Saturday, June 17, 2006

An old flame rekindled

I fell in love last weekend.

With an old flame I thought I was completely over. Let's call him Bob.

It's nothing Fraser need worry about, though.

Bob won't reciprocate my love, won't whisk me off to some sunny climate with a swim-up cocktail bar and give me massages that curl my toes. The most I can hope for is long evenings with a bottle of wine, my thoughts consumed with my latest encounter with Bob. What could I have done differently, could I have been more giving? Was I a pushover - was I too coy? When will we meet again - and will I score?

Let's take a step back, and set the scene. Last Friday night, we drove three hours north to Albury, for the first ever Australian Games Expo. No-one was really sure what to expect, but we were pretty excited. Is this the first ever games convention to have a banner over the main street of the town it was held in? Dean Street, Albury, with the banner across it

I'm guessing it is probably the first ever games convention that was launched with a Mayoral Reception - drinks and finger food put on by the city council, with Mayor, councillors, senior staff and invited special guests.

Definitely a nice start to the weekend.

I was impressed with the enthusiasm of the (non-gaming) council mayor and staff for the event and for its potential. "This has got legs," I heard several times - I gather Albury's council were instrumental in supporting the expo and getting it off the ground. It was great to see both the Mayor and a couple of staff members wandering around the Expo over the weekend, taking in the atmosphere and seeing what the vendors had to offer.

The three evenings we were in Albury were filled with social gaming - on Friday night at our hotel, and on Saturday and Sunday nights at the local Border Games club's clubrooms. While it was pretty quiet there on Sunday, I think there were probably around fifty or sixty people there on Saturday night - we were perching gingerly on the children's chairs while we played.

The Expo itself was - well, to call it busy is an understatement. As well as eighteen retail or wholesale displays and a sizable open gaming area, there was a room set aside for the inaugural Australian Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan tournaments. While many of us competed in both of these, others chose to only play one or even just visit the Expo for the open gaming. As far as I know, this was also the first Eurogaming convention in Australia - other conventions have had Eurogames played, but this was the first to focus specifically on them. The estimate I heard was that over a thousand people came through the doors, in addition to the various tournament players. Impressively, many of these were families with children of all ages - and many left with bags of games.

The open gaming area was definitely a huge hit. Originally, this had been intended as a side part of the event, but it was expanded as the organisers responded to feedback from gamers. It wasn't just the gamers who were playing, though - it was the public too. Whether from a retailer, a wholesaler or a potential player, the call would go up - "Can someone teach this?" - and more often than not, there would be an eager response and the game would start up. A large game collection supplied by Border Games and some of the exhibitors helped to keep this area buzzing.

The Open Gaming Area - early on Saturday, the less busy day

The exhibitors area was a bit more hit-and-miss, especially as no-one knew quite what to expect from the weekend. There was representation from game importers and wholesalers, game groups including a children's chess organisation and the Australian Poker League, a game inventor (who also invented a walk-in bathtub ... this fascinated me all weekend, but not as much as the proof - in the form of the young man helping at his stall - that he has in fact perfected the science of human cloning) and four game retailers including two internet suppliers. After dissatisfaction at other events over one local business's deep discounting, there was agreement that there would be no discounting at the event, and that games would only be for sale from the retailers and not from the distributors. As a gamer, I have to say that this seemed pretty poor to me. With club memberships, we are entitled to discounts from local game shops, so there was no real incentive for us to buy while we were in Albury, other than to save on postage for orders from interstate. I know that other gamers were commenting the same, and this may have led to some disappointing sales at the 'hobby' end of the market. There is still a very real incentive to order games online, especially from overseas, and a small discount might have encouraged people to spend more freely while they were away.

the stand from Ken Howard-dot-com

The other thing that I found disappointing, which is really a perennial problem, was the range of games - especially newer games - that was, or rather wasn't, available. Caylus is barely available here, and we have finally tracked down a copy of the Italy-France map for Power Grid, but many of last year's Essen and this year's N├╝rnberg games simply have not made it to Australia yet. I'm keen to get a copy of TechnoWitches and to try out many of the newer releases including Thurn und Taxis (in real life, rather than online), MauerBauer (Masons) and Cleopatra and the Society of Architects. After this year's success, maybe some of the international players may consider sending some representation to the Expo in future, bringing some of their newer games here before we would normally expect to see them. I know that that would be a real drawcard for many of us.

Kudos here must be given to new company All Games Distribution who are importing a great range of titles, including some great card games like 6 nimmt! and Geschenkt which have not been available locally in the past. The pride of their offerings this Expo was surely the only 'new' game to be featured, Magicians' Night (Die Nacht der Magier), the glow-in-the-dark dexterity game that seems to be the favourite for this year's Kinderspiel des Jahres award. We gave it a whirl on Saturday night at the games club and it is a very good game indeed, although the $97 price tag feels a bit steep.

The two tournaments - Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan - ran all day Saturday and for most of Sunday. The format was a 4-round Swiss tournament (with winners playing winners and losers playing losers); the top 16 players in each tournament went on to the four semi-finals, and the winner of each semi-final went into the final, playing for the fantastic prizes of (1) a trip to Essen, with 5 nights' accommodation; (2) a 3D Settlers chest; and (3) a Teuber-signed copy of Cities and Knights of Catan or Seafarers of Catan. Enrolments, while they didn't reach the initial target of 64 in each tournament, were very healthy - 52 in Settlers, I think, and around 45 in Carcassonne. The word was that Spielezentrum Herne were very impressed with those numbers - I expect them to be larger next year.

I entered both tournaments and, I have to confess, I was dreading it. Neither Settlers nor Carcassonne has been a favourite of mine for a long time, and I felt I was committed to a couple of days of purgatory, just to keep tournament enrolments high. In fact, playing in the tournaments was a delight - I had only pleasant opponents, and the addition of a "Best and Fairest" prize (with attendant voting for the nicest opponent) was a great move. Congratulations to Best and Fairest winners Phoebe and Damien. I've written about my games played in a GeekList, so I won't go into details of those experiences here.

The tournament room

There were some hiccoughs in the tournament process, which will be ironed out by next year I am sure. Eligibility for the Settlers final was calculated first on number of wins, then on Victory Points, with ties broken by percentage of overall score. The draw, however, was generated strictly on Victory Points - which meant that it was possible for players who spent the tournament playing at the top tables to not actually qualify for the semifinal, despite being among the top 16 VP earners. I don't have a quibble with the win-VP-percentage system, but I do think that it should have been applied to the draw as well as to finalist selection.

Scoring for Carcassonne was calculated quite differently, and I think that this was not a meaningful scoring system. Players were ranked and qualified for semifinals based on their raw scores over their four games. Astute tournament players (of which I was not one, so this may all be a big case of sour grapes) quickly realised that the only way to play was co-operatively, and so they worked together to build bigger and bigger cities, with scores of 120 or more being relatively common. To give an idea of how this may have affected results, I was sitting equal sixteenth before the final round, in which I won my (seeded) game with 84 VP, but I failed to qualify in the top sixteen for the semifinals. Where the Settlers scoring gave rise to some anomalies, I really feel that this system in Carcassonne skewed the results and did not give a clear picture of the players' relative performance. Next time, use percentages of total score for a game, rather than raw scores.

I understand that there is some discussion about what games to run tournaments in next year. While I support the push for variety, I think it is great that Australia will have representation at the world championships this year. My vote, therefore, goes to repeating one of this year's tournaments (preferably Settlers) and maybe introducing a new game next year. Based on my current BSW stats, I'd vote for Thurn und Taxis out of pure self-interest - although there was some discussion of an auction game like Ra.

Organiser Phil Davies congratulats Australian Settlers Champion Dennis Bodman

The tournaments really took it out of me, though. By the time I'd played three games each of Settlers and Carcassonne on Saturday, then the final qualifying rounds and a Settlers semi-final on Sunday, I was too tired to do anything much at all. Next year, I'd like to see the event extended to a third day - whether an 'official' third day at the expo centre or a third day of open gaming at some other venue. My preference would be to extend the event, because I didn't really get a good chance to check out the vendors and explore the games that they brought to play - and also because I wanted to have more time to catch up with old and new gaming friends. Make it a short day, finishing at 2 - we all have to get home - but take advantage of the long Queen's Birthday weekend and give us more time to play and enjoy.

Overall impressions?
Top marks to Phil Davies of Mind Games Albury, his team of assistants, the sponsors, and the City of Albury for making this event happen. We re-booked our hotel before we left for home - we will be there next year. I see this event as having real potential not just as a drawcard for gamers in Australia but as a regional event as well - maybe some of our Malaysian, Singaporean and of course New Zealand neighbours might consider joining us next year or in the future.

And Bob?

The Settlers of Catan, of course. I've grizzled and grouched about playing it, pitched and moaned at the idea of the tournament - and now I can't wait to play it again.

May your armies be large, your roads long, and your rolls productive. I'll see you in Albury next June.



Fraser said...

Daughter the Elder will be thrilled that Bob is back on the scene.

She is the one who has often suggested we play Settlers of Catan at home. I am usually willing for a game, Daughter the Younger is still too young, so Melissa has been the decider - however until the re-appearance of Bob she has usually voted "Nay".

I think she will be quite happy that Bob is back and she gets to try her ports and cities strategy out on us more often :-)

Doug said...

Nice recap Melissa. I agree with your thoughts on Carcassonne - that's about the only wrinkle I spotted all weekend. Looking forwards to returning next year.

Gerald McD said...

What a great event, and your report was excellent. I think that's quite amazing, to have a mayor and city council sponsoring a gaming weekend, banner and all. Sounds like you had a neat time.

Oh yes, I know Bob -- he and I are good friends.