Convention Report: Prezcon 2015 Winter Nationals

Monday , 9, March 2015 4 Comments

Tabletop Aces: This table was loaded whenever it was running. What a rig!

What is Prezcon…?

Well, it’s a whole bunch of things going on at once. I go up on Wednesday and don’t stop playing games until Saturday or Sunday. Most people there seem to come for the tournaments. There are scads of them, for all kinds of games: popular euro games, serious wargames, and everything in between. But it’s more than that. There is an open gaming area downstairs with a huge library of board games you can play. There are auctions that you can dump your old games onto for a few bucks. And there are several game designers you’re liable to run into there as well: Volko Rhunke, Lewis Pulsipher, Gregory Smith, John Poniske, and Tom Dalgliesh are all regular attendees.

Now, if you’re the biggest game nut on your block then you know how much work it is to shop around for a new game, read up on the rules, find some people to play it with, and then get them up to speed on it. It takes a lot of effort and even if you get all of that done you’re still probably messing up a couple of rules! At Prezcon, though, you can go try out a dozen games and learn them from people that already expert in them. In some cases you can play them on super-sized boards with top-rate components– like, say, Tabletop Aces with Airfix models that are on stands made out of car antennae. You can play a four hour long game of Britannia against the championship player that’s played it over 500 times. You can even play games that haven’t even been published yet.

Titan: There are a great many fans of this game that vie for the first place trophy every year. Note that there is a separate 2-player tournament that’s good choice if you don’t have the stamina for a full game.

If you like tabletop games and you are at all within driving distance of Charlottesville, Virginia then you really want to check this out. If you’ve had a hard time finding wargame opponents over the years, come to Prezcon– you’ll find out they’ve been there waiting for you there all along. My suggestion is not to come up on the weekend, but go ahead and come during the week when there more tournament heats available for you to jump in on. If you have a son or daughter that plays games, consider taking them along with you, too. The con has a really friendly atmosphere and eleven year old kids have been known to stay up going from one game to another until midnight every day for days on end. And don’t be shy about sitting in on a tournament game, either– the game masters love to see new faces and are most all prepared to help get you get rolling. (But if you’re completely new, it’s probably a good idea to cut them some slack by attending the demo if it’s a particularly heavy game.)

Here’s a rundown on what I did this year, but keep in mind… it’s only the tip of the iceberg!

Leaping Lemmings

This cute little game was new to me. It worked out well because my son and I got separated into to different tables– no accusations of collusion or nepotism could come my way during this session!

Now… this game is highly chaotic with a bit of “stomp the leader” thrown in. I was playing to learn and really didn’t have a clue what to do with it. You’re trying to move your lemmings across the board to jump off a cliff, see? But the first part of your move you roll dice to position a couple of eagles that you can use to eat the other players pieces. Now… I was loathe to single out a perfect stranger for this deed. I figured they’d just come back at me relentlessly the way I’ve seen some people do in Settlers of Catan. Thinking I was ultra-clever, I moved the eagles to positions where they could not hurt anyone. “Let the table note,” I said, “that I’m not killing anyone off this turn.”

Not only did this trick not work– the other players all wiped my lemmings off the board right after this– but the effect of my action seemed to send a semaphore code to everyone at the table that I was a cream puff that was not to be taken seriously. Ah well, better luck next time!

(Note that my son managed to take second place in the Leaping Lemmings final and ended up buying a copy of the game with his gift certificate money that he got from playing four games on the “Junior Passport” list. Pretty cool! And to whoever is behind that program, you have managed to create a hard core Prezcon fanatic with your investment of $35. Well done, sir!)

Leaping Lemmings Heat One: Can you spot the shark?

Formula De

I’d never played this one before, so I mainly just wanted to get the hang of it. I ended up being the lead car right out of the gate due to the luck of the draw, though, so I actually had a better than average chance of winning this one. I didn’t really understand quite what was going on until after about the third or fourth curve, so I’m sure I wasted my transmission and brakes unnecessarily early on. You see… even though you’re rolling the dice to see where you end up, each gear has a different range of possible results. But if you overshoot a curve region, you end up taking the difference out of your car– and only the tires can be replaced on during the pit stop. I got passed by one of my opponents early on, but I managed to keep up and keep ahead of the pack. Pulling into the straightway, I got lucky with the big die and ended up shooting ahead. It looked to me like I was a good move or two ahead of everyone else and I kept on making the rolls that I needed. I could totally win the game, if I didn’t make a rookie mistake.

Well, that was coming. Going into the final turn of the game, I missed the roll that I needed. I started asking questions to make sure that I understood the situation. I figured out that if I dropped to third, I would have a fifty-fifty chance of getting in to the curve and zero chance of destroying my car. I thought my lead was sufficient to win the game immediately following that, but I could have been wrong. Mainly, one more engine hit could ruin me– and after seeing someone that had taken needless risks end up coasting into the pits and out of the game altogether during the first lap, I was hesitant to tempt fate.

Anyway, what I was supposed to do was kick it up to fourth, take my chances, and then blow through the finish line with that big thirty-sized purple die. You know, “damn the torpedoes” and all that. (Even if I blew my engine out I could still coast on to victory.) One guy at the table actually sneered at my boneheaded sissy-boy move. I had to downshift to second to make it into the curve after which I was crawling towards the finish in third when two other guys just blew past me. It was a humiliating defeat!

Of course, now that I “get” the game, I know what I want to look at in order to clarify my understanding of the rules, and the next time I spend a brake point, burn an engine, or wear out my transmission, I’ll have some inkling of what kind of impact that will have on the end game. But I just wanted to learn this game. When I sat down to play it, I had no idea I was going to throw away a beautiful victory like this…!

Formula D Heat One: This is just few turns before I would throw away my hard fought lead.

Pendragon

Pendragon: When darkness falls, the looting begins. But at least everyone gets their own polyhedral dice!

One of the best things about Prezcon is getting to check out new games well before they are released. Even better, you often get to hear about them from the designer himself. Last year Volko Ruhnke was showing off the hot new Vietnam themed COIN title that he was developing with Mark Herman. This year he was playtesting Pendragon which looks to be something completely different.

The first big difference from the other COIN series games is that Volko is not even co-designing this one. (As we worked our way through the long game scenario, many of the rules were a surprise even to him.) GMT’s strategy here seems to be to keep the line fresh by bringing in new people that will take the system in directions that Volko would never have anticipated on his own.

If they were going for something different here, then that sure seems to be what they’ve managed to get. The barbarian Scotti are not Viet Cong guerrillas at all. No, they want to rape and pillage and gain renown for their daring raids. When they show up on the western shores of England, I’m rolling up to two D4 dice to determine their strength. They automatically gain loot equal the territory’s population value. They literally ruin the place if they hit the same areas too much. If they are joining some raiders that happen to still be around from previous turns, I might even consider using them to take out a town or a hill fort. If they win the fight, the survivors can load up on as much loot as they can carry. This is awesome… at least until the Roman cavalry show up, anyway.

Pendragon: These Scotti raiders behave in an entirely different manner than the typical insurgent faction you’d find in a COIN game!

Meanwhile, the Saxons are working away at plaguing the eastern side of Ye Olde Isle in their own inimitable way. They seemed to be a little more inclined to settle down, however. And while the Romans and the Civitates work at cross purposes along the lines of what you see with the US and ARVN in Fire in the Lake, they have a few tricks up their sleeves as well. They can actually settle barbarians themselves– and get them to help prop up civilization! Of course, that’s not to say that these units won’t ever switch back to being freebooters, but no one said this would be easy. The dark ages are coming after all….

Perhaps the most interesting thing here is how the game models the increasing disintegration of the Roman Empire over the course of the game. This is nothing like the Ho Chi Minh trail from Fire in the Lake, either. The victory conditions for the Dux and Civitates factions actually change significantly as Roman Rule shifts from strong to weak, as British Autonomy shifts from being controlled by the military to being run by civilians, and as things trend towards complete fragmentation. If this sounds like it’s all bad for the forces of civilization, the player running the Dux actually didn’t mind having the Imperium out of his hair when this came up as there were advantages to having a little more latitude on the island.

While this game is sure to inspire the usual debates about historical accuracy and whether or not “the theme is just painted on”, there is certainly a lot here to play with. And the event cards I saw in this prototype were pretty wild. I mean, they weren’t just temporary rule-benders like what I’m used to like Fire in the Lake‘s momentum effects– they actually go well into the realm of rule-changers. For example, my Scotti got hit with an event that Christianized the Irish. Raping and pillaging fell out of favor with the folks back home and from then on I got only half the normal renown for returning with loot! (I really regretted not taking a limited operation in order to kill that event….)

If you are intrigued by the COIN series but never really bit the bullet on A Distant Plain or Fire in the Lake, then you may want to keep an eye out for this one. There are more than a few differences here and the overall tone of this game is radically different even though it is built on the same sort of game system. There’s almost a post-apocalyptic feel to this one that’s really attractive. (Note: there are no mutant abilities tables in this game, however.) Are the barbarian invasions of England really anything like modern day insurgencies…? I couldn’t tell you. What I can say for sure is that spending a few hours tearing up England is a lot of fun.

Pendragon: My Scotti raiders prepare to return home with the ill-gotten pillage!

Slapshot

I usually spend most of my time at the convention playing the sort of four and eight hour long games that I simply cannot play at home most of the time, so Slapshot is something I’m liable to blow right past without even giving it a second thought. That’s a huge mistake! You see, even antisocial gamer types end up in situations where they have to entertain non-gamers. And being the connoisseur of fine games that you are, everyone is naturally going to look to you to pick an appropriate game for any given situation.

That’s why you need Slapshot in your arsenal. It’s easy to learn, easy to teach, it’s engaging, a lot happens in a short period of time, and it engenders a great deal of interaction, smack talk, thrills, spills, and upsets. There’s still some game there, sure… but no one will have to burn a lot of brain cells to get to it. It’s possible to be good at it, but rookies have a fighting chance.

In Slapshot, your hand of cards represents your hockey team. On your turn, you can improve it through drafts and trades. You can challenge someone to a game at any time, but doing so gives your opponent the home ice advantage. And it’s amazing that the basic mechanic from the card game “War” could be this awesome, but with goalies preventing a score from occurring, bruisers knocking out the other top team’s player out, and then the intricacies sudden death overtime, there’s really a lot of ways a match can play out. When it’s time for the playoffs, it will be an unusual group of people that aren’t on the edge of their seats cheering and jeering.

This is not a hot new release; this game’s been around since 1982. If it’s new-to-you as well, then you really have to check this out.

Slapshot Final: This was looking like it was going to be a blowout, but someone actually came from behind to take down the leader at the last minute. (That’s game designer Grant Dalgliesh in the referee getup.)

Britannia

I played “blue” in this one and I mainly just wanted to make my own decisions this time so that I could have a result that didn’t depend on the advise I got from the hard core fans of the game. (That’s what happened last time.) I think I got okay at making reasonable moves, but without being familiar with all the other players’ objectives, I don’t think I was anywhere close to implementing any sort of serious strategy.

I had the tough luck of drawing a red player that just came after me for practically no reason. It actually hurt him in the end, too. That kind of play meant I basically had zero chance of winning. A few people mentioned that they thought it was kind of stinky that it happened, but I was okay with it. (It came off more as ordinary bad play rather than pure spite.) Looking back over the final couple of moves, it’s clear that there were enough points that I threw away that I didn’t have to come in last. I could have beaten that guy if I’d just held it together a little more. This another one of those games that was more about me losing to myself than anything else.

One decision that came up had to do with an opportunity I had to kill green’s king towards the end. I came out of my advantageous terrain to do it and prevented that player from getting sixteen points or so. Looking at the final scores, though… my doing that did not make a difference. Yellow was just so far ahead at the end, I wouldn’t have been playing kingmaker by letting green take the points that he was lined up for. I’d gone with it because I didn’t want to be perceived as arbitrarily throwing the game to green, but if the guy in last place is going to do something for a guy that’s in the lead… he should probably negotiate for a little something extra. Such as maybe arranging to be handed enough points somehow that he wouldn’t get stuck getting last place!!!

Britannia Heat One: Yes, that is a Romano-british unit still around in Norfolk there at the end…!

The Hunters

The idea of running a solitaire game at a tournament might sound off the wall, but this really worked. We were broken up into tables with four players each. We played two runs. In the first one, half the players got the wolfpack advantage and the others were disadvantaged. For the second run, you switched. Everyone at the table rolled on the same tournament encounter chart. Even though we rolled for whether the sightings occurred at night or day separately, we were still sort of engaging the same convoy. If two players rolled the same ships and went after them together, they’d have a better chance of sinking them, but would split the tonnage for their final score.

The Hunters: All forward torpedoes and all but two points of hull gone. Looks like it’s time to head for the Bay of Biscay!

There are a few big decisions in this game, but after that it’s up to the dice mostly. If you sight at nighttime, do you take the bonus for a surface attack? (Usually yes.) If you’re down to your electric torpedoes, do you go for the close attack to avoid to-hit penalties? (Heck yeah, man!) And when the destroyers come for you, do you elect to exceed test depth or not? (Dive! Dive! Dive!) The game is like a slot machine when you’re shooting up the freighters. It’s possible to kill things with one good hit, but you can also throw all four at one ship and still either miss entirely, be plagued by duds when you do hit, or else roll all one-point damage amounts for the ones that actually do connect. If the destroyers fail to get to you, you can try again… either going after the freighters you’ve only damaged or else acquiring a new set of targets altogether.

In my game, I did pretty good for my first encounter. I was disadvantaged, but managed to get away after taking a few hits. Unfortunately, I did not encounter any convoys after that first phase and came back with several torpedoes left. (I hate coming back with unfired torpedoes. It smacks of poltroonery.) In my second run, I again sunk a couple of freighters. I closed in to fire my electrics and seemed to be having a field day. But when the destroyers showed up, I took a beating. I burned my good luck charm that I’d picked up in order to avoid a five-hit result. My hull hits started stacking up and flooding got dangerously high before I finally rolled the four or less that I needed to get away. I really didn’t expect to make it. To add insult to injury, though, I encountered aircraft in the Bay of Biscay as I limped in. I was so battered, that thing actually had a fair chance to finish me off. Doh!

Commands & Colors: Ancients

I started this game off by charging in with my warrior units. I took out one stack, but got wolluped in return. My opponent consolidated his forces and then moved all off his infantry with a line action. He had some heavy and medium infantry out front, so I ended up sending in the elephants. I exchanged one set of elephant blocks for some infantry while the others ended up dealing damage and then rampaging before retreating back.

After this… I stayed with my measly two banners for what seemed like forever. Throughout the game, though, I made a point to attack my opponent’s leaders at every opportunity and I always checked to see if the leader was killed. (This doesn’t happen very often, but it won’t happen if you forget to check!) Anyway, my opponent ran up his score to six banners and I thought it was all over for me. Then he whiffed on an “I am Spartacus” card– he only got to activate a single light unit due to a horrible die roll. I’d just drawn “Mounted Charge” and I was finally able to move my two remaining elephant units back into battle a second time. They wreaked havoc, momentum advanced, and took out two leaders– one on a two die roll and the other on a single die roll. My opponent could not use his cards to get those last two kills he needed. But I’d had “Clash of Shields” in my hand for a long time at that point and I was in a perfect position to use it to decisively end the game.

I was really happy with this one not just because I could turn the game around like that… but I’d also been wanting to put the elephants to good use for a long while. Though my rampages didn’t do any damage, I at least didn’t have to roll for them against myself. And in one round I got to reroll my sword hits enough that I completely obliterated something– I dealt something like six or seven hits in one exchange. This was a great win in a convention room that doesn’t tend to see too many people screaming and beating their chests. What can I say, though… this was epic!

Commands & Colors Heat Two: The elephant unit on the right killed the single block, momentum advanced, took out two medium infantry blocks out from the far right unit, and then rampaged. The elephant unit on the left dealt three hits to the medium infantry unit, killed their leader on a 1-in-36 shot, and then took no hits in return.

Pompei

This is just a great little game. I’m not the only person that’s fond of it, either. It can be hard to get people for a pickup game sometimes, but this one was an easy sell. In the opening phase of the game, you want to get your pieces onto the board in good locations and in reasonable numbers. When the lava comes out, it turns into this crazy race to get out of the city before your pieces get burnt up. It can be really close at the end and a tie score is not unlikely. That’s what happened in this game and I lost because I’d lost more people throughout the game than my opponent did. (You put them into the volcano. Heh.) If only I’d been just a little more judicious in my placements before AD 79!

Pompei: when that lava starts flowing, it’s time to get out!

Legion of Honor

Okay, this is the sort of game that’s going to be hit or miss depending on your tastes. And yeah… I did enjoy seeing hardened wargamer types rolling up characters like they were twelve again. (Though some of these guys might have been a tad older than that even during the heyday of rpgs. Ahem!) But wow this is exactly the sort of thing that I’ve wanted for a long time even though I didn’t have any concept that it could even be done.

Now, this game does not allow you to alter the course of history. The events are all set in stone. What matters is where your character is when they go down. Your objective is to gain rank and status and Napoleon’s favor as one of the original grognards. And there’s a lot more to this than just battles and dueling. This game also covers social warfare in the form of who you marry and who you take on as mistresses. (Would it be a game about dashing French officers if it didn’t have a charm stat?) Keep an eye on the other players, though. Even though this looks at first glance to be sort of a multiplayer solitaire type game, their characters have the option of taking your grognard’s wife as one of their mistresses…!

We might all be up to speed on when to form a line and when to make a square… but this looks like a great way to explore some of the other dilemmas that these men of the past had to face. Of course, I also look at this and see alternate universe “Classic Traveller Book 9: Nobles” advanced character generation expanded out into a four or eight hour game unto itself. This is definitely on my “want to play” list.

Legion of Honor demo: This is a great looking game that is unlike anything else I’ve seen.

The Auctions and Dealers

The Prezcon Auction Store is way better than Amazon or ebay. How it works is that people bring in their games and put three prices on them. When the store opens after breakfast, the first price is in effect. Later on they run everybody out, but when they let them back in the second price is in effect. When the afternoon rolls around, there’s slim pickings… but you pay next to nothing for what’s left. (If you’re more into a traditional style auction, they have that, too.)

This is an extra good deal for me because nobody at Prezcon really likes the kind of games I’m into. I picked up a perfect copy of Imperium last year for ten bucks. This year I got a copy of Outdoor Survival for fifteen. (I think like two people there knew that this obscure game was in the recommended equipment list for the original edition of Dungeons and Dragons.)

The dealers room opens up on Friday and both GMT and Columbia games have booths there. (If I’m shopping for a wargame, this is where I get it.)

Ah, Prezcon loot!

Okay, that was exhausting!

Now… about the tournaments. One thing I wondered about before attending Prezcon was whether or not tournament play was actually good for the gaming. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that in the reigning culture there is a fairly persistent voicing of the opinion that competitive play is somehow silly or rude or weird or even inherently unsportsmanlike. I know, it sounds crazy… but maybe I caught some of that somewhere along the line. I have to say, though, that after trying several tournaments that they do in fact add a lot to the fun. In the first place, it gets a lot of game sessions on the schedule and it gets those games played. Secondly, the finals are going to be made up of solid players that don’t tend to make a lot of dumb moves. Playing at that level of proficiency is the only way to really encounter a lot of what the designer intends for you to experience. This is especially true for many of the longer and more complicated hobby games.

Mark Miklos, designer of GMT’s American Revolutionary War series. Whether you are a fan of classic hex ‘n chit wargames, Columbia Games style block wargames, Combat Commander, or Commands & Colors… Prezcon is the place to be!

If you don’t think you’re the competitive type, you might just surprise yourself. And you might have a better chance at that first place trophy than you’d think. Pick your games, show up to all the heats, and then show up to the final even if your rank isn’t the highest that it could be. After all, someone might have to bail out on the convention before the game and they may need somebody to fill a seat. Either way, dive in and give it your best shot. You can’t win if you don’t play. And even if you lose, you have a chance to learn tactics from some of the best players in the country.

If you’re more interested in playing in pickup games in the open gaming area, you probably want to bring a friend along with you that’s keen on the same idea. (No one wants to play games with a lonely dude that’s sitting around looking forlorn.) Set up your game and start playing it immediately. The best way to attract people is to look like you’re having a blast already. Put up a sign that says “players wanted”, too. Depending on the game you can meet all kinds of gamers this way and get something awesome played that isn’t on the schedule.

Finally, if you’re at the con and you are hesitating to commit to anything because you think maybe something cooler might be going on around the corner, quit over-thinking this stuff! Just say “yes” if something looks even moderately cool. That’s way better than ending up being the odd man out for an hour or two.

However you do it, come to Prezcon. And if you’re not anywhere near Charlottesville, then go to the closest thing to a Prezcon that’s near you. I mean, it won’t be as cool as Prezcon… but it might be pretty close. And if it’s got board game events scheduled for days on end, just how bad could it be, really…?! If you have stacks of unplayed games gathering dust on your shelf, then this is really where you ought to be. Save the money you would have spent on game purchases and get an experience like this instead! You won’t regret it.

4 Comments
  • Eric Ashley says:

    Tennessee Game Days is coming up in a couple weeks. Never been there, but it sounds similar.

    I have been to the gamecon in Carbondale, Ill.. which was very cool.

    Last weekend at Collector’s Alley got to play Settlers of Cataan (which I lost, badly), and Star Munchkin (which I won). As another player said …the Munchkin games work better with four players than ten, especially when the ten are being….ah, pills.

    I also bought a 2.75 copy of Ogre as the original rules. I’ve never played it before. Hope to try it this week.

    You listed a lot of games I haven’t played, but looking at them, they are in the style I like to play.

  • Amadan says:

    Did not even know about Prezcon, but I will certainly try to make it next year!

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