Monday, August 9, 2010

DonoCon 2010

To take the edge off Gencon jealously, we had another Donocon this year, with a bunch of people over at the house hanging out and playing games. There ended up being some unexpected logistical challenges and my wife deserves a huge amount of credit for making this all possible, but it worked and it was pretty fun.

Games that saw play: Attack of the Killer Bunnies, Forbidden Island, Thunderstone, Dixit and Fiasco. Forbidden Island and Thunderstone are standing favorites, so no real commentary on those, but the others were all interesting in their own way.

Attack of the Killer Bunnies was, to be frank, a stark reminder of why I no longer play a certain sort of game. By a certain sort of game I mean any game where you play for several hours while sitting on your hands for most of the game as the turn goes around the table, and only maybe being able to do anything on your turn. It's got clever cards and a clever mechanic, but clever only goes so far (especially with an outright malicious victory condition). For context, the games of Forbidden Island and Thunderstone were both set up and played while the Killer Bunnies game was still going.

Dixit, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. Fred brought it, and the sole context I had for it was "That game I'd never heard of that won the Spiel des Jahres" but the box itself made a good case for the game. It's loaded with picture cards which are beautiful in the way that good childrens art can be - lots of strong broad strokes and themes, but also lots of interesting details. Gameplay is simple, and very reminiscent of apple to apples. You look at the cards in you hand, pick one, and say a sentence it makes you think of like "Worst job ever." or "At last, we can begin!" Everyone else picks a card from their hand that matches that as best they can, and the cards are spread out for all to see. Players try to guess which is the right one, and points are handed on who guesses what.

One clever twist on the mechanic is that the storyteller (the person with the sentence) gets points if his card is guessed, but only so long as only SOME people guess it. If everyone or no one gets it, then everyone else scores except for him. So you want to be clear, but not _too_ clear. Also, the quality of the cards is a subtle, but powerful design element. The broad thematic strokes of the art make more cards more applicable toe sentences than you would expect. Many card also have some amount of action in them which might be interpreted in more than one way (such as one image of someone either about to be eaten or about to be rescued, depending which way you think things are going) which adds another layer of interpretation to things.

I definitely want to grab a copy of this game at some point. Setting aside that the cards are so beautiful as to demand other uses, I think this is the game that straddles the line between folk who like the creative, fantastic games and those who want to play the social balderdash/pictionary sort of game. That's a powerful straddle.

We did setup and a little play for Fiasco and while very enjoyable, it petered out. I think it went well enough that there'd be interest in trying it again, but I think it suffered from two things. First, we started it late in things, where it got interrupted by food and children getting put to bed, so the inertia got lost. Second, I think the Arctic playset was probably not the best first choice, if only because so much effort had to go into figuring out what the hell we were talking about setting-wise. Lack of context hurt. I think we also didn't quite end up with enough teeth in our setup, since the macguffin (antarctic Nazi Gold) ended up going up in play rather than directly from the cards on the table. I figure that's my fault for not guiding things helpfully enough, but so it goes. Net result was if nothing else, very educational, and I think the game got some new fans.[1]

Much discussion of Smallville and agreement we need to try chargen sometime, but also that we didn't have the juice to do so just then. Ths came up because Smallville is looking to be a go-to game for almost any game that has the bones of a soap opera, with the extra bnus of being able to handle weird elements. As an example, we discussed how well it could hand In Nomine: The way relationships are set up does a very good job of providing for intimate yet antagonistic relationships (so you could have angels and devils in the same game) and some nice ways to insure that the only way an NPC ends up mattering is if he matters to multiple players.[2]

Beyond that there was pizza and socializing and I hope everyone had as good a time as I did.

And now, I prep for tonight's Cold War game. Discussion with the players has, I think, clarified for me what I need to do. I have been letting them bask in being the best in the world at what they do, and that's been useful for establishing foundations. But now comes the time to turn up the heat, and demonstrate that when they're playing at this level, being the best in the world is just table stakes. Which is to say, it's on.

1 - and as a reminder to myself, I need to put the other playsets on my ipad.

2 - Mechanically, this is kind of clever. Chargen involves drawing relationship maps between the players, with squares for players, diamonds for locations and circles for other characters. If you add a character to the map, you add a circle, denoting them as an extra. It is only when another character draws a connection to that extra that the circle gets a double-line border and now denotes a "feature", which is to say a full on NPC, and switches from being a resource to being someone players have relationships with. This is, using the In Nomine example, an absolutely brilliant way to handle archangels.


  1. I have to agree on Killer Bunnies. It is precisely the sort of card game I intensely dislike. I do know and understand there are (many many many) people who dig that sort of game but I'm not one of them. It has the same mechanic that intensely turns me off to Munchkin -- sit around doing nothing for a while and then, on your turn, try to blow up the board in some way. For me, this is not fun at all. It's not my thing.

    However, I loved Dixit. Dixit was amazing on all levels.

  2. Sorry you guys had a sputtering Fiasco session - it sounds like the fates aligned against you. Antarctica probably isn't the best "first fiasco" for the reasons you point out. It makes a great *second* fiasco, though...

  3. @Jason Plenty of externalities played into it too, so no bad reflection on the game. People had enough fun that there's clear interest in trying it again.

  4. @Jason Fiasco is awesome enough that we bought a copy to take home through the magical power of the Internet at Rob's. My husband (the infamous @ect) mapped Burn After Reading to the Fiasco rules after he finished reading them and was pleased enough he downloaded the rest of the scenarios. He was threatening to write his own...

    I would love to actually be able to sit down and play a game of Fiasco but that game seriously needs a bottle of whiskey to get into the swing of it. It's clearly a drinkin' and scenin' sort of game. What I played of it I enjoyed even if the guys were playing the game of getting me to laugh so hard I couldn't breathe.

  5. I demod Dixit at GenCon -- it was one of those demos where you do not have to learn the game, you feel like you know it from turn 1 and are just playing it already.

    I also "demoed" Dresden Files by having someone in the Evil Hat booth explain it to me. Did not realize it was based on a novel, I thought it was about the firebombed German town for some reason. I think your blog will make a lot more sense now that I've had that whole fate system explained to me...

  6. In defense of Fiasco, I have run it now a number of times, and some of the best settings to try are: In A Suburban Town, In A Southern Town, and World Tour (the rock band setting).

    All of my experiences with the game have been a mix of hysterical and deeply disturbing (in all the good ways) at the same time.

    Try it again with one of the above playsets and you will have a great time.

  7. I think a Donocon NE is in order... :)

  8. One thing I found that really helped the Antarctica set is to have everyone at the table really pore over it. This gave them an idea what was missing from the set-up as much as what was there. Some of those elements even came into the game. Getting the flavor of the setting is important, and being familiar with a good swathe of the options is the best way to do that.

    That might be good advice for any first-time Fiasco players. (or really any new playset)


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