Another excellent trip has just finished: almost two weeks in the USA to see my beloved Meg. This trip was really built around Meg moving house, with all its attendant packing and transportation. A lot of the time I tended to keep out of the way and only help when Meg asked me to, but it worked well. The whole moving process was as stressful as ever, complicated slightly by having to take Meg's cat bella with us, but on balance it wasn't too much to cope with. If between us we can get through moving house and dealing with the death of my mother, it doesn't get too much worse than that, does it?
We ate considerable quantities of excellent food in Boston and rather more in Georgia, staying in another (larger but marginally less cool) room in Ashford Manor. Lots of action and activity and not as much time to relax and just, really, hang out with each other as we'd like, but that's usually the way. Same again next time when we'll be there for The Witching Hour. My next trip is less than ten weeks away and there are things to look forward to in that time, but I miss Meg massively already. The company was excellent; it was tremendous to see a number of lovely folk again and I look forward to seeing many more next time.
The trip back was very easy but predictably sad. We nearly managed to get an unexpected extra two hours together (and $200 travel credit!) at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport when Delta had to take people off their plane between Atlanta and New York JFK, but my onward flight from JFK back to London would have made things tricky. Not impossible, but certainly tricky, and potentially rather worrying if my luggage went to JFK as planned even though I had been diverted to Newark. However, it could have been much more sad still for both of us than it was, because we both knew that Meg had a trip to see fun folk in Houston and I was off to Manorcon immediately afterwards, sugar after the bitter pill of parting.
Now I'm going to describe Manorcon in much more detail than my time with Meg, but that's because there's more to write about, Manorcon is a public event and much of the happiness Meg and I share is rather private. If I had to choose between the two it would be Meg every time, obviously, as demonstrated last year when choosing Paris with Meg over Manorcon (and Nimbus - 2003 over Manorcon the year before, too, after eight consecutive Manorcons). If I can't be with my best friend, being with a number of my not-far-behind friends who I hadn't seen for a long time is as good as inferior alternatives get.
Manorcon is an annual board game convention held at Birmingham University, originally at the titular Manor Hall when it started in 1983. It was originally heavily oriented around the Diplomacy board game, hosting the World Diplomacy Championship in 1988 and 2004, but offline Diplomacy is rather waning in the UK these days. (We hear it's flourishing in Germany after years of being a sideline interest.) How is online Diplomacy doing? It was really surging in about 2000 to 2002, with hugely impressive 600-player tournaments, but I stopped paying attention to it when I stopped reading USENET and started following LiveJournal instead.
Manorcon's major Diplomacy claim to fame is the annual team tournament contested between teams of seven; there are seven players in each game of Diplomacy, one representing each of the seven Great Powers of 1900 (Austria-Hungary, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Turkey) and the team tournament works by ensuring players from the same team cannot meet, so you will get Austria from team 1, England from team 2, France from team 3 and so on to Turkey from team 7 on one board; Austria from team 2, England from team 3, France from team 4 and so forth on board two and so on. A team's result is calculated by adding together the results of its seven individual members. This year, there were only 5 teams of 7, after years of dropping as low as eight teams, which rather scuppered the team tournament; instead, they had teams of three, which rather weakens the team concept. I doubt Diplomacy will ever be popular enough to feature teams of seven again and will diminish in popularity here further.
That said, overall Manorcon attendance is pretty stable between 200 and 300, making it by far the biggest general modern board games convention in the UK. (I think I saw one RPG, but they are pretty rare at Manorcon.) I played a good number of games including (but, as I've probably missed some, not limited to) the following:
Puerto Rico is generally regarded as the last great hit-out-of-the-ballpark modern board game, though it's a couple of years old now. Players develop settlements and plantations on fictional unspecified Carribean islands, attempting to score points and money by producing and selling corn, sugar, coffee and the like. It takes about 90 minutes to play, or slightly longer with five players, inexperienced players or slow players. 60-90 minutes is regarded as the sweet spot for modern board games these days - after 90 minutes, people often tend to start to lose patience and there's got to be good reason for the game to be so long, when there are so many other good short games to play. I'm not one of its biggest fans, but I definitely appreciate it's brilliantly well-designed.
I had two five-player games; in the first, as first corn player, I followed a very simple corn-shipping strategy which the others were not sufficiently able to block and so managed to sneak the win. In the second, I was again first corn player but the second indigo player (jon_culver!) went for the corn strategy, so I went for building instead. In a game that ended due to all the VPs going (in fact, in the same turn as someone filled their island and we loaded 22 colonists onto the ship to leave just one left, so almost finishing the game all three ways in the same turn!) I produced far too little and only shipped 12 VPs' worth, so finished last. jvvw won!
(There's a fair bit of Puerto Rico strategy out there and I've been meaning to post that link for some time.)
Modern Art is a 75-minute bidding game about selling paintings for as much money as possible and about buying paintings that turn out to be valuable, as calculated by the pattern of painting sales. It features different styles of auction for variety, one of which will tend to advantage the player on the auctioneer's left, another of which will tend to advantage the player on the auctioneer's right. For me, it's one of a small number of 10/10 games, but only because board game reviews (as far as they award numeric scores at all) traditionally prefer 1-10 eatings to going down the computer magazine route and declaring a game worth 97%. All five artists were in the money in the first two rounds and I made a last-round error in trying to push out a Lite Metal which had won two rounds already; nobody believed me that it was going to come third and be worth 70k, and it didn't. Still managed to sneak the win, though.
We played Modern Art after playtesting a game for a designer who was there for the day. It's a bidding game with some nice features, but had one particular action which was considerably more powerful than the others by offering no risk at all to the player who chose to do it and hurting the player who was chosen to receive the action. We worked out a simple, thematically acceptable fix for this and suggested a few other tweaks as well. It's still fairly random and could do with more variety within game, but it's far from awful and I'd certainly play it again. (I do think the designer didn't really know what she was getting herself into, though, and found the Manorcon audience rather a culture shock...)
Viva Il Re! (Long Live The King!) is a voting game played over your preferred number of rounds, each round lasting between 30 seconds and 10 minutes. (We played about six.) There are 13 characters who are placed in various parts of a castle; the more senior a position each character is placed in, the more points they stand to score. Each player has a card listing 6 of the 13 characters (a new card each round) and aims to promote those six characters to as high a status as possible when a new king is declared.
On your turn, you may either promote a character one level on the board, or attempt to promote a character at the top level to be king. If you attempt to crown a new king, all the players get to vote on whether to accept the new king or not; yes votes are unlimited, but vetoes are limited to two per player per round. A vetoed king is beheaded and scores zero for the round! When there is finally a proposed king who escapes veto, each player scores points according to the fate of each of the six characters on their card. Fast, silly, fun, lots of guesswork as to whether people will veto royal appointments or not. A huge final round (30 points out of a theoretical 32, but the highest anyone else scored all game was 26, and 22 was a pretty good score) saw me catch up to second of five players.
Coloretto is a quick card-collecting game where players build up collections of cards in some or all of seven colours. Ideally you want to collect as many as possible in three colours and as few as possible - ideally, none - of the other four, but other players may make your choices rather more painful. Quick and neat. (A strategy of collecting all seven colours and getting enough in the good colours to outweigh taking relatively many in the bad colours won.)
Magellan (known in the US as Pizarro and Company) is a bidding game where you attempt to gain influence in the expeditions of some or all of six explorers. The more influential you are to each one, the greater the reward you stand to gain. Each explorer has a different level of return, both in terms of points and in terms of offering greater ability to make later bids. We played with five I managed to sail all three ships for Christopher Columbus (for - I think - 9, 9 and 14) and managed to take my single Magellan ship all the way to the blackjack-like endgame. (Perhaps it wasn't Magellan? It was the one with the don't-break-20 endgame.) I won, even beating the player who had all three James Cooks for an easy 35 victory points.
There was lots and lots of lovely Liar's Dice, played with our Perudo / Liar's Dice hybrid rules. This is a bidding and bluffing game where each player has information about what the dice are under their own cup and attempts to bid about what the dice are under all the cups together in the game. The Oxford crowd tend to play pretty recklessly, myself firmly included, and I tend to do pretty well against them. (Pretty poorly against everyone else, though, and it's just not as much fun to rein my game in.) There's much the same sort of fun here as in poker, but without all the inconvenient money side of things. This still needs to be taped with under-the-table cameras some day, too.
Outpost is an accumulation position-development game where sci-fi colonies produce ore, water, titanium and eventually attempt to build space ships and establish bases on other moons. It's rather slow, though - we played it with seven and were being fairly quick to finish it in about three hours. (I like the way someone put it: "there's a good 90-minute game in there, though it was produced at a time when longer games were acceptable, which is why it's so long.") It's also arithmetic-heavy and accountancy-heavy as your factories produce currency in all sorts of different denominations, plus you need to plan your spending carefully as certain things can only be bought with some types of card and there's never change made in the game if you overpay. I got off to a very fortunate start, building a water factory and a man straight away and another water factory the next turn and was very fortunate on the final turn that two big-point moon bases became available when I was the second richest player. A lucky win.
The Chairman's Game saw an outing most nights. It's part card game, part hazing ritual, lying on the little-known Fan Tan-to-Calvinball axis, but well-constrained enough that it is a legitimate game. We used an assortment of decks of cards of various sizes - including the positively ludicrous Play Your Cards Right (Card Sharks) style chunky deck and a hard-to-find Fat Pack incorporating not just the usual four suits but also roses, doves, axes and tridents for your Cripple Mr. Onion pleasure. It was a silly game, even by our high standards of silliness, there was singing (*) and there was an excuse to penalise someone for violating quantum physics. It wanted for very little.
(*) Meg, please could you explain the "This is the Jackal" reference from West Wing to me? Thanks.
Sunday's big event was the Treasure Hunt, which attempts to be the MIT Mystery Hunt, or the Tropic Hunt, filtered down into about 2½ hours for a team of 4-6. I lifted the idea for this from the US and ran hunts in 2001 (overrunning due to being too hard) and 2002 (underrunning due to being too easy). The tradition continued without me in 2003 (ran by Chris Boote and company) and 2004 (ran by Michael Colao and company). Accordingly, this was the first time I had actually got to play in one of the damn things at Manorcon. As is semi-traditional, the previous year's winners were running the hunt: a crowd from Oxford, including Richard Huzzey who once found this weblog while searching for Michael Colao and might well do so again. Hello, Richard!
The theme was loosely based on the obscure Omega Virus Milton Bradley electronic board game from 1982: a computer virus is trying to take over the world, starting with the computer network at Birmingham University, and it was up to the teams (seven teams of 4-6 players, though one had 7) to solve puzzles to obtain one of three programs which would be able to disassemble the virus - and, from there, construct an antidote to stop the virus. It may be helpful to know that one of this year's organisers works for the Sophos anti-software virus company. I was on a team with jvvw and jon_culver, who I know as treasure hunt veterans, plus Philip Gardner (another Oxford type who made a couple of fantastic lateral leaps). An Oxford father and son also signed up for our team originally, but both managed to be playing games when it came to the time for the hunt to start, so instead we picked up Kevin O'Sullivan as a fifth teammate.
The format of the hunt was entirely sound. There were three parallel rounds, each containing eight puzzles, all distributed at the start. Solve at least five of them and submit their numerical answers on your team's answer sheet for that round. Submitting at least five correct answers earned you the super-puzzle for that round. Submitting answers and fewer than five being correct, or submitting an incorrect super-puzzle answer, prohibited you from submitting any answers at all for the next five minutes, a mechanic which worked well in practice. Solving two of the three super-puzzles earned you the endgame puzzle. The endgame puzzle was worth so many points (12 to the first solvers, 10 to second, 8 to all other solvers) compared to the other puzzles (5 for a super-puzzle, 1 for a regular puzzle) that it decided the fate of the hunt. I'm a little unsure of hunt scoring schemes - I like there to be a definite destination that one or more teams win(s) by reaching rather than a scoring scheme because it produces a more satisfying conclusion in my view, but I can definitely see the wisdom behind scoring systems.
The puzzles were largely very sound and frequently excellent, too. 23 of the 24 normal puzzles were solved by at least one team, indicating their difficulty was generally pitched correctly. I think all the teams earned at least one super-puzzle and only one team needed much encouragement and pointing in the right direction to get that far. Unfortunately the super-puzzles proved harder than intended, with two of the three going unsolved altogether; accordingly, the hunt was extended from 2 hours 30 to 2 hours 50 and the endgame was awarded for only one correct super-puzzle answer.
The variety of the normal puzzles was commendable. Music trivia, inductive logic, movie trivia, deductive logic, a crossword (rather a jokey one, where you had to realise the clues were actually the words to fill in), a sudoku, a Minesweeper puzzle, three runarounds (one of which we failed to recognise as such), a Settlers of Catan puzzle, a Diplomacy code, a spelling game, a maze, a pun puzzle... all manner of good stuff, and a fair degree of it was pretty readily accessible even to less successful teams. It is hoped that all the puzzles will be published on a web site so you can see just how good they were. (Largely very good indeed.)
There was also this puzzle, which I attempt to recreate and highlight for being excellent and inventive but also for being out of place in the hunt on a more generally applicable point of principle.
THE TWILIGHT ZONE: Osterley + Bank + Seven Sisters - Hackney Central + Euston - Victoria = ? I lose the detail, but essentially it's a sum involving lots of London Underground stations, and the answer is a number (possibly written out as a word).
Answer: (highlight to reveal spoilers) We cracked this when one of the GMs inadvertently referred to this out loud as "the zone puzzle", rather than by its proper title. With exceptions, every London Underground station is associated with one numbered zone (some have two and some have lettered zones, but none of these were used in the puzzle). Simply convert each station to a zone number and perform the arithmetic to produce the answer. It's a lovely puzzle for an Internet hunt where teams can be expected to be able to research which station is in which zone, but this wasn't expected to be a possibility in this hunt.
We later learnt that this puzzle was meant to be a test of our resourcefulness; it was expected that nobody would have the appropriate information required to solve the puzzle with them, but that they would be able to find it from somewhere. Given that there legitimately was no Internet access at the university that weekend, we relied on asking the one person with a laptop out whether we could borrow it to get onto the Internet and get the information we needed. The laptop owner said that he only had a 9600 baud connection (! - about 0.2%-2% as fast as modern broadband) through his mobile phone, but he happened to have the data we were looking for on his computer already - not deliberately as a part of the hunt, but merely by happy accident. So we did solve the puzzle as intended, but it felt a little... fraudulent to solve.
I highlight this because Michael Colao told me in 2002 that he outright hated puzzles in fixed-location hunts where the information was not made available by the GMs within the game universe, as it turns the hunt into an Internet research exercise - effectively calling on everyone's Google skills, giving them infinite phone-a-friends and so forth. At the time, I thought his objection was a matter of personal preference; having been on the receiving end of such a puzzle (and even having solved it!) I firmly agree with him. There are many puzzles where it's not necessary to solve every single part of the puzzle to work out every single letter of the answer because you can backsolve for the missing gaps and that's excellent. but puzzles where you need to know every single piece of information referenced should be handled with great care.
The super-puzzles were less successful. The one that people got was a vocabulary puzzle - deciphering words each with two meanings. (Overall was clued by "comprehensive or smock", that sort of thing.) One of the others was a number crossword where the clues were the names of the numbers anagrammed out into alphabetical order. I said "oh, those look like anagrams" immediately upon seeing the puzzle, but we never pursued this approach simply because multi-word anagrams without much further clue are difficult and not much fun. Luckily for us, nobody else investigated this route either.
The third super-puzzle was a collection of four old-fashioned triangular grid logic problems where the answers from the first three let you solve the fourth, but we didn't get that one to try. (We didn't see that third super-puzzle - we managed to get four answers we were sure of among the green eight and just guessed lots of alternatives for the other four, being unable to solve them. The trouble is that one of our four answers that we thought was correct was wrong, so instead of having to guess one correctly, we had to guess two correctly, and we never did.)
The endgame was very fine. The final puzzle was a simple rhyme to decode into a phone number, made unnecessarily more difficult by my failure to correctly count the number of letter Es in a sentence. (Hurrah! One to the puzzle setter, there.) Calling the number revealed a funny answerphone message which led you to run 600 yards to the username required; running there and back and using one (not two as intended!) super-puzzle answers as a password produced the true endgame, "18 lines of source code", an unclued wordsearch with 18 answers, all of which were types of sauce. (Groan.) Anagramming the five unused letters produced the antidote.
Another team submitted an antidote before us, but they got the right letters and anagrammed them incorrectly to PHAAL, a type of exceptionally hot curry sauce. I think their answer was considerably funnier than the true one - easy to guess from the whole theme of the hunt, and there was debate among the GM team whether a not-inconceivable correct wild guess without deriving the answer correctly should earn credit - and it was very harsh on them that they were locked out for five minutes to let another team submit the correct antidote first. Earning 12 instead of 10 for submitting the first correct answer rather than the second proved to be decisive in the final point totals.
The winning team, with 33 points to the second-placed team's 32, was the one I was on - and of all the ways to win, few can be sweeter than discovering you've unexpectedly won when you had mentally pegged yourself in second or third place. We had all been giving it our best shot for the full two hours fifty minutes (originally two hours thirty, but extended because we were all struggling!), rushing around both mentally and physically like the metaphorical blue-bottomed flies, and learning that we were successful left me on a mind-rushing gaming high for, literally, the next six hours or so. This was identifiably my best gaming experience since at least April 2001 - another (different!) treasure hunt where we managed to scrape second against very tough competition indeed.
Many thanks to my teammates and apologies for dispensing with the traditional pleasantries and politenesses of everyday conduct when my attention was completely thrown into the game in a fashion that most games never reach. Many thanks, too, to the organisers; despite much of this report concentrating on the less positive aspects, mostly instructionally for future hunt writers, to write any hunt at all is a significant creative achievement for other people's pleasure and to write one with so much to enjoy and admire represents an excellent feat indeed.
I can be pleased with my contributions, on balance. Certainly I didn't solve the most puzzles or the hardest puzzles, but I was pleased with my sense of inutition (built up through exposure to so many different puzzles from so many different sources, I guess!) in being able to identify how to solve lots of different types. I also feel that the GMs were really very lenient to us at a number of crucial moments throughout the hunt and might possibly have been less lenient had we not been such close friends, though I can't say there was favouritism towards us because I don't know whether they were just as kind to the other teams - including the second-placed team full of members of our Oxford crowd. That second-placed team can certainly feel righteous for being pipped at the post at the very, very least.
The tradition states that one year's winners have the right, but not the obligation, to set the next year's hunt; I don't know whether my shift pattern will let me attend Manorcon next year or not - it's really 50-50 - but certainly I have a number of ideas that I think would work well and would like to see used. Watch this space, potential Manorcon attendees.
If you've enjoyed reading this report, you might wish to consider yourself as a potential Manorcon attendee for the future. Attending for the Treasure Hunt alone would be brave and represent significant confidence in the setters, but it's both the biggest and the best general modern board games con of its type in the UK and the people are generally friendly and welcoming towards teaching newcomers who don't know the games that are being played. The venue now has air conditioning, which it didn't do in previous years, and the catering has been upgraded somewhat. The supply of accommodation has been recently upgraded to en-suite student standard - bare, but sufficient. (The bed I had was lousy, though - far harder than I liked and I found it difficult to set my still-gaming racing mind to rest at nights so I could drop off to sleep.) Having your own little bathroom is a definite mini-luxury.
There's also the fact that it's in Burrrrrrming'm, a city that always seems to have a lot going for it (at least, if you're easily pleased like me). I was overjoyed to discover that the Dilshad Indian restaurant was still there and still served the best starter (Chicken Tikka Pathia Puri) and the best mango lassi I've had. (Even better still, we have learned that there is a chain of Dilshad restaurants! I have already enjoyed dreaming that one of them was close to home and yet to be discovered.) As is traditional and glorious, wayyy too much Indian food was ordered when we went out for a curry each night and too much of it was eaten.
Additionally, there was the traditional tremendously fun, tremendously bad singing on the way from con to curry and back; the usual staples (John Kettley is a Weatherman, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, My Boomerang Won't Come Back, Monty Python, Chas and Dave and the like) all made appearances; when Nick Parish declared that we had sung all we knew and an emergency song was required, a spectacular piece of improvisation on the part of Mr. Richard Huzzey invented the Emergency Song.
Emergency, emergency, e-e-emergency songto the tune of Auld Lang Syne, but perhaps you had to be there.
Emergency, emergency, e-e-emergency-y song
Emergency, emergency, e-e-emergency-y song
Emergency, emergency, e-e-emergency-y song
All told, it was a fantastic weekend and the best possible way I can imagine to erase the Meglessness blues. I saw dozens of people whose company I enjoy who I hadn't seen since the last games con I went to a couple of years back; happily, nothing had changed. Many of you may regard me as very quiet at group meals and the like, but this is merely out of shyness and a lack of confidence - at Manorcon, in the right company, I had all sorts to say. There can be few things better than to be back where you belong with friends you haven't seen for too long.
Unrelatedly, here's a jokey but legitimate puzzle, mostly intended for the twentysomethings out there. What continues the following sequence? ADVENTURE, ROMANCE, JOKES, DANCE, COMPUTER, AIR, PIANO, HAIR, THINGS, ???? (ETA: the answer falls out straight away using Google, so please don't use any search engines to crack this until, ooh, Wednesday or so and those who have done this from memory have had a go.)
All this and I hear that the new Harry Potter book is meant to be pretty good. I look forward to getting the chance to read it at some point...