V. The Discreet and Subtle Charms of PanzerZug
Immediately after checking in we collapsed on the bed, both of us hoping that the angry nest of hornets in our heads would dissipate with an hour or so of bed-rest. But when I woke nearly two hours later, if anything they were angrier. There had been tentative plans to meet Marcus, Travis, and some others at a local pub for a pre-con game of PanzerZug, but I was hardly in any shape for it, and Mary was worse off than I was. But I had wanted to play PanzerZug for a good long while, and was eager to appear sociable, and so we stumbled down the elevator and across the lot to the gas station, buying something for our headaches. We each took two pills. Mary crawled back into bed. The birds outside our window sang cacophonously. ("I won't be getting much sleep tonight," said Mary. Optimistically, I posited that they'd be sure to quiet down by nightfall, it's not like they're going to be at it all night long. Oh, how young and naive I was.)
My ride to the pub was provided by Mark von Minden and Matt Clark. I had briefly interacted with both gentlemen online, and Mark in particular I had come to associate with his avatar; I was half-expecting him to be wearing a top-hat. Mark drove while Matt's "special power" was to serve as his "navegador". This was the first of many running gags that weaved their way throughout the weekend, including but not limited to Tom reminds people to roll for things and "Get Wehrle on the horn!" These were precisely the sort of private jokes that arise spontaneously and organically, and that defy explanation - precisely the sort in fact that lose all their magic if and when you do try to explain them to people who weren't there, and thus also precisely the sort of shared experiences and secret shorthand that friendships are made of.
Another such experience was PanzerZug itself, which was in many ways an ideal way to open the festivities. It's not just that it was thematically appropriate for a trains-and-wargames get-together - though being a wargame about blowing up trains, it was that - but also that it was perhaps the perfect game to play with new friends who are slightly tipsy. Teetotaler that I am, I had only imbibed a Dr. Pepper, and my migraine had at last disappeared, and so you might think I might be at an advantage compared to the other players, who were cheerfully buzzed. But I'm not sure if one's success or failure really depends on one's skills or faculties. I did well at first, in that I seemed to have been dealt all the Wingman cards and just kept drawing them, helping me shrug off enemy fighters left and right. There are lots of dice rolls, lots of "take that", and the thing is much, much too long for what it is; we had gone through the deck twice, and still hadn't finished, by the time the pub closed and they pushed us out the door. But in a way, the game overstaying its welcome is its strength, and part of its charm: if it was finely-balanced and had just the right duration, it would have had just the wrong duration.
I've zero desire to play the game again, but I'm glad I played it. No, scratch that: glad I experienced it, and that I shared the experience with Travis, Bob, Marcus, Mark, Matt, and Meriadoc. Okay, so there wasn't a Meriadoc, but there were an awful lot of M's.
VI. That Game Looks Familiar
The next morning Mary and I rode over with Mark and Matt to what they jokingly referred to as "the Butterly Estates". When we arrived, Travis was playing Boom & Zoom with a fellow named Phil. "Hey, that game looks familiar," I said. It was the first but not the last time I would say it over the weekend. Hollandspiele titles saw a decent amount of table-time, as did a couple of my Winsome designs.
It was really great to see people enjoying games we had published or that I had designed. It was gratifying. Validating. This is especially important these days. When we first went full-time a little over a year ago, our success had little to do with my work as a designer, being more dependent on games created by others. Now, a year later, much of our reputation as a publisher is built on games I've designed, and on my weirder, less traditional, more fragile games in particular: Supply Lines, Table Battles, For-Ex. Sometimes I feel a tremendous pressure to keep moving in that direction, and sometimes I worry that I'm going to go too far and too weird and create something that appeals only to an audience of one. And then where will we be?
At the same time, it made me feel smaller somehow to be standing there watching other people play our games and telling us how much they liked them. I felt embarrassed and awkward and more than ready for everyone to be looking somewhere else and playing someone else's game. I've never quite known what to do with praise, or why I feel so uncomfortable when I receive it. And that's maddening sometimes because, of course, like any creative person, I like to know that what I do resonates with others.
Boom & Zoom and Napgammon certainly seemed to do that. Both are abstract games rather than true wargames, with the Bomba game going full-on zero-randomness combinatorial. While we're interested in expanding into the abstract market, we've been trepidatious about our ability to either (a) get those games to resonate with our existing customer base or (b) get abstract gamers to pay attention to us. So much so that we were wondering about the feasibility of developing an "abstract line" to complement our growing catalogue of "wargames and weirdgames", and were grappling with how best to approach our upcoming publication of Mark Herman's abstract game Ribbit, and also whether it'd be worth it to expand on Napgammon, last year's holiday freebie game, in the same way that we expanded on 2016's White Mountain freebie to create Table Battles. After seeing how players enjoyed our two existing abstracts, we're much more confident and enthusiastic about pursuing abstracts in general. That probably wouldn't be the case if we hadn't attended.
One of the things on my list for the convention was to get some playtesting done for This Guilty Land. This game about the political struggle over slavery prior to the American Civil War is almost certainly the definition of a tough sell for the topic alone. It's also mechanically one of my more peculiar designs, and also more intricate and complex than most of my games. So I was very nervous about how it would be received. I sat down with Travis and taught him the game Friday morning (after a game of Time of Crisis with Travis and Marcus which, improbably, I won); he played Oppression ("the bad guys") and I played Justice ("the good guys").
I drew Harper's Ferry early on. This is a Violence card, which ups my Organizational Capacity (a good thing) but greatly reduces my support in each Region (a bad thing), and it's easily the worst of the Violence cards (a very bad thing). Violence cards are the closest things the game has to "mandatory events", in that the only way to get rid of the card is either to play it or Reserve it: they can't be discarded. So I tried to delay playing the card, which was a mistake, because Travis pushed the Fugitive Slave Act hard, eroding my support every time. It got to the point where if I played Harper's Ferry, I would lose the game, so it just sat there gumming up my hand the whole time.
We had a blast though, and Travis's reaction was very positive. He admitted to not being a huge fan of Optimates et Populares, the game with which This Guilty Land shares some of its DNA, but the CDGish elements were more in his wheelhouse. It made me feel a lot more confident about the design and its potential, and I was looking forward to seeing what further tests would reveal.
But as it turned out, that was the only time This Guilty Land saw the table. It wasn't necessarily for a lack of interest - I know Maurice Fitzgerald in particular was eager to give it a whirl - but the timing never quite worked out. I was deep in an 18XX game when he arrived, and he was deep into a long wargame when that finished, and by the time we were both unencumbered, we were far too burned out and exhausted to actually play anything.
Similarly, a local wargamer, Curtis, was very taken with the Hollandspiele games on display, and was eager to play Supply Lines in particular. We made tentative plans Friday night to teach it to him on Saturday, but we both ended up in separate 18XX games. We made plans again to maybe do so Sunday morning, but Mary and I were on our way back to the airport by the time he arrived. Ships that pass in the night and so on.
VII. On Being Bad At Games
I am, as I often warn my opponents, bad at playing games. I win very seldom, only ever placing second when it's a two-player game, and even then there's a good chance I'll place third. So the fact that I won that early-morning game of Time of Crisis was kind of astounding to me, and I had no idea how I managed to win the six-hander of Northern Pacific that I played at the end of the first night. Other than that though, quite predictably, I placed last, and not just last but dead last, well behind the other players with no chance of catching up. And, again, this is normal stuff, and usually doesn't bother me.
But in this context, it did. It wasn't that I got more competitive or anything; all the games were very low-key and friendly. But I wasn't playing the games on anywhere near the same level that they were, and I felt that gap rather acutely. I felt dumb: the only dumb person in a room full of very smart people. The tendency was probably exacerbated by the sheer length of the games. In our game of 1860, one of the "shorter" 18XX games, I became aware about half-way through that I was losing and that position was inexorable.
The knowledge that my cause was doomed didn't bother me - I didn't mind losing, and losing badly - and it gave me ample time to reflect on the mistakes that had led me to that point. First and foremost, it was because while I listened and nodded intently upon learning how this game was different from the mainline 18XX, I had utterly failed to internalize it, and was utilizing strategies that were better-suited for games in which non-permanent trains create a liability for the players. But more than kicking myself for those mistakes, I felt like I was letting down the other players by playing badly, thus diminishing their experience.
To be clear, that's just my own neuroses flaring up. None of my opponents made me feel like I was any lesser or like their time had been wasted. (I did that all by myself.) Even though they were much better players than I was, none of them conformed to the humorless caricature of train gamers who natter on about "incentive structures" and decry the entry of the unwashed masses into that niche of the hobby. Indeed, they went out of their way to indoctrinate newbies in the ways of the 18XX.
Speaking of the 18XX, I would say that even if I had played 1860 well enough to finish within spitting distance of Mark and Bob, the last two hours of the game would still have been a bit of a fiddly slog, for the simple fact of the matter that almost all 18XX games that go the distance devolve into fiddly slogs in the end game. All the interesting tiles have been played, all the cool trains have been bought, and now it's just a matter of placing another orange (pardon; russet) tile here or there to get ten extra bucks the next time you have to recalculate your route while you wait for the game to creak to a finish.
On the one hand, this isn't a problem; as Bob said when either Mark or I apologized for taking too long on our go, if we wanted a fast-paced game we wouldn't be playing an 18XX. But on the other hand, the end-game is awfully thin on decisions. The same is true of course of PanzerZug - really, that one's thin on decisions throughout - but while we were joking and laughing throughout that game in the pub, during 1860 that particular well ran dry around the time the fours rusted, digressive bonhomie giving way to thick, pensive silence. By the end, the game had utterly wrung me out, and I didn't play anything else for the entire evening.
I remember Cole Wehrle once said of the 18XX that he'd love to design one, if only he could find a way to end the game before it got to that point, and he wondered if conversely the backend of an 18XX was integral to the experience, the price of admission for the fun stuff that's been frontloaded. For my own part, I'd love to publish, perhaps even design, an 18XX but the sheer number of tiles (even with a constrained, restrictive set like that utilized by 1860) would prevent us from pricing it competitively. During that long back-half of 1860, I not only had ample time to consider my own failings as a train gamer, but also to ponder these two design problems. I'm not saying that I have an answer, but I am saying that I'm working on it.
I've always heard that conventions, even small ones, were exhausting, and so in a sense I was prepared for that. But it's kind of like going through security at the airport or the weather in Dallas: I knew about it up here - you absolutely can't see it right now, but I am tapping my noggin - but my body wasn't really prepared for the experience. I began each subsequent day with exponentially less energy than the day before, and by Sunday I was just running on fumes. I played five games in the first twenty-four hours, two in the second, and only one the day we left.
Similarly, I spent a lot more time talking to people in the early-going and had become a bit more withdrawn by the end of it. I think I actually enjoyed the conversations more than I enjoyed actually playing the games. More than one of the attendees said that the great thing about the event was that they could just concentrate on the games without someone gabbing at them all the time, but for me, the gabbing - talking with someone, learning about them, connecting with them - that was the best part.
I think part of the attraction is that the conversations we had between games tended to be more intimate and focused, just two or three people. That was really more my speed (and Mary's) than trying to navigate the dynamics of a larger group whether playing at the table or chatting away from it. I'm simultaneously quite gregarious and quite introverted, very much a people person and yet an agoraphobe. I often don't know what to do in a crowd, and am more likely to retreat to a corner of a room than to try to push myself in somewhere. One-on-one conversations are more my jam; they make me less anxious and less exhausted.
"Just imagine what it's going to be like in Denver," Mary said on our flight home, making a reference to Heavy Con, which I've committed to attending in May. There will be something like ten times as many people there, in a traditional convention hall rather than in someone's home. It's bound to be less intimate and much noisier, more exhausting, more demanding, the post-con write-up somehow even longer than this one.
I'm simultaneously looking forward to it and dreading it. I don't know if I'm a con person or not; I don't know how many I'm going to attend; I don't know how much I'm going to enjoy them; I don't know how much it's going to help us grow our business or help me grow as a designer and as a person. It's worth it however to try a few of them, and I think Trains and Chit was an excellent start.