MACE 2011!

This past weekend was (arguably) my biggest gaming weekend of the year, MACE.  I’ve been going for 9 years now, and had some really high hopes that this might possibly be the best year ever considering how many friends (new and old) were going to be there.  In the end, my expectations were probably a little unreasonably high, but despite some disappointment here and there, I still had a really great time. 

Here’s how the weekend went, along with some of my thoughts on particular games…    

Acute Care

As I mentioned in my last Boardgame Design Project article, I met my goal of having a playable prototype of Acute Care ready for MACE.  I knew I’d get in at least one playtest with some of my friends, but I was thrilled to actually get in 3 playtests over the weekend with a pretty good selection of people.

I’m sure I’ll talk more about it in another Design Project entry, but more than anything, it was just so cool to have people actually playing my game.  Even when they totally broke it apart, had their way with it, and left it broken and bleeding in the street, it was still a great and valuable experience.  

Now I just need to figure out how to put the pieces back together and make it better…

Eminent Domain

Both in my group and around the world, Eminent Domain seems to be the hot new game to play these days.  I got in two plays of it throughout the weekend: one a 3-player game where I rode Military power early and then switched over to heavy Research in a massive win, and then a 4-player game that slipped past us and no one scored over 20 points.  

I continue to be impressed with this game.  I was worried a little bit early on about there perhaps being an optimum strategy (lots of Military!), but I’ve seen far too many approaches be successful at this point to worry about that any more.  I always feel engaged throughout the game, there are lots of real choices to make each turn, and I even feel very plugged in with what the other players are doing since there’s so much chance of following their role selection (or setting them up with yours).  It seems like a really great mix of having real strategic decisions to make as well as needing to respond to what the luck of the draw and the actions of the other players throw at you, and there can even be a neat timing element regarding when you switch gears between a couple of different approaches that you may make in a game (such as shifting gears from heavy military conquest to heavy research, as I did in my first game of the weekend).   

I can’t get enough of Eminent Domain right now, and I’m always looking forward to trying something new with it next time I sit down to play!

Kingdom Builder

From all the Essen coverage I’d heard and read, Kingdom Builder definitely had my interest.  So my big purchase of the convention was to pick up one of the copies available in the dealer’s room, and since the rules are so short, I managed to read them before Saturday got into full swing.

In all, I managed to play two 4-player games of Kingdom Builder at MACE, and for the most part, I was impressed.  If you haven’t read much about it, it’s basically a “tile”-laying game (even though you’re actually placing wooden houses rather than cardboard tiles) where you place these little settlements on the board to occupy space, connect features, and ultimately score points.  You are limited in where you can place your 3 settlements a turn by drawing a card that indicates just one terrain type, and if possible, you always have to place next to one of your currently-existing settlements.  There are also some “Location” hexes on the board that, if you’re the 1st or 2nd person to place next to them, give you special action tiles that you can use once per turn to place extra settlements or move existing settlements (depending on which tile it is, of course).

Probably the coolest thing is that the scoring options change from game to game and are dictated by dealing out 3 of the 10 Kingdom Builder cards.  From what I’ve seen so far, they do things like grant points (technically gold, but you can’t spend it or anything, so it’s really just victory points) for the number of settlements in your largest group, connecting castles and location hexes, building in the same horizontal line, and placing settlements next to certain terrain or features.

Overall, it’s probably along the same weight as something like Ticket to Ride or maybe Through the Desert.  In fact, the placement rules felt a lot like TtD to me, except with a little more randomness governing placement but much more variabilty in the board (which is modular) and the goals (since the scoring options change each game).  I think Gwen will really like it, and it would make a really great nice introductory or “next step” game for a lot of people.  

It’s not perfect, though.  In my second game, I was dealt cards of the same terrain type on the first two rounds, which totally removed any choice for me and robbed me of the chance to connect to any location spaces and pick up those bonus action tiles.  And speaking of the tiles, most of them so far seem pretty well-balanced, with the clear exception of the harbor.  Water is a such a big obstacle on the board, so having a tile that lets you move settlements into water spaces just seems way too powerful.  I could certainly be wrong about that in my limited experience, but in these first two games, it definitely had a huge impact.

Still, though, I’m really excited about Kingdom Builder, and hope to play it a lot more both with my game group and with Gwen.   

King of Tokyo

I didn’t play with the Durham crew as much as I’d hoped, but one thing I did manage to experience with them was King of Tokyo.  It’s a dice-based, king-of-the-hill game about huge monsters fighting to take over Tokyo by either scoring enough points or eliminating everyone else.  It uses the pretty tired Yahtzee mechanic for rolling the dice, but then had some other neat little elements mixed in (like the cool power-up cards that you could purchase).

It was light and fun and I had a good time, except that most of the fun I had was while watching the game rather than playing it.  Yeah, it’s downfall is that it relies on player elimination at least to some extent, and I was the first one out in our game.  I don’t think I’m interested in running out and buying a copy, but I’d love to play it again sometime.

Dogs in the Vineyard

My only successful roleplaying experience of the weekend was a game of Dogs in the Vineyard that I ran on Saturday morning.  I had some ideas about a town I’d like to run, but with investing all my time in the Acute Care prototype, I didn’t get it done.  Thankfully, there are some really great resources out there for DitV, and I ended up running the Paint Creek Branch, a town created by Jason Morningstar (designer of a little game called Fiasco).  Jason has actually created a ton of great Dogs resources, including a quote book of Biblical passages that add a lot to the dialogue of the game. 

But anyway, joining me were my friends Kenny and Tom, along with Eli (who Kenny and I had met before and recruited into the game) and Todd (who had actually preregistered) who were new friends at the con.  Kenny was the only other player with any experience in the game (he played with me back in July), but the system isn’t all that difficult, and everyone plays through their own “initiation” sequence, which also serves as a great introduction to the mechanics of the game anyway.

Speaking of that, we ended up creating a really cool cadre of Dogs:  

  • Todd was a street kid from a poor family that was taken under wing by the Steward (i.e. Pastor) of his home town.  He believed in the power of words to diffuse violence, and was practically a pacifist whenever reasonable.  He loved to quote from the Book of Life, and his challenge in initiation was to convert a nonbeliever, which he more-or-less succeeded at.   
  • Tom was a 3rd or 4th generation Dog, who lived in Bridal Falls City and whose father was an instructor in the Dogs training center.
  • Eli was also a poor kid without much family, but Tom’s father had sort of taken him on almost as an adopted son.  Tom didn’t care for this much, so they had this great tension between them since Eli wanted Tom to accept and love him as a brother, but Tom was too angry and jealous to see him as anything more than a threat to his family.  Tom’s initiation challenge involved trying to overcome his anger with his father, but it didn’t quite work out that way.
  • Kenny, meanwhile, was a former apothecary’s apprentice who trusted a little too much in the rational and scientific explanations for things.  In his initiation, he managed to get an instructor to at least consider that the King of Life doesn’t necessarily prescribe every little event that happens in the world.

Eli, Todd, Tom & Kenny assuming their hardest pseudo-Mormon-Cowboy faces…

I’m not going to even get into the actual town and its problems, mostly because we didn’t actually finish the game.  With still being new to the game and mostly unfamiliar with the town itself, I just didn’t push the pacing of both character generation and their early investigations anywhere near enough.  We really wanted to finish at some point in the weekend, but it just didn’t work out.

Still, though, Dogs proved once again to be one of the best (an maybe just the best) RPG’s I’ve ever experienced.  It’s powerful and interesting, and the way it ties mechanics directly into narrative is just brilliant.  Whether the conflict is just about talking or if it involves cowboy-style gunslinging, the system is right there to support and guide both the resolution and the story of the action.

I really need to play some sort of long-term campaign with Dogs in the Vineyard.  With both the players and the characters involved in this session, I really wish it would be possible to continue it.  But regardless of that possibility, I’m truly interested in finding an option that will facilitate at least a 5-6 session campaign of Dogs in the Vineyard.  If you’re interested (and relatively local), let me know…    

Other Games

On the RPG side, I had also planned on running a game of Dread, and even had 6 people preregistered for it!  Unfortunately, and with no explanation, 3 of them just didn’t show up.  And since it was a scenario all about player interaction and conflict, I just didn’t see it working out.  But we did get in a few plays of Jenga anyway.

I “ran” a session of the Lord of the Rings LCG as well, in which I taught 2 new people to play (and beat the first two scenarios in the core set).  We also tried out the new print-on-demand Massing at Osgiliath scenario, though, and lost horribly twice (one of which happened during the 3rd phase of the 1st round).  It’s still a great game.

Kenny ran a couple of games of Catacombs using both new expansions, which are both really cool.  If I can restrain myself until then, I’ll put them both on my Christmas list.  The Burlington and Durham guys all mostly got together to play side-by-side games of Macao at one point, which was a lot of fun.  And I also got in plays of Ying Yang (which impressed me), Martian Dice (which didn’t), Coloretto, and Tsuro as fillers as well.

In all, I got in 23 plays of 13 different games at MACE, and had a really good time doing it!  

The Hotel

As much as I’d like to ignore it, I can’t really talk about the experience of the convention without also mentioning the hotel itself (mostly as a Public Service Announcement warning others).  We were actually one of three large groups using the hotel (along with the Miss North Carolina USA Teen pageant and the Special Olympics), and in many ways both subtle and obvious throughout the weekend, we were clearly shown that we were the least important of the three.  In fact, we were made to feel thoroughly unwelcome, and with MACE moving to Charlotte next year, I truly hope to never set foot in the Best Western in downtown High Point ever again.  

And while I can’t unequivocally confirm this, I have a strong feeling that this sense of being unwelcome had a big impact on the con, from the attitude of its leadership all down through many of us regulars and into even the new attendees.  Right from the start, when we were told quite rudely that no one could check in before 3pm, the tone for the whole weekend took a turn for the worse. (And personally, I was even told that I couldn’t board and use a completely empty elevator because it was being “held for the contestants”, and then given the lowly option of using the service elevator instead.)

It’s a shame, really, because when Radisson owned it, it was always such a nice experience.  But after this weekend, I’m more than ready to make the extra drive down to Charlotte to see what the venue there has to offer. 

Other Images of MACE


  1. Chris Ingersoll

    Richard Garfield’s name being attached to King of Tokyo definitely raised an eyebrow or two when perusing the shelves at Hypermind this past week, but little more than that.

  2. Keith

    About the Acute Care play testing – “they totally broke it apart, had their way with it, and left it broken and bleeding in the street” – what acute rating does that work out to?

  3. Chris Norwood

    It was around an acuity of 5.5… near-’bout dead!

  4. Keith

    Since the game is cooperative it can be played solo which means I could run some playtests on my own. I would like to do that. Would you be willing to get to me the source files I need to create a playtest set?

  5. Chris Norwood

    That sounds great, Keith!  Since I already know that the current version is broken in several ways, let me make some changes and I’ll get v.1.1 to you as soon as I can.

  6. Keith

    Cool! Play test record sheet created (check your email).


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