Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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OxCon 2006 report

Hurrah, I'm in the USA again! I'm in Athens, GA with the lovely dezzikitty, who makes me smile just when I type her lj user tag, and will be so until the end of next week. Georgia folk, we must meet up!

However, I never did get around to writing about my trip to Oxford the weekend before last with attendant good company and good times. It seems that half of the good old Oxford University Diplomacy Society knows of the existence of this blog these days, which is more than welcome. The postal games 'zine has a long and glorious tradition, especially among the Diplomacy crowd, so I see no reason why this shouldn't continue through a mere medium change from the postal journal to the online journal. In short, it would be nice if some of you DipSoc Old Gits were to start posting to your journals too, but we're all busy people... :-)

No issues with the journey either way; while the nine-pounds-each-way offer meant that there were many more people taking advantage of National Express's coaches than usual and so double seats were at a premium, the hours passed uneventfully. Digbeth Coach Station is about as gloomy and unwelcoming as ever, though; weren't they going to replace it with something rather brighter and better-organised at some point? Anyway, so to Oxford, and a quick hour spent in the "mices" (shudder) Internet café catching up on how the world had changed during the duration of my trip.

I spent some time wandering around Oxford to see what had changed and was delighted to discover the existence of a useful alley that I believe I had never previously used - Bulwark's Lane, which goes around the outside of St. Peter's College. Had I known about it at the time (for I'm sure it can't be new) then I might have saved as much as three minutes on possibly as many as six occasions over my student life, but it's nice to see that Oxford retains its capacity to surprise. Or I retain my incapacity to spot, possibly.

Shortly before seven I caught up with zorac climbing the stairs to our agreed meeting point, Oxford's Laser Quest. Noting that it was originally a Megazone, there can't be too many laser game centres around the country which have survived at the same location for ten years or more. Testament to the power of an excellent location, I guess, attracting significant tourist business rather than attempting to cater to regular players. However, it quickly became evident there had been extensive remodelling going on. The large amusement arcade area had been replaced by some sort of virtual golf facility, and about a third of the arena had been replaced by what can best be described as a brightly-lit seating area. We recalled the advert where a dear old lady plaintively complains that "My bank has been turned into a trendy wine bar!" - accordingly. WINEBAR was my nom de guerre that day.

A good chat to catch up with lovely people for good conversation and recall games past. I enjoyed discussing the Oxford Guild of Assassins (the student Killer game) who hired out the arena so that twenty of us could play, each dressed to the nines as James Bond - full-on Black Tie. My reminiscence of the event concluded with a big smile and saying "It was very silly." Richard Huzzey commented that many of my sentences seemed to conclude that way. "Only the happy ones," I replied.

Anyway, Laser Quest was Laser Quest, and xorsyst won. We believe that he and his wife have a four-year unbeaten record in the annual DipSoc Laser Quest game, though Mrs. xorsyst wasn't playing due to happy reasons. I can't recall the ends of the guns having been painted bright orange in the past, but the safety benefits are clear. It's just as traditional to moan about the equipment; while my poor position was doubtless down to my lack of accuracy rather than anything else, the gun trigger was particularly stiff and I wouldn't have liked to have had to pull it for longer than the statutory fifteen minute duration.

And so to curry; a venue in North Parade that was new to me, but whose plate of Vegetable Biryani looked massive but slipped down at a rate of knots. I stayed overnight with the xorsysts, who showed me the Perplex City game they're playing. I had heard much about it, but not actually seen the material before. It's a trading card puzzle game set in a very nicely detailed sci-fi universe with as much storyline detail as any other Alternate Reality Game.

The first season has 256 puzzle cards, split into eight colours (difficulty levels). The puzzles are divided into sets of four; each puzzle card has a point value, and successfully completing all four in a set doubles the value of each of the four. Each individual card has a unique serial number (hidden by the usual scratchcard gimmick) so that credit for each card can only be claimed by one player. Only just over half the cards have been released so far, and they are sold in packs of six for £2½. Not cheap, then.

As a simple puzzle trading card game, I'm rather less impressed than I hoped I would be. The easiest difficulty levels are kept very accessible; not necessarily a bad thing, but I'm not sure everyone would feel they got good value. The harder puzzles are very uneven in their difficulty. The creativity behind the puzzles and the range of topics covered is clearly pretty good; though I haven't seen any of the hardest difficulties of puzzles, I found the hardest ones I saw to be not quite twisty enough for my taste. xorsyst has spent tens of pounds on the game already (and, to be fair, thoroughly enjoyed himself) but hasn't seen a hardest-difficulty card yet, having long reached the stage of getting all-repeat packs, which suggests that some rares may be just too rare.

I think that to properly enjoy the game, you'd have to really get into the Alternate Reality solve-the-mystery-and-win-£100,000 side of things. I don't offer any judgment as to how interesting that aspect of things is, or how well the collect-cards-and-solve-puzzles-for-points side interacts with the mystery. Nevertheless, while it was interesting to find out about the game, I haven't leapt to get into it. (Admittedly this is partly political; had they not chosen not to employ one of my Friends who put forward a very strong application, I would have been much better disposed towards it. I do note that they are recruiting puzzle designers, though.)

After an excellent night's sleep, we caught the bus from Abingdon into Oxford. Since xorsyst started work there years ago, the buses have roughly doubled in frequency; two bus companies now offer a bus every ten minutes during peak hours. (Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be the co-ordination which might result in a bus every five minutes; neither company wants to concede the zeroes for the fives, alas.) Apparently this is because people who work in Oxford just can't afford to live there any more, so people end up living in Abingdon and commuting in and out. Dutifully and neatly I discarded my used bus ticket in the bin, only to be reminded that I had bought a return. Grrrrollocks.

First game of the morning was Shadows Over Camelot; it has been making vaves in the board game fandom, though it was new to me. The closest comparison that can be drawn is to the Lord of the Rings co-operative board game; three to seven of you take the role of Knights of the Round Table taking on glorious quests such as rescuing the Holy Grail, retrieving Excalibur from its watery depths, jousting against Black Knights, fighting sundry dragons, Picts, Saxons and the like. That's the theory; the practice is that this is really a game all about quoting as much Monty Python as possible.

The big twist is that it is probable that one of the players is secretly a traitor; should the kunighets be unable to complete sufficiently many quests, resulting in great dishonour, then the traitor wins. If some of you have been waiting for The Mole: the board game, then here you are, complete with attendant bonuses for successful identification of the traitor and penalties for incorrect accusations. The very clever bit is that there might not be a traitor, so there's more of an incentive to play things straight than if you knew for sure that there were.

Other than that, it's not a desperately great game; draw cards, play cards. work out how most usefully to play them. In terms of decisions and cunning gameplay, The Lord of the Rings probably has more options and greater scope for skilful play. (Idle thought: how about playing the Lord of the Rings game with a similar loyal/traitorous driver, except that the traitorous hobbit wins, regardless of whether the band of hobbits has beaten the game or not, if they are the last hobbit standing and so the eventual ringbearer when darkness crosses the land?)

That's quite a big criticism, but the game works very well as written simply as an experience game; it's genuinely fun to try to puzzle out whether each other player is being traitorous or not, and it's a game that conjures up an atmosphere very much to my taste. If it sounds good from this description, read the fuller description at Defective Yeti, and there's a good chance that you'd enjoy the actual game itself.

(In the game I played, I was dealt the "traitor" card. Bad luck befell us, coupled with excessive concentration upon small-reward quests at the cost of the big-reward ones we should've been tackling. Eventually we got to an almost-lost point, four of our original seven knights down, where we had to identify any traitor in our ranks and then have everything else go right in order to beat the system. Naturally, at this point, I wildly accused someone wrongly. They pointed out we had lost the game, and I revealed that in truth they had lost the game. It got a good laugh.)

Next game up: Mutiny!, a complicated-looking but very simple bidding game. Bid using coins and bottles of rum for control of members of crew who can provide the cutlasses (points) you need to win the game, further bottles of rum or other options to help you win the bidding process. I decided that a desperately simple bid-for-the-thing-that'll-help-you-win-the-game strategy would work; happily, other players managed to gang together to use the other powers available to overhaul me, so it was good to see that the one obvious strategy isn't guaranteed to work. This is the sort of game I'm generally favourably disposed towards, but somehow it didn't shiver my timbers. Not worth a second paragraph of my time, let alone a second play.

Somewhere else along the line, I bought a copy of For Sale, a very clever and very neat bidding game for three to six players which packs more real and interesting decisions into a 10-20 minute game than anything else which springs to mind; no longer must 10-20 minute games for big crowds be no-brainers. (Not that no-brainers are inherently bad!) This is a two-stage bidding game. The relatively long first stage sees players use a finite number of bidding tokens in an interesting but simple bidding structure to buy cards with houses numbered from 1 to 30; the quick second stage sees people sell these houses for cheques and it is the values of these cheques, plus unspent bidding tokens, that determine the result of the game.

It's a game whose difficulty I would compare to that of Draughts/Checkers, let alone Monopoly or Chess - note that only proprietary games have their names italicised - but features decisions with what I consider to be an extremely high interest-to-complexity ratio. It's a different sort of thrill to Liar's Dice, but I would expect it to appeal to similar sort of people. I may have plugged this on my late-2004 game wish list; at just ten pounds (and I'm sure it would've been a lot cheaper if I had used mail order to Meg's house, but it's nice to reward retailers who bring interesting games to sell at cons!) then it's time to cross it off the wishlist and find something else instead.

The other most interesting new game I played was Ticket To Ride: Europe. A map of Europe has towns marked upon it, with some of the pairs of towns connected with train routes between them. By collecting certain combinations of cards, you have the right to claim certain sections of track as your own; you also have "journey" cards and claiming sufficiently many stretches of track so that you can travel from one end of your journey to the other using your own track scores points.

That's the thirty-second elevator pitch. Taking it from there, you should know that it's done really well; the card management aspect of the game is well-balanced and interesting and the decisions are challenging, with many different approaches viable. Ticket to Ride: Europe adds a few fiddly bits (ferries and tunnels) to the original Ticket to Ride, which was set in North America; apparently the two games are different enough to both be of separate merit. I came a storming last place with my heavily Western European network and would have come merely a close last place had a few tunnel excavations gone in my favour, but it was a diverting and entertaining experience that I'd be keen to repeat. Recommended without hesitation to fans of short-ish train games.

There are an awful lot of train games out there, largely because "joining" turns out to be an interesting concept for gameplay (also see Go, Othello, Hex...) as well as for topological study. There are plenty of other attempts to graft themes onto what are essentially fairly mathematical games about networks, but none of them are nearly so convincing; SiSiMiZi's ants between anthills is a definite stretch, let alone Through The Desert's (wonderful) chains of camels. There are also plenty of intuitively obvious justifications for gameplay features and thematic possibilities that come with train travel that are easy to swallow and don't require suspension of disbelief.

A good day of games, then, with plenty of novelty I enjoyed. On Saturday night we went out to the Kashmir Halal Tandoori on Cowley Road for our traditional second curry. Unfortunately, we rather messed them around with numbers; while twelve people had signed up before the event to say that they wanted to come on the group curry, a head-count closer to the time caused us to ring through and change our estimate to sixteen - and by the time we had got there, somewhere along the line we had picked up another group of con attendees and were into the low twenties. The restaurant wasn't too impressed, not least because they had devoted an entire half of their restaurant to a very raucous group meal, suspected to be of a college rowing club. (Not at all clear which college, though.)

In the end a fringe group splintered off to the nearby (and inferior, IMHO) Moonlight Tandoori by virtue of space concerns, to take us back down to sixteen; they shuffled tables and chairs to make room, but were so slow even in taking our initial orders of drinks and poppadoms that sixteen fell back to the original number of twelve. Starter orders were placed - I followed gayparee's recommendation of the Chicken Tandoori Soup, which was excellent as ever, though definitely a somewhat different consistency to last time - and we had shrunk from twelve to ten by the time the starters arrived. The other group was very large, very noisy and armed with a couple of whistles.

So we retaliated in the only way we know how: singing badly. The Emergency Song had a very wide rendition, whereby the words "Emergency Song" are sung over and over again to a familiar tune - or, indeed, many familiar tunes, taking as many liberties as possible with scansion and, well, pretty much anything else. The big winners were The Big Ben Chimes, as follows:

E. Mer. Gen. Cy.
E. Mer. Gen. Cy.
E. Mer. Gen. Cy.
E. Mer. Gen. Cy.

and also The Star-Spangled Banner:

Oh, say can you sing
Emergency Song?
E-merrrr-gency song,
E-e-mer-gen-cy so-ong (etc.)

All told, the boaties probably deserve to be listed as winners of the noise battle, not least because they got us singing Que Sera Sera at one point and we never managed to get them singing anything, not even with our taunts of "You're not singing any more", "It's all gone quiet over there" and "We can see you creeping out". (Perhaps "Can you hear the boaties sing?" would have done the trick.) We sung and laughed our hearts out, all the same. Someone reflected that we got a taste of our own medicine and that the boaties offered a reflection of what it must be like to be innocently in a curry house alongside the likes of us. Hmph.

The standard produced by the Kashmir Halal was certainly a manful effort under the circumstances, though rather slower than you would like. (Probably fairly typical for a Saturday night curry at prime time in Oxford, frankly.) Half a mark off for presenting me with a dirty plate, which was quickly replaced; lots of marks for food as excellent as ever and the best banana lassi in town. It remains my first choice for Indian food in Oxford.

The only other gaming point of note is that we had a highly entertaining Accelerated Chairman's Game simply by the expedient method of dealing each player just two cards at the start of the game. No other rules changed, and subsequent deals were of a standard five cards. (From a 500 deck, I should note, for 13♥ and 12♣ goodness.) It gets to the good bits more quickly if you only have an odd twenty minutes to fill - and a very odd twenty minutes they will be.

Another good night's sleep, another lift into town from the kind Mr. Phil Williams, improving all the time and now the UK's seventh finest Williams. (I have since been told of another similarly-named Williams with distinctly dubious claims to fame, but not likely to sully the good name of the top ten.) A last game or two, a last goodbye or two, a last Oxford-priced ciabatta sandwich and then home on National Express. Another year, another excellent OxCon!
Tags: games, oxcon, oxford, perplex city, puzzles
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