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MeepleCon 2016 – a Games vs Play Wrap

MeepleCon 2016 – a Games vs Play Wrap

This year MeepleCon was held over three big days from Friday 9 to Sunday 11 December at the Darebin Arts and Entertainment Centre in sunny downtown Preston, Melbourne. The Games vs Play crew attended in force this year. Marianne, Peter, Falk, David and myself all went down to roll some dice and move some meeples over the weekend, and while we were at it tick off some more games on our two active Challenges of “50 Games in 50 Weeks” and “Around the World in 80 Games.”

I must confess straight up that there are two main reasons why I love going to MeepleCon:

  • It’s one of the best grassroots boardgames conventions around
  • MeepleCon is held only 10 minutes down the road from where I live (which means I can ride my bike there and not worry about parking)

Of course if MeepleCon were held further away from my house I’d still go. There are many measures of the success of a convention, but surely attendance is a key indicator. To paraphrase Lenin’s famous quote about voting with your feet, gamers vote with their bums. Er, by sitting on them, at tables, while playing games I mean … actually, this metaphor hasn’t quite turned out the way I hoped it would, but I think you know what I mean.

The venue at the Darebin Arts and Entertainment Centre is well suited to a games convention. The large hall of the Grevillea Room housed the majority of the tables plus the games library, which was represented by the combined resources of the Melbourne Meeples, OzBunnyCon and the “Hot Games” from PAX Australia. In addition a further three smaller rooms at the back of the convention centre offered quieter environments for people playing longer games requiring more concentration. MeepleCon’s main sponsor for 2016, Gatekeeper Games, and the regular feature of Designer Alley, where games designers can demo their games, also had stalls in these rooms.

So, this was a fantastic set up for a weekend of boardgaming, with plenty of space, plenty of games and plenty of gamers to play with. Another factor worth mentioning about MeepleCon is the price. A single day pass is a very affordable $15AUD, while a full weekend pass came in at only $30. Compare this with PAX Australia, where a general admission 1-day pass will put you back $65 and a weekend pass $150. This comparison is a little unfair to MeepleCon, of course. PAX is a juggernaut, and includes panels and exhibitors from among the the world’s major games companies. But if all you’re after is spending a weekend playing boardgames, then a local but well-attended convention with a smaller price tag (and shorter queues!) like MeepleCon is probably a better bet.

img_3069A few days after the convention I was talking with Mathew Utting, the main organiser behind MeepleCon (pictured on the left standing next to some bearded weirdo). According to Mathew, attendance numbers on Saturday – always the busiest day of MeepleCon – rose from 200 in 2015 to 300 this year, the capacity for the venue. This is an impressive upwards trend when you consider that only three years ago, when MeepleCon first ran in 2013, the Saturday attendance was around 60.

MeepleCon’s success is based almost entirely on the grassroots commitment of its organising committee, so I’ll just tip my hat and say well done to Mathew, Sharon, Kerrin and all the others at Melbourne Meeples for putting on another top rate convention. There are more of you involved I know, but I have yet to meet you all! I think it’s pretty safe to say that Games vs Play will definitely be back for MeepleCon 2017.

And now to the games. For each convention the Games vs Play crew attend I like to give a little review of some of the stand out games. Let’s start by turning back the clock to Ancient Egypt and see where it takes us.

Imhotep (Kosmos, 2016)

img_3061First up was Imhotep, an Egyptian-themed Eurogame in which players vie to build the most splendid pyramid, obelisk or burial chamber for their pharaoh. Each round gives players the choice of a number of actions including quarrying more stone for their building works, loading stone onto riverboats, docking the boats at the various building sites or picking up an Action card.

There’s a logical system to all this, which if you can see ahead far enough into the game will give you a shot at maximising your chances to win. The only problem is that your pesky opponents will be trying to do the same, and all it takes to mess up your plans is for one obstructionist player to sail a carefully laden boat to the wrong location … um, this is something I may have done, but just the once. Ok, twice.

Imhotep himself was a semi-legendary figure who among other things has been credited with designing the first ever pyramid (at Saqqara in Egypt), the first use of stone columns to hold up a building, and the first use of Instagram to post photos of his cat (ok not this last thing). What he has to with the game Imhotep other giving it its name wasn’t entirely clear to me, but then this is a Eurogame, and so the Egyptian theme – impressively done as it is – is essentially flavour text and ornamentation.

I have to be honest and say that these kind of strategy Eurogames are not always among my favourites. To my taste they’re a little too much like a puzzle that need solving, and the relatively indirect player interaction can sometimes feels lacking in drama. However these are exactly the qualities of classic Eurogames that recommend them to their many fans. Among our playing group here at Games vs Play I’m a bit of a dissenting voice when it comes to Eurogames, and certainly I saw multiple copies of Imhotep being played simultaneously at other tables during the con. So I’ll try to channel the shade of legendary and sadly departed film critic Roger Ebert, who believed that movies should be judged relative to their prospective audience’s expectations,  and say that if you already happen to like the Eurogame style of play more than, say, Ameritrash or grognardian roleplaying gamesImhotep will not disappoint.

King of New York (IELLO, 2014)

img_3063King of New York is the follow up to the wildly successful King of Tokyo. Like its older sibling, King of New York is a kaiju-themed bash-up in which players pit their Godzilla-style monsters against each other in a contest to be the first to reach 20 victory points.

It’s a fast moving, dice-heavy game that relies more on rapid tactical decisions than a long game strategy. Having only played it this one time, I would say that what strategy does exist in King of New York probably lies in choosing the right time for your monster to occupy Manhattan, the prize of the Five Boroughs. While in Manhattan monster can accumulate victory points and energy points (needed to purchase special abilities cards) at a much faster rate than they can in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island or the Bronx. However, monsters inside Manhattan are also far more vulnerable to attack from the other players (plus the tanks and jets of the US armed forces), making it a tricky balancing act to know when and how long to stay on the island.

I really enjoyed this game. It’s got enough elements taken from tactical miniature games to satisfy my penchant for an immersive simulation experience, while still managing to avoid overly complex rules and a reliance on crunching numbers. On top of it the design of the game is fun and colourful, especially the cartoonish monsters who play well to the kaiju theme of King of New York.

Codenames (Czech Games Edition, 2015)

Essentially, Codenames is a word association game. Two teams – red vs blue – take turns to try to identify which of their coloured cards lie hidden beneath cards bearing random words. Each team has a clue giver, who attempts to think up single word clues that link one or more of the word-cards concealing their team’s colour-cards. For example, the blue team clue-giver could use the clue “federal” to link two word-cards “state” and “capital” underneath which two blue cards are hiding.

Falk and David had left by this stage of the evening, so Peter, Marianne and myself joined forces with Tristan, Cait, Phong, Tung and Tim to form two teams of four. I’d never played the role of clue-giver before, so I put my hand up to go first for our team. It’s quite a different experience being clue-giver compared to clue-guesser. Codenames is one of those so-called “party games” with deceptively simple, easy to pick up rules that the more you play, the more you realise the game conceals hidden depths. I found I didn’t have any real trouble thinking up of word associations, and my fellow teammates (Tristan, Marianne and Peter) were easily “cluey” enough (see what I did there?) to guess everything I sent their way. But of course it’s more complicated than just getting the clues right! As clue-giver you need to make sure you stay ahead of the other team, which means taking calculated risks by stretching the word associations to breaking point.

But even if you’re ahead you still have to anticipate the last-ditch tactics that a team that’s fallen behind can use to turn a game around. As a game reaches its finale, for instance, even if a team can’t guess their current clue they can still choose to randomly pick one of the last remaining word-cards on the table and trust to the increased odds of it being the correct one. This was exactly the manoeuvre that won the game for our opponents when they were one card down in the final round. I’ll remember to use this myself next time!

Don’t Mess with Cthulhu (IELLO, 2014)

img_3072Well, no – you don’t mess with Old Squidface, not unless you already have less than 10 Sanity points and are looking to fail another roll (apologies for that gratuitous Call of Cthulhu reference). However, this hidden traitor(s) card game of social deduction certainly does encourage you to mess with your fellow players. Which is of course a heap of fun.

This is not a complicated or especially strategic game, but it’s one that you can easily play over and over. It ended up being my last game for Saturday night. After Marianne and Peter went home I joined a large group playing Don’t Mess with Cthulhu that fluctuated between 7 to 10 players, many of who’d already been playing the game for a while. My intention had been to give the game a couple of rounds before donning my bike helmet and reflector jacket and cycling home, but over two and half hours later it was nearly 1am and we were still playing, with the threat of the convention centre staff turning off the lights on us becoming suddenly very real.

Don’t Mess with Cthulhu can carry anywhere from 4 to 10 players, though 5-8 is probably the best range to bring out the strengths of the game. In an 8-player game there will be 5-6 “investigators” and 2-3 “cultists”, none of whose identities are known to each other at the start of the game. Over the course of 4 rounds the investigators, who by definition are good guys, are working to uncover a number of cards (equal to the total number of players) which depict the powerful protective sigil known as the “Elder Sign.” Cthulhu fans will note that the design used for the Elder Sign in this game is the original “leafy” one by Lovecraft rather than August Derleth’s pentagram and burning eye (as featured in the Elder Sign boardgame).

Opposing them are the cultists, who, let’s face it, are always bad guys. Their objective is to either prevent the investigators from uncovering all the Elder Signs by the end of the game, or to reveal the single “Cthulhu” card hidden in the deck, resulting in an immediate win for Team R’lyeh (and total apocalypse for everyone else, presumably). The order of play is quite straightforward. The start player chooses to reveal the card of another player, which is then played into the centre of the table. The player whose card has just been played now chooses the card of another player, and this repeats until either 8 cards have been played (for an 8-player game) thus ending the round, or until Cthulhu is revealed. The only constraint is that the current player must always play forwards, and can’t pass back directly to the person who just chose them.

The tricky thing – and the real fun of the game – is deciding who to trust when it comes to choosing cards to reveal. For although a player might be an old friend who’s telling you they’re a fellow investigator with 3 Elder Signs in their hand, they might in fact be a cultist with no Elder Signs and one big, tentacley Cthulhu. Players have to resort to a mixture of bluff, deduction and sometimes blind faith to work out who’s on their side.

img_3071In the two-and-half hours we must’ve played somewhere between 8-12 games. Some games finished very quickly with an early win to the cultists finding Cthulhu in the first round, while others became incredibly tense stand-offs in which nobody could be sure exactly who to trust. It seemed that larger groups of 6+ players tended to slightly favour the investigators, who by dint of being in greater numbers could develop a winning strategy by simply keeping the turn of play among known “good guys” and isolating any suspected cultists. But even then a wily and deceptive cultist can stand a chance of derailing the game and winning it for their awful dreaming deity.

I really enjoyed this game. If you like social deduction games like The Resistance I imagine you’ll probably like Don’t Mess with Cthulhu. Just be aware that this is a very social game. You really need 5 or more players to make it work. I would think that even 4 players, where there would be only 1 cultist, might be too small. And finally it’s worth noting that this is also a very accessible game for people with low vision or who have difficulty reading, as it relies on absolutely no in-game text or numbers while the designs for the various types of cards are colour coded and easily differentiated from each other.


MeepleCon 2016 logo courtesy of Melbourne Meeples. All other images copyright Games vs Play.

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About Martin

Martin is a writer and blogger based in Melbourne, Australia. You can read more about Martin by clicking here.