Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Morgan Dontanville Returns

Pub Life
By Morgan Dontanville

Here’s Egg in Your Face (Part II)
Or the Continuing Story of How I Fell in Love with Eggert-Spiele.

Flirting with Neuland
When I first read about Neuland I associated it only with the strange creature that was Essen’s Spiel ‘04. I had known that Spiel was a big convention that showcased a bunch of games, but for some reason it wasn’t until I actually went to it that I realized it is just a big trade show. The reason why my initial impression of Spiel is even relevant is that for some reason I thought that there was some sense of exclusivity to it, rather than the reality of what makes it special. It is the polar opposite. There are a ton of people there, many of whom are ‘randoms’ that just wander in on a Saturday because there is nothing else going on locally.

What was confusing for me was that I misunderstood the market. I had heard about rare games coming out at Essen, but as it is a Mecca for the masses, gamers in Europe flock there to buy special things. In my recent experiences with Essen there were multiple times where I’d sit at a table to game with locals. In small talk there is always a discussion about where everyone is from. When I’d tell people that I’m from America, they’d ask if I was working in the area for business. After revealing that I was there for the convention, the general reaction from most people was, “Really? You came all the way from America for this?” The reason that small print runs on games do well at Essen isn’t because there are a bunch of rabid buyers that pick up one of everything, but that there are just so many people there buying that even if you tap into a small percentage of the buying public, you are bound to make some healthy sales. If you print a small enough run you will be able to sell out and not have to worry about any inventory until next year.

Word trickled back from Essen about Neuland. At that time, I was solidly at a point where I understood the value of following designers and their methods but was just beginning to recognize the relevance of following publishers. This became sort of a parallel to my indie rock high school years when I first realized that the people that ran record labels had as much influence on the music that came out as the bands that made the music itself. Because of the lack of buzz on Eggert-Spiele’s Global Powers the year before, I had no context for Neuland. To me, there was no association to make. By 2004 Global Powers was all but forgotten, and Neuland seemed like it was a small indie game coming from an unknown publisher.

One of the great things about being a gamer is that there is a small percentage of people within the community who have deluded themselves into thinking that their opinion matters (as can be seen by the fact that I’m taking the time out to write this - how’s that for breaking the third wall). Because games are for the most part social and in order to play them we need others to participate, knowing what others like is important. So we look to others to tell us what they like. As a result, all the people who feel their voice is important enough to be heard become important.

As usual, I digress. Word got back from a number of these trusted people that this was a good game. Word also got back that the game is too heavy, too much of a brain burner, too prone to A/P, too chaotic, had too much downtime and could lock up. In addition to that, one thing that I knew for sure was that it was beginning to get too expensive, especially considering the feedback it was getting.

After hemming and hawing over whether or not to get the game it rapidly went out of circulation. In a very short time it became near impossible to get. It certainly ranked as a “try before you buy” game but no one I knew had a copy.

At that time, I was going through a backlash phase in gaming that bucked against the cold heartless designs that the euro format of gaming seemed to grind out. I was trying more new games than ever before, so of course stumbling upon games I didn’t like would be more frequent. I had a resource of multiple game collectors to tap into, as a result I played a number of average games that I’d never considered picking up.

I kept seeing an overwhelming amount of duplicated mechanics “with a twist” repasted with a “new” theme. This time it’s in Egypt instead of Renaissance Italy, this time it is in Renaissance Italy instead of Egypt.

One of the biggest pieces of feedback that I got from folks that talked about Neuland was that it was the best example of how heavy you can push a Euro and still remain entirely Euro. What is important for me, though, was hearing that this was pushing design to an extreme level. That meant this wasn’t going to be a bland family game that kowtowed to the masses. This had no desire to be SdJ material. The more negative feedback that I was reading from this, the more fascinated I was becoming with the game.

Doing more research, which at this point meant pressing one button and clicking the publisher link on the boardgamegeek, I realized that both Global Powers and Neuland were from the same company along with some other crazy games that I’d never heard of. The point at which I was resolved to buckle down and just buy the damn thing was the point where the likelihood of even finding it was absurd.

First Date
A friend of mine who is a trading fanatic ended up with a copy of Neuland. Without a doubt he loves to play games, but I think that most of all he loves the act of acquisition. The thrill of trading something rare for something else that he can manhandle far surpasses sitting down and actually playing it. As a grail collector he will often times trade games he’s never played just to get the next one in his possession. One may say that this is the old story of “The Dog and The Bone”, but the joy he gets out of pawing new games is real. Anyway, I knew that as soon as he got this I would have to get it played quickly otherwise it would be traded into the ether.

He didn’t seem all that interested in playing it - he was more concerned with the condition of the box - but he was kind enough to lend it to me with a promise that if I damaged it any more than its split corners I would have to buy it from him at what I considered an ungodly cost. Mortgaging my soul, I ended up walking home with a copy.

I think the level of patience that people have with others when it comes to lending out items is directly related to their memory. From experience we have all lent things out to people and eventually forgotten who we gave them to. I think we have an internal alarm clock that eventual gets set, measuring our own capacity to remember who has our stuff. The shorter our memory, the shorter the patience of the lender for fear they will forget again. Needless to say I was taking too long trying to get this on the table.

Finally, I brought it to a friend’s game day and found some hapless souls to move some pieces around with. If I had thought about it at the time, it was possibly the worst combination of people to try this with: one player, a wargamer that hates perfect information logistics games, a relative newbie who mostly plays Ameridice games (her favorite after playing a number of games still is Monopoly), and an intense eurogamer with an extreme case of A/P. Normally this would be a formula for failure, but they all strangely wanted to play Neuland. Two of the other gamers recognized that this might be their only opportunity, so they wanted to get in while they could and the other just liked hanging out with us (I have to give her props for having good taste).

After muddling through the rules we were off and running. I was surprised at how much conflict this had without anyone’s ability to directly attack each other. It turned out to be a very antagonistic game.

If you can move to strengthen your position and screw someone in the process the game have some really satisfying moments. You have to watch what other people’s goals are and push yourself to get first to the spots where others may block you out. Thematically, I felt it was very strong as the logic of what you are doing makes sense; shearing sheep for wool taking the wool someplace for clothing, etc.

Truly the most exciting thing about the game is the action point system. As usual in innovation, multiple people birth ideas simultaneously; both Neuland and Jenseits von Theben use the concept of taking any number of action points you need (to some limit of course) but then allowing people that take less to get more turns. In JvT actions are measured in time. With Neuland it is more abstract and actions are measured in work. In JvT there is a racing aspect to the game and timing when you will begin the race is where the game is. In Neuland there are workers that you need to maintain, to actually do their jobs you get them to a place and they have no real identity other than what they are currently doing. If you don’t keep them constantly moving they lose their identity, so there is a sense of urgency, as you have to move workers around turning something ephemeral into something concrete. I liken it to those crazy plate spinners who constantly have to run back and forth tending to each pole in order to prevent one of the plates from flying off and crashing to the floor.

By the end of the game the Ameridicer decided that she wasn’t going to win and did everything in her power to stop me from ending the game. She planted all her workers on the spots I needed and left me in the lurch. This essentially allowed another player the win. Call it kingmaker, if you will, but I made some moves earlier on in the game that buried her behind the curve. I have to say that the person who won played a more honest game. In a game that is this interactive… well, there is a saying in the music industry that is often bandied about: “It is important to remember who you are stepping over on the way up because they are the only ones to catch you on the way down.”

So, I think at the end of this I was the only one that really loved it. The eurogamer appreciated it, the wargamer saw its value but would certainly rather play something else and the Ameridicer decided that she was happy to play games with us (so status quo for her). We all agreed, though, that this seemed that it would be better with three players.

The owner of the game got his copy back in hand as “pristine” as he had lent it, and my soul was returned. Later that week he traded it away.

A year later, a friend of mine in Germany found a copy for me and hand delivered it. I skipped around and giggled like a little girl. It had become a holy grail. I had no problems paying the price to recoup his expenses.

Of course, my copy still remains unpunched. I’m trying to do something about that.

This actually wasn’t the first Eggert-Spiele game I’d played, but the second. By the time I’d gotten to Neuland I’d already gotten to first base, but this brutal beauty sealed the deal.

(End of Part II)
This will be the last post from sodaklady. I’ve had a great time being part of this wonderful blog group but my game time has all but disappeared for various reasons so coming up with something to say has become more like work than the fun it should be. I want to publicly thank Brian for including me in his dream of a group blog, and thank all you readers who have taken the time to make comments. It’s been such a lot of fun and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.



Anonymous said...

Oh, no! I'll miss your contributions here, Mary. I completely understand, though. I have trouble working in playing games in my busy life right now, too. That makes it hard to think of something worthwhile to write. I enjoy your other blog as well and hope you keep posting there when you can. :-)

-Susan Rozmiarek

Melissa said...

We'll miss you, Mary.

Coldfoot said...

You will be missed.

I know it is a hard decision to quit, but life has a way of side tracking our master plan to play, write, and sleep.

huzonfirst said...

Noooooo! Not Mary! What will we do without you?

You will be missed. Don't be a stranger!

SodakLady said...

Thanks, everyone. It's always nice to hear you'll be missed. :)

If I find something interesting AND original to write about, I'll definitely be posting it here. Until then, the usual, dry, day-to-day crap will still find its way onto my personal blog.