a close one.
Cosmic Encounter: I’m always stoked to get Cosmic Encounter to the table, so I brought it out as early as I could. It didn’t get played as much as I would have chosen, as Shadows turned out to be the most popular – but this is understandable, as we had 6 players and Cosmic Encounter is pretty crazy to learn with that many. Still, the games we played were pretty great, with some awesome, hilarious, and highly-effective uses of alien powers. The first game was free-for-all, but after that craziness I brought out the Team Cosmic variant, in which players are divided into teams of 2. The mechanics are essentially the same, except teammates are always invited as allies to each other, and both players must complete a victory condition (either the 5-colony goal or one of the alternate conditions from alien powers) in order for the team to win. I think this worked great, and I will probably always use the variant with 6+ players – it evens out the power swing a bit, since you essentially have 2 powers to coordinate, and it keeps you invested since you actively want to help every time you or your teammate are main players in an encounter, instead of just waiting for alliances or your own turn.
The team game ended in my own victory with a brilliant use of powers. My ally was the prophet – he could bet on a side winning, and if he was correct he was awarded a free colony. I was the offense, and was going for my last colony for our win. Part of the Team variant is that any time you gain a colony, you can choose to give that colony to your teammate instead, so the Prophet bet against me, so either I would have won the colony as the offense, or I would lose but the Prophet would gain a colony and give it to me. I lost, we won, and the other players learned to never ever ever discard a Cosmic Zap, which would have saved them the game (and which had been discarded by one of them earlier by choice). I love this game.
My first time actually playing Saboteur with real cards instead of on BoardGameArena.com, we had a large group and not a ton of time. With 9 players there aren’t a whole lot of exciting games that you can teach and play quickly, but Saboteur is definitely one of them. It was fun, but pretty tough for the Saboteurs – I don’t know if the numbers are imbalanced with 9 or there was simply inexperience involved. The first round the Sab’s got slaughtered, the second round they did much better, and the 3rd round was actually a tough battle between the two sides and a whole lot of fun. If we had played a second game I’m sure it would have been at least a little more even, although 3 sabs seems weak against 6 diggers, and 2 sabs seems like impossible odds. Especially when you have the same numbers for 7 players – 2 or 3 Sabs vs. the rest. I suppose more plays will tell if that actually does work, or if it’d be better with 3 or 4 sabs as with 10 player.
Always a classic, we played an epic game of The Resistance on the beach. It’s incredibly tough for the Resistance with 10 players, but they made a solid go of it. We made it to the 5th round and spent a lot of time arguing about the spies. As a spy myself, I was delighted to find that everyone fully trusted Curtis and were arguing about the rest of us, but in fact Curtis was the spy. It was a blast and everyone had fun even though the Resistance lost, and we even had some requests for more plays though we never had time to play again. I also got a lot of “This is better than Mafia” comments, although Mafia/Werewolves does have the advantage of allowing more players.
I rarely break out Munchkin, because while often enjoyable it has a few flaws. But if there was ever a place to play it, it would be at Camping where no one is in a hurry. We played once on the beach and once in the evening back at camp as the light waned. My biggest complaint is that the game always lasts too long – it’s too simple and you have too little control over what happens for it to last more than 45 minutes, but the take-that nature of the game lends itself to 1.5-2hr games. Fortunately no one suffered the “stuck at level 1” syndrom that also tends to happen – wherein one player can’t seem to get up past level 1, they don’t have much equipment, and everytime they kick down the door they draw a curse or other non-monster card. As a result they can never level up, never get more treasure, and they aren’t strong enough to help anyone else to at least get more treasure that way. Anyways, the beach game lasted a little too long but everyone was keeping up with levels, and I managed to end the 2nd game early by hiding the fact that the monster I was facing offered 2 levels (totally legit in Munchkin, by the way, to conceal information) and would cause me to win, so people were willing to help me and I was certainly willing to give away all the treasure. I would play this game so much if it was 30-45 minutes long. Too bad.
I recently introduced my 5-year-old nephew to this game, albeit sans Farming. He constantly requested to play it (that kid, seriously, will not stop until you make him stop) with anyone and everyone who came along. Without Farms, Carcassonne is still playable but a lot more subject to swings of luck. If you always draw road pieces, you’re stuck nabbing fewer points; but if there are farms, roads help you control the farms with boundaries as well as additional farmers. Anyways the kid is 5 years old and has figured out the concept of sharing cities, so it was at least competitive and enjoyable. And I’m happy to turn him into a gamer early; before you know it he’ll be begging me to play Twilight Imperium and that’ll be a great day.
Dominion is the most popular game with the kids now (it used to be Settlers. That’s still popular but the dice are slowly killing it for the aunts and uncles), and they were pretty excited about all the shiny new expansions I brought with me. They were all experienced with Intrigue, and had recently obtained Seaside, but hadn’t played Prosperity or anything beyond it. So Prosperity definitely hit the table the most often, at least when I was around. I lost a few, won a few, and had a whole lot of fun. Dominion is still a great game. We even played a 6-player game of Dominion, which really is just terrible. I mean if you’re just doing it for fun, it’s all good – and we were – but don’t expect to actually be successful with any long-term strategy of building a good deck and trashing cards. With 6 players the supply piles burn out so quickly you just gotta do what you can. I don’t recommend it for any sort of serious competition.
Well, that about wraps it up. It was quite the show, and I highly recommend both camping for extended periods of time, and bringing games along. I managed to keep everything pretty clean despite frequent playing, and we only had a few spills (Cosmic Encounter, you have so many things in your box…). That casual environment is the perfect breeding ground for new games, since you don’t have the constant call of the internet, TV, work, and life’s other demands. 1.5 hours doesn’t seem like all that much time out there.
If you do, just do your best to keep tablecloths clean (and player’s hands washed before playing), and try to not spill anything on the ground. Also avoid leaving games, especially sleeved games, inside your car, especially out in the sun. Prolonged heat and exposure will damage, warp, discolor, and de-value your games. You definitely don’t want all your dominion cards to melt together into big chunks.
Allright folks, that’s it. Happy gaming. Have you had any great vacations with lots of boardgames this summer?