Mary Russell

I got very little sleep Friday night. This wasn't a surprise, necessarily; I discovered last year that I sleep very poorly when I travel, and that each day of a convention gets harder than the one before it. So while Friday morning saw your humble narrator bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Saturday morning found him a little punchy.

Bob and Travis were setting up Meltwater, so that left Matt, Marcus, and myself to our own devices. They thought a Winsome game would be appropriate - there had been precious few trains in this iteration of Trains and Chit - and I readily agreed, knowing that the rules would be simple enough (even if the decisions weren't) that I could handle it in my diminished capacity. And so it was that Pampas Railroads saw the table.

For me Pampas scratches a lot of the same itches that Wabash Cannonball does: you got your share dilution, you got your dials (in this case the cards), the track building can get quite nasty (yellow had almost nowhere to go the entire game). After the third or fourth dividend, I was looking at my usual last place position. I had the only share of red, which had yet to build any track, and decided at this point to buy a second, bidding eighty bucks for it. It was massively more than it was worth, but it was enough money to fund a track-building spree. Suddenly red was making quite a bit of money, and coupled with some strong develop actions, I ended the game only about $50 or $60 short of Marcus - firmly in second place. It was really exciting.

Less exciting was the length of the game. Nine dividends felt like three too many (and South African Railroads having only six bears this out). This may have been because of our rather timid stock play; unlike in Wabash, the game allows you to put shares you own up for auction. That never happened in our game, and I'm not sure how much difference it would have made. What I did like though was the importance it put on develop/special interest actions.

Once Pampas was cleared off the table, Matt began setting up and going over the rules for Sea Evil. The plan was for Mark von Minden to teach it, but since his plane never got out of Denver, Matt was press-ganged into the unenviable position of teaching this literally monstrous game. While he pored over the ancient and possibly accursed texts, the rest of us went looking for a short game to pass the time.

Friday had seen an aborted game of Knizia's High Society, and so we now played it to completion twice in a row. High Society is probably my favorite auction game and quite possibly my favorite Knizia. It's also one of the few games - perhaps the only one? - that Mary straight-up refuses to play. The game's hook, the crucial elegant wrinkle that creates all the lovely tension - that the person with the least amount of money is out of contention at the end - is one she absolutely cannot stand. Hey, I can't stand sweet potatoes, so to each their own.

We spent some time after the game talking about Knizia in general, and his highlights in particular - Tigris and Euphrates and Ingenious came up in the discussion, among others - about how his games manage to do so much with so little. I know his work doesn't seem to be as popular or as esteemed these days as it used to be. Part of it might be that he's done a lot of games since that have been rather less well-received, and part of that is that euro-style games in general have become less austere and to my mind less compelling. So much of the focus these days is on multiple and equal paths to victory, points for this and points for that, that something as direct and blunt as Tigris might not appeal to gamers raised on a steady diet of leafy green point salad.

After our little round table, Matt was ready - well, as ready as he'd ever be - to teach us Sea Evil. It was my first encounter with a product released by the publisher Emperors of Eternal Evil. Over lunch, Matt and Travis gave me a sort of crash course in the publisher, their releases, and their horror and heavy metal aesthetic. Awaiting one is murky black hex maps that are almost impossible to read, peopled by demons and chainsaw killers, with "Kill" cards featuring graphically violent illustrations.

"Well, you know me," I deadpanned, "I'm all about the gore and the heavy metal." Travis promised that he would look at the gory Kill cards for me so that I wouldn't have to, and so I sat down and assumed control of three characters.

I was told that often these games are about normal people hiding from evil psychotics and monsters that they can't hope to defeat. "They're not balanced at all," Matt explained. "Evil always wins, and the victims are always horribly mutilated. But it feels like you're in a horror movie. Sea Evil is different, though. You'll be whalers who are a bit tougher, so you actually have a chance against them."

Not a great chance, mind you. Combat is handled by rolling a die and adding to it, with the high total inflicting wounds equal to the difference between it and the low total. The total for the monsters almost always exceeded our puny whalers, sometimes by a fatal spread of ten or fifteen points.

Matt took on the side of Evil, controlling a motley menagerie of menaces. The idea is that one of them would enter the board on each turn, each with their own special abilities and rules, so Matt would be able to learn them as we went. But on turn two a random event was rolled that summoned all the monsters. Suddenly he had twenty-plus different creatures to learn how to use, and suddenly we had our hands full trying to keep our ship seaworthy and our characters alive.

It reminded me very much of a role-playing game - the goofy character business, the narrative that turned on a dime, the piling-on of incidents and accidents, hints and allegations, and Matt felt less like an adversary and more like a GM. We were hopelessly doomed, of course, and the game ended when a whirlpool sucked us into the bottom of the ocean, where we had to arm-wrestle the Master of Atlantis.

What struck me most of all about the game was how much it shouldn't work, and how much it did. It was too long and too random and the graphic design is awful and I'm not sure it really needed a big map of black, murky ocean with barely discernable thin white hexsides when we spent most of the game on a boat that was maybe seven hexes long by three hexes wide. There's so much that could have easily been simplified or streamlined, that would have brought it more in line with a modern design sensibility. And yet, so much of what was bonkers about the game, so much of the story that emerged, emerged because it wasn't simple or streamlined or modern.

Sea Evil is a game from the early eighties that was designed and released in 2018. It's the board game equivalent of primitivism, of something almost naïve and artless and yet intensely idiosyncratic and personal and, for all the obfuscation of its dense rules and random events and edge cases, something that was direct and visceral in the way few board games are. There are weird games and then there are weird games, and Sea Evil is easily one of the weirdest games I've ever seen. It is one hundred percent not my aesthetic, but I'm friendly with a handful of horror punk aficionados and it would be very much theirs.

The magazine that the game came with and that served as its rulebook had a centerfold, which I thought was pretty gross. Not "gross" in the sense that it's sexist and sleazy and privileges the male gaze - though I think it's gross for those reasons, too - but gross in the sense that the lady had like mangled seaweed or something for a face. "Why is there a centerfold?" someone asked.

"Because they're creeps," came an answer with a laugh. "But creeps I'd like to game with." I'm not so sure I'd want to play a game with them myself, but it was probably the most memorable and striking experience of the convention for me.

It was also a good four hours, so we were eager to play something shorter. Marcus brought out Mogul, an auction game that reminded the others of No Thanks (a game I've never played) and reminded me of Eerie Railroad. It was clever and cute and I'd play it again but it didn't make a super-strong impression.

I was much more taken with the next game to hit the table, Adel Verpflichtet/Hoity Toity, winner of the 1990 Spiel de Jahres. I had heard of this game and even remembered some of the rules from an old Scott Nicholson video - Matt and I briefly reminisced about "Board Games With Scott", which if I recall the conversation correctly was formative for both of us as we got into the hobby. I got my hands on a very large set of cards to exhibit, but I never seemed to exhibit them at the right time, and ended up placing second. It was one of two games - the other was Passtally - that I encountered at the con that I thought Mary would enjoy.

Speaking of Mary: that Saturday night marked the longest I had been away from her since we had started dating. I was on the phone with her throughout the weekend, checking on her and the cats, and telling her that I missed her. "I'm looking forward to seeing you," I said on Saturday about Sunday.

"That's sweet," she said. "I'm looking forward to seeing me too."

After dinner (pizzas, hand-tossed by Marcus) and dessert (tiny little bunt cakes, provided by Travis's wife Lindy) there passed a long period where no one was particularly interested in playing anything. While Marcus, Bob, and Matt, together dubbed Team Tiki, discussed and enjoyed tiki-themed cocktails, Travis and myself had a long and meandering conversation about people we've encountered, creativity, ambition, introversion, and kindness.

As the night was wrapping up, Travis press-ganged us into playing a social deduction game he had been sent by a publisher he was doing rules work for. None of us were particularly into social deduction games, and as far as those types of games go, this one was not very good to be frank. We razzed Travis a bit as we lurched through the interminable thing, and afterwards, Matt mused on the randomness in this twenty minute game, comparing it to the randomness in the four-plus hour Sea Evil. "I liked it in Sea Evil, but in this game it ruined it for me."

"That's because Sea Evil didn't feel this long," I said, causing a laughing fit to erupt around the table. Oh man, I thought, that was a good one, I better remember to put it in the blog-thing so I sound smart and funny.

By this time it was closing in on midnight, and we were wondering if we should play another game or call it. As a joke - I cannot stress this enough! - as a joke, I suggested we pull out For-Ex. Bob immediately got up and brought it over.

"Are we really doing this?" said Matt.

"This is a terrible idea," I said as I opened the box and started to set the thing up. We were all laughing at the absurdity of tabling this thing when all of our brains were fried. I was still cackling as I started to teach the game.

"Why are we doing this to ourselves?" asked Travis.

"I'm not sure," I said.

Right before Bob took his first turn, Matt mercifully stopped us. He was apologetic about it after, but I told him he didn't need to be - he was the voice of reason in that scenario. And, again, I cannot stress this enough: I was joking.

We left the game set up in case we wanted to pick it up Sunday morning, but we never did. The last big game of the con was to be Zimby Mojo, and while Marcus was refreshing himself on the rules, Travis and Matt introduced Bob and I to The Mind. And it was… fine? It was definitely a game - the idea that it somehow isn't a game is something that I find perplexing - but it didn't really scratch any discernible itch I had. I wouldn't turn it down if someone wanted to play it, but I can't say that I was particularly taken with it.

Which left Zimby Mojo. While it wasn't the weirdest game we played - that again would be Sea Evil - it was still a weird out-of-left-field bonkers nutso game. The trappings of it - we're all controlling tribes of manic jungle pygmy cannibals ("zimbies"), sometimes armed with blow-guns - I found kinda unsettling and uh, problematic, but on a purely mechanical level the thing is interesting. The deal is that we're all working together to take down an evil cannibal king, but once we get that guy, it's a madcap race to snag the crown and get it back to your base. I ended up with the crown, and had earlier played a card that increased my speed, which mitigated the movement penalties the crown brought on. One round later, I was sitting right outside my base, waiting for my turn to come so I could win the thing.

I sat to the left of Matt and to the right of Travis, and that was important; if Travis got to go first in the round, then there was a decent chance that he, Bob, or Marcus could have clobbered me and gotten the crown for themselves. But if Matt wanted to win, his best chance was to go first, and so he contrived to do just that. This meant that if I could defeat Matt's column I could win the game, and that's precisely what I did.

I have a feeling that the competitive half of the game is probably longer than the cooperative half normally, whereas here it was much abbreviated, and thus my easy win was probably an anomaly. I'm not quite sure what I think of Zimby Mojo, but it was, like so many other games I played over the weekend, very much its own thing.

And, you know, over the course of the last couple years, Mary and I have pretty much done our own thing. It's liberating, of course, but sometimes it also feels quite isolating, like we're not quite part of the larger industry - even within our niche of wargaming. Playing these sorts of games at Trains and Chit was very much like discovering sort of kindred spirits. Not that we're doing the same sorts of games or doing them in the same sort of way, because we're not; each of us are doing something that's completely our own, our own way. I don't think I'm some sort of avant garde artiste or whatever - I'm just a guy who makes games that I think are interesting - but I do feel a sort of kinship with other weird outsider designers and publishers who work at the margins.

Beyond that, of course, there is the kinship I felt with the folks I shared that weekend with.

I'm thankful for both experiences.

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