I just came back from the Granite Games Summit this past weekend – a small, but growing, local convention that’s grown partly as a response to the vacuum left by the demise of the Unity Games a couple of years ago. I’ll start by giving a shout out to the organizers – Kimberly, Kevin and Mike – who put together, with many wonderful volunteers, a great event. It was relaxed, friendly, welcoming – I came by myself, only knowing a few other people and with not much of a plan. I had no problem finding games, finding people, learning and teaching games. Lots of people brought their games to share, and you could basically take off the shelf anything from Santorini to Terraforming Mars. It was family friendly with a special kids’ games area set up. It was at a nice hotel with a pool, a bar and a work out room, there were some fun events like a live recording of the Flip the Table and a designer alley with prototype playtesting – but mostly there were just a ton of people playing great games all the time. I got to play some great games and in fact – every game I played was pretty great. Here are some of the games I played and some quick thoughts about each of them:
The first game I played when I arrived was Black Fleet – I ran into a nice couple who put up a ‘Players Wanted’ sign and joined them. I heard about this Space Cowboys game before but haven’t had a chance to try it, so I was happy to jump into a game I was already curious about. Black Fleet is a pretty light game – it has very simple mechanics and vibrant components, and it’s one of these games that try to square the circle of being both a family game and a bit more than that.
In Black Fleet, each player controls a merchant ship that does the standard ‘Pick and Deliver’ game – go to one port, pick up cubes, carry them to the other side, over and over again. At the same time, each player also has a little pirate ship that sharks around and hassles other players’ merchant ships, steals their resources and buries them in the ground, which for some reason earns you money. But your pirates don’t have free reign either, as two giant naval ships controlled by each player in turn (just like in Survive: Escape from Atlantis!) patrol the seas to catch them and bring them to justice. So it is a giant game of cat-and-mouse-and-dog – your merchant ships are running away from pirate ships that are running away from naval ships, while everybody tries to occasionally move some cubes across the board.
There’s more to the game than that, but not that much. You move around using cards, unlock slightly unique special abilities as the game progresses and draw random one-time effect cards – all of which add to the chaos and back and forth. There’s not a ton of strategy to the game but it does allow you to set up some nice moves on your turn and lets you make mistakes that will make the game worthwhile. All in all, it’s a fun little game that I would be happy to play with my kid when he grows up or in a light-hearted context. I prefer it to Survive, because it’s not a game where you are merely mean to your friends – you can also try to protect yourself and focus on shipping. The upgrades give you a little more variety, and I can actually see myself drafting them with friends who know the game a bit better. So I beg to differ on this issue with my favorite review website, but that will not be the first time in this summary so let’s go on with it.
My serendipitous encounter with nice people turned out even better as, following the light-hearted fun of Black Fleet, I suggested we dive into the deep experience of last year’s much-hyped entry, Cool Mini or Not & Eric Lang’s Viking extravaganza – Blood Rage. I backed Blood Rage on Kickstarter and got a ton of the extra miniatures, but sadly didn’t get to play it much in the last two years. So I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to finally crack it open. Finally, I got my chance.
Blood Rage is a modern classic in that favorite genre of mine – hybrid games that try to merge area-control-fighting-dudes-on-a-map-Ameritrash with Eurogame-economic-efficiency mechanics, making for a complete experience of strategic aggression with passive-aggressive cube pushing that makes the fighting feel like child-play. Cyclades does it with auctions for gods, Kemet does it with a market of technologies, City of Remnants does it with deck-building (and other stuff, that game is crammed with mechanics) – Blood Rage does it with card drafting (think 7 Wonders, or Sushi Go).
The heart of the game is then this drafting of cards, that you can pick because they work well with your plan or to make sure your opponents can’t get them. Yet even without any knowledge of what cards are available, you quickly get the hang of the basic rules. First, cards get gradually better with every age, so people will have bigger monsters, stronger battle cards and crazier powers. Second, cards come in three different types – upgrades, quests, combat – and you typically want a bit of each for every age. Lastly, the cards are divided by the different gods, and each has their own flavor – Thor gives you glory for fighting, Loki gives you benefit for losing, another one gives you economy and Odin… well, he’s the All-father, so you know his cards will be powerful. This very intuitive and simple division of cards make it much easier to draft and hate-draft cards right away from your first game. It also avoids the helplessness of a first game as you get to see a fair share of the cards before it all starts, so you’re rarely completely surprised when they come up.
It also tells you something you won’t really believe even before the game begins: this game offers the unique strategy of winning by losing, because Loki lets you get stuff if your Vikings die. It’s just kind of funny to see people focus on buying giant monsters and winning battles, and then lagging behind. You can’t avoid fighting and military strength in this game, but at the same time – while losing battles is a viable strategy, focusing on just winning battles is not.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed Blood Rage – much more than I thought I would. For me, it’s a game about temptations – it offers giant monsters that you probably shouldn’t get, and gives you a chance to customize your clan to your style. I’d have to play it some more to experience more of the possibilities and quirks, but I couldn’t agree with the reviews that criticized the game – especially not with the complaint that the exposed VP track makes it obvious who is winning. Since quests are hidden, it’s really hard to how much more VPs each player will get at each age. At the same time, quests are not super mysterious – they come in several simple variants, usually about controlling territories, so if you see someone accumulating those facedown quests you should have a good idea about what to do to thwart them. And I already touched on the various ways in which Blood Rage mitigates the problem of unknown cards – you’ve either already seen them while drafting, and you know what styles are out there. I guess the only complaint I can get on board with is the fact the cards are really small – though it’s understandable they have to be small to fit on the player board, it’s a pretty annoying size for cards you have to shuffle, deal, draft, hold, play etc.