Humans of the Tabletop: Gamex 2017

One of the best things about playing board games is the time spent hanging out with your fellow human beings, bonding over your shared experience at the tabletop. Inspired by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, I present Humans of the Tabletop, an ongoing series about some of the people I’ve played games with.

This initial series is from Gamex 2017, the second of three conventions hosted by Strategicon every year in Los Angeles. My heartfelt thanks to these first participants, all of whom I’m fortunate to call my friends.


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“I’ve been playing the COIN (COunter INsurgencies) games series from GMT. The last one I played was A Distant Plain, based on the Afghanistan War. They’re long games and they’re fun, plotting out how to build up your troops and how to attack people. I think I’m one of the few Filipino gamers in Phoenix, so it’s always exciting to meet someone that understands your cultural heritage, your big family, your similar background. I play a lot of war games so I’m usually the only woman in the room. I feel like L.A. is a much more diverse crowd. It’s cool to see women gamers and gamers of color all around here.”


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“At my first Strategicon I volunteered during the first day. After I finished, I walked around to see what was being offered in each room. The next thing I know, I’m playing one game after another. It felt like Vegas, where there’s no windows and you can’t tell what time it is. Then I experienced my first game of Werewolf at a convention. Man, I did not know what I was getting into. There were about 30 people and there were 3-4 games going on at one time. Ten in the morning rolled around and I ran into some buddies. I joined them and played more games until about 10 at night. The last game I played I was falling asleep at the table, but I finished it.”


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“Outside of gaming, I train for half marathons. I do the Avengers Infinity Gauntlet Challenge, where you run a 10K on Saturday and a half marathon on Sunday. That’s 19.3 miles in two days and I’ve been doing it because I saw that shiny Infinity Gauntlet medal. Each medal has a different gemstone from the Marvel Universe. So I’m stuck running this half marathon for six years straight and after that I’m done. I’m going to lift weights the rest of my life.”

Every Night Is Game Night: Sagrada

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I’m playing a board game every day this month and blogging about it (I did a similar challenge last year)Feel free to join me during my Every Night Is Game Night: My Daily Play & Blog Challenge. And tweet me with what you’re playing these days!


I had a busy weekend that included a graduation party, Star Wars Reads Day, and quality time with our daughter before she begins her final three weeks of college (!), which meant that my time at Gamex was limited.

Thankfully, for the few hours I was there I was able to buy, sell, and play a few games. It was great seeing two of my regular gaming buddies, Oscar and PK, as well as my friend Meeple Lady. We’d originally planned on playing Agricola (still on my Shelf of Shame), but I was feeling the effects of a long day and asked to play Sagrada instead.

There’s been a lot of hype about Sagrada and after my first play I’d say it’s well-deserved. A simple yet thinky puzzle game of dice allocation, there’s a lot to like here, from the nice-looking components to the elegant play. It’s a game that will satisfy both gamers and non-gamers.

Players are trying to build their stained glass windows through the use of colored dice. Dice are randomly pulled out of a bag and rolled, then each player takes one for their window.

(Before I continue, a word to my fellow colorblind gamers: although I did okay with Sagrada, you should try it out before buying; colors are used throughout the game and there are no unique icons for each color to make things easier. I had trouble differentiating between blue and purple. From what I read, Floodgate Games did try to do something about this, but the budget couldn’t accommodate those with colorblindness. It’s a real shame that the game’s accessibility couldn’t be improved. Perhaps in a later printing? One can only hope.)

Back to the game: there are rules of adjacency for each die, so players can’t just put them wherever they want. Additionally, there are secret goals for each player; for example, mine was the total number of pips on the yellow dice on my window so I was trying to snag those yellow dice every chance I could. There are also public goals that I basically forgot about for the first half of the game. These included pairs of certain dice and same-colored dice diagonally.

Finally, there are special game-breaker community cards that a player can pay for to help them complete their window. After all of the dice are placed, the next round begins. A game consists of 10 rounds and at the end each player counts up their points and subtracts one point for every empty spot.

I really enjoyed this game, in spite of the colorblind issues. I love chucking dice and trying to figure out puzzles, so this was a natural fit. It reminded me of The Cubist, a similar dice-chucking puzzle game, which I liked, but Sagrada felt like it had a bit more meat on its bones.

Every Night Is Game Night: La Isla

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I’m playing a board game every day this month and blogging about it (I did a similar challenge last year)Feel free to join me during my Every Night Is Game Night: My Daily Play & Blog Challenge. And tweet me with what you’re playing these days!


I didn’t play a game or blog about it last night. My reason is pictured below:

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My wife and I had a date night in L.A., compliments of Yelp. We’re fortunate to both be Elite users and occasionally attend Yelp Elite Events, which are always filled with food, drink, and good times. Last night’s was no exception, with a small group of us stuffing ourselves silly at the hot new barbecue spot in Chinatown, Belle Belle’s Cue.

After feasting on smoked brisket, pulled pork, turkey, and ribs with all the fixings (mac and cheese, creamed corn, potato salad, beans, coleslaw, pickles, and white bread), we were in a food coma the rest of the night. The games remained on the shelf, but we did watch a few episodes of Master of None before finishing it tonight (my spoiler-free reaction here).

Today we ate our leftovers, then I met up with my friend Daryl for some boba and board games. We played Ethnos, Stone Age, Kanagawa, and La Isla. Although the boba shop’s air conditioning wasn’t performing at its peak, it was still a nice break from the 90-degree heat wave.

Most gamers call La Isla a Stefan-Feld-light game and it’s an appropriate description. It’s a point salad game with interesting card play, set collection, and area control. It seems like every time I get this to the table I need a rules refresher, but that’s okay. Game play always picks up after a few turns and a two-player match is about 30 minutes.

In La Isla, players are explorers trying to capture animals that were thought to be extinct (the dodo, for example). Animal tiles are randomly placed throughout the island and players use cards and resource cubes to bring their explorer tokens onto the board. If a player surrounds an animal tile, then they add the tile to their collection. Points are earned each turn (and the end game scoring) based on the animals you have.

Players take four actions each turn and three of those are based on the cards they play (three are drawn every turn). Each card is broken up into three sections: the top is for the first action, the bottom left is for the second action, and the bottom right is for the third. It’s always interesting to choose which parts of the cards you’ll use for each turn. Quite often, you’re giving something up to gain something else.

The first action is placing a card into the player’s card holder. This gives bonuses on subsequent actions. The second action is collecting a resource. The third action is moving one of your explorers. Finally, the fourth action is moving a scoring tracker up a space. If you have that animal type, then you score points.

There are several other ways to score points throughout the game, primarily through the action cards that you place in your card holder during the first action. What I like about La Isla is that the card holder only holds three cards, so your bonuses are constantly changing. The set collection element comes into play as you gather animal tiles. For each complete set of five, you get 10 points at the end of the game.

I really like La Isla. It’s not the most intuitive game at first, but once you get into it, it’s a simple and quick Feld. Unfortunately, like other Felds, it has cubes and cards and a board whose colors won’t make it easy on colorblind players. Thankfully, I play with some easygoing people who don’t mind helping me out whenever I have color-related questions.

Diamonds

Diamonds. Image from strongholdgames.com

Diamonds. Image from strongholdgames.com

I can’t believe my Blog Every Day in August Challenge is nearly over. This month has gone by FAST.

I’ve had a lot of fun writing about board games for the last 29 days. Of course, it’s not as fun as actually playing games themselves, but it’s given me a chance to connect with other gamers on Twitter. Thanks to all of you who have tweeted at me and re-tweeted me.

Today I’m writing about a game I’ve never played and don’t own, but that will change this Saturday.

This weekend is the third Strategicon event of the year, Gateway. Strategicon hosts three gaming conventions in Los Angeles each year on a three-day weekend (Orccon on President’s Day, Gamex on Memorial Day, and Gateway on Labor Day). One day I’d love to do an entire weekend, but for now I can only manage a day or two at each, which is fine by me.

As the saying goes, some gaming is better than no gaming at all (Is this an actual saying? If not, it should be).

Yesterday I shared my love of finding a good deal and every Strategicon has a flea market and math trade that are chock full of board game bargains. This Saturday I’m picking up a few games at Gateway via the flea market and one of them is Diamonds.

I’d never heard of Diamonds before, but I’m familiar with classic trick-taking games Hearts and Spades. While trick-taking games might not be my favorites, I’ve always wanted to add one to my collection (I liked Nyet!) and at a bargain price I couldn’t resist.

In Diamonds, each player is dealt 10 cards (or more, depending on player count). The cards are in the familiar four suits (diamonds, spades, hearts, and clubs) and instead of 13, there are 15 of each suit. Each player also receives a screen to represent their vault and three diamonds crystals (actual pieces, not cards) placed in front of their vault, aka their showroom. As the game progresses, they will be able to move diamond crystals behind the screen/into their vault.

To begin play, the first player plays a card face up to the middle. This is the current trick. The next player, if possible, must play a card of the same suit. All of the players do this and the player with the highest number in the current trick’s suit wins the trick. They take the cards played and place them in front of them.

What happens if a player cannot follow suit? This is what sets Diamonds apart from other trick-taking games and it’s what sold me on it. A player that cannot follow suit can play any card in their hand and take a special suit action. The suit actions are:

  1. Diamonds: Take a diamond crystal from the general supply and place it in your vault. Once a diamond crystal is in your vault, it cannot be taken away.
  2. Spades: Take a diamond crystal from your showroom and place it in your vault.
  3. Hearts: Take a diamond crystal from the general supply and place it in your showroom.
  4. Clubs: Take a diamond crystal from any other player’s showroom and place it in your showroom.

Also, after a player has won a trick, they get to take a suit action. For example, if I led with the 15 of hearts (the highest rank of any suit), I would then take a diamond crystal from the general supply and place it in my showroom.

Play continues in these tricks, with the winner getting a suit action, as well as anyone breaking suit receiving a suit action. When players are out of cards, the round is over. The player who has won the most cards in each suit receives the corresponding suit action. If a player has taken no tricks, then they get to do the diamond suit action twice.

The cards are shuffled together, dealt out, and the next round begins. Different player counts play a different number of rounds before the game ends. Players count up their diamond crystals and score points: 2x points for each diamond crystal in their vault (behind their screen), and 1x points for each diamond crystal in their showroom.

I love how the diamond crystals and the vault screen are integrated into play, with the theme being perfect for the game. Normally I wouldn’t be this fired up about a new take on a classic card game, but Diamonds takes well-known mechanisms and injects life into them with a few nifty actions. I can’t wait to play it.

My Growing Library

Games I Bought This Weekend

Games I Bought This Weekend

On the way to my fantasy football draft I picked up two used board games I won on a recent boardgamegeek.com auction: Takenoko and Imperial Settlers. I was pleasantly surprised when I opened Takenoko: although it was no longer in its shrink wrap, the cards were still in shrink wrap and the tiles were still unpunched. It was a great deal, paying less than half the MSRP ($50) for a brand new game. Imperial Settlers had a slight ding on its corner and two of the meeples were broken, but the meeples were the extras and I’m not worried about the box. Again, I paid less than half the MSRP ($50).

Yesterday I was in Orange County, which was excellent timing since I could pick up two games that I’ve been dying to get into my games library: Roll for the Galaxy and Star Trek Catan.

Roll for the Galaxy is awesome and it was the iSlaytheDragon.com Game of the Year for 2015, but I’m not very good at it. I always seem to be a step behind my opponents and haven’t gotten better than second place. Hence, my desire to own a copy: I need to learn the ins and outs of the game, the dice, the tiles, everything. I was close to pulling the trigger a few times on amazon.com whenever it dipped to $40, but I’m glad I waited. I managed to pay less than half the MSRP ($60) and I can’t wait to start rolling all of those dice.

Finally, Star Trek Catan was one of those on my Must Buy List, but it was never a priority until I found it for exactly half off MSRP ($50) in a boardgamegeek.com virtual flea market. I love the original series characters and their special powers in this version of Catan, which is definitely my favorite.

So for about the price of one brand new copy of Scythe, I was able to add four outstanding games to my growing library. I hope to add Scythe one day, but I’ll wait until someone’s tired of playing their copy so I can land another great deal. My bank account is thankful that I don’t follow the Cult of the New.

Splendor

Spendor

Spendor

Earlier this year my wife and I visited Tokyo for the first time. We were there to see our daughter, who was completing her study abroad program. Our 10 days in Tokyo were nothing short of amazing and I’m forever spoiled in terms of sushi and ramen; anything I eat here in the U.S. simply won’t compare to the food we had in Japan.

One pleasant surprise we experienced in Japan was finding a board games cafe. I’d read about Dear Spiele on the boardgamegeek.com Japan forum, but had no idea if we were anywhere near it or if we could find time to visit. After a quick consult with Google Maps, we discovered it was a short train ride away from where we were staying.

It’s not the easiest place to find, but we soon found ourselves walking a few flights of stairs in a nondescript building before opening the door to a wonderful space full of games and gamers. The language may have been different, but the scene was just like any American game store or cafe: groups of players huddled at their tables, some contemplating moves, others pulling off winning maneuvers as their opponents groaned.

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One of two walls of games at Dear Spiele

Since we hadn’t seen our daughter in such a long time, what better place to replicate our family game night than Dear Spiele? Of course, it seemed like the perfect place to play King of Tokyo; unfortunately, all of the power cards were in Japanese and we didn’t want to force our daughter to try to translate every one as we played. There were hundreds of games to choose from, though, so I picked a few that were not language dependent. Our favorite, by far, was Splendor.

Splendor is a card game with card drafting and set collection, and it also features a neat little engine-building mechanism that is easily learned by new players. The object of the game is to score 15 (or more) victory points. There is a tableau of 16 cards in three rows; these cards are used to score points, but not all of them have points on them. To take a card, a player must have the correct number of tokens matching the gem icons on that card. These tokens are poker chips with a specific gem icon and color printed on them. For example, if somebody wanted a 1-point card that costs four red gem icons, then they must have four of those gems in their hand.

Each turn, players may take three gem tokens of different colors or they may take two of the same color (but only if that stack of tokens has at least four). 

There is a limited number of gem tokens available and each player can only have a maximum of 10 in their hand, so they will have to buy “development” cards. These development cards cost a certain number of gems, but once they are bought, they are a permanent gem in front of that player. So, if you have a blue gem card in front of you and you want to buy a card that costs two blue gems, then you can buy it if you have a blue gem token, which, along with your blue gem card, equals two blue gems.

Cards that are worth more victory points cost more gems, so players must buy many development cards so they can afford these higher-priced cards (note: cards with victory points also have a gem on them that will become part of the player’s resources). Players can also gain additional points from the noble tiles. A noble tile can only be earned by having the appropriate number of gem cards; players cannot use gem tokens to purchase these. So, if a noble tile has a price of 3 black, 3 white, and 3 red gems, then a player will only receive it if they have 3 black, 3 white, and 3 red gem cards in front of them.

I remember reading an article (or was it listening to a podcast?) about how Splendor is a good “next step” for the new gamer, especially after they’ve played Ticket to Ride. There are some similarities like collecting sets of something for points (gems in Splendor, trains in TTR) and there’s the tension of trying to get the right amount of items to score points before your opponents (getting the right combo of gems versus timing your rail-laying just right). The elegant gameplay is here, too, as players can do one of two actions per turn: take tokens or buy cards. 

However, Splendor has more replayability and it plays well with 2-4 players, with games typically finished in half an hour. I’ve played it with hardcore gamers and casual gamers and I have yet to meet somebody who doesn’t like it. It should be a part of any gamer’s library.

Postscript: after returning from Japan, I surprised my wife with a copy of Splendor. It continues to be a favorite with us and our friends.

I Love L.A.

View of Downtown from Pershing Park.

View of Downtown from Pershing Park’s Ice Rink.

No matter where I live, I’ll always be an Angeleno at heart. I love L.A.’s diversity, its energy, and its SoCal vibe, which is a lot more laid-back than other big cities. My wife and I took an East L.A. food tour in 2014 and our guide, who was a Chicago transplant, was asked what he liked about Los Angeles. As he answered our group, I nodded my approval when he quickly pointed at me and said, “THAT is exactly what I love about L.A.! The chill attitude.”

My wife and I decided to do our own food tour this morning, something we like to do every now and then. Some of our best Date Days/Nights are like this, where we explore a neighborhoods’ food and culture (be sure to read my post from last year on 5 Inexpensive Was to Rock Date Night).

We love to take advantage of the MetroLink $10 Weekend Day Pass, which allows us to ride anywhere on the MetroLink, Metro Rail, or Metro Bus all day Saturday or Sunday. It’s the best way to save on gas money and parking fees as well as avoid traffic-induced headaches and road rage.

So we took the train into downtown and walked over to Grand Central Market, which was opened in 1917 and is now home to lots of buzz-worthy eateries. In other words, it’s a hipster foodie’s paradise. There was one place that we’ve been wanting to try for a while: Eggslut.

The Slut at Eggslut.

The Slut at Eggslut.

Eggslut’s signature dish The Slut was really good, a unique blend of poached egg and potato puree (with grey salt and chives) that melts in your mouth and contrasts well with the crunchy baguette slices. Was it worth $9? Read my Yelp review here.

Next on our food tour was RiceBar. I’d heard the news about its opening last summer; it’s not often that a Filipino restaurant opens downtown. Most of the Filipino eateries in Southern California are located in suburban areas and this one was generating a lot of hype because chef/co-owner Charles Olalia left his executive chef position at the highly regarded, Michelin-starred Patina to open RiceBar.

Bisteg Tagalog at RiceBar.

Bisteg Tagalog at RiceBar.

Chef Olalia’s passion for his food was evident the minute my wife and I sat down at the counter. We ordered the Bisteg Tagalog and absolutely loved it. Read my Yelp review here.

Finally, for the third place to cross off our imaginary Foodie Bucket List, we went to Bottega Louie for dessert. It was a beautiful restaurant with its vaulted ceilings and its New-York-hustle-and-bustle atmosphere.

Macarons at Bottega Louie

Macarons at Bottega Louie

We wanted to try their famous macarons and that’s exactly what we did. Michelle got the grand cru (chocolate ganache made with Valrhona dark chocolate) and I got the pistachio (Sicilian pistachios & Valrhona white chocolate ganache). Both were tasty, but I preferred the pistachio.

After we were done feasting, we walked around Pershing Square and admired the public art and the view of the city (shown above). Downtown has changed a lot since I worked down here decades (!) ago and it’s so much more accessible thanks to the train system, which didn’t exist when I was a regular in the area. Nowadays, a morning or afternoon spent here can make for a memorable, affordable, and walkable date.

Day 344: Grammy Museum

The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur

The Rose That Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur

We took our trip to the Grammy Museum tonight and it was amazing. My wife and I scored tickets from Yelp as a perk for being part of their street team this summer. (Thanks, Yelp!)

The hour-long drive into L.A. was totally worth it since we got to explore the museum for an hour before the show. The second I learned there was a Tupac Shakur exhibition on the fourth floor, I knew where we were going first.

The exhibition featured some of Shakur’s original writings, including the poem, “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” which was the title of his posthumous book of poetry. 2Pac was always an enigmatic figure: he was a brash hip hop figure, but also an introspective and intelligent young man. The exhibition did a good job of showing this more thoughtful side of him without denying his controversial side.

Afterwards we walked around the third and fourth floors, exploring different styles of music and learning the history. I could’ve easily spent hours here, but time was limited.

At 7:30pm, we went back to the second floor to the little theater for an Ukulele Beatles show. We’d seen Jake Shimabukuro last year and were blown away, so we thought tonight would be a nice little concert. It started off that way with Ryan Imamura, as the young man played some medleys and then individual Beatles songs. He was great, but then Ryo Montgomery took the stage and proceeded to rock the house.

Yes, he killed it with his ukulele. We were absolutely impressed, as was the rest of the audience.

Montgomery reminded us a lot of Shimabukuro; not only his otherworldly talent, but his stage presence. He was a natural up there and just owned it. He brought back Imamura for a few songs and they were awesome together. We loved how they ended the set with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” using Shimabukuro’s famous arrangement.

It was a mind-blowing experience tonight, looking back at hip hop’s past before looking forward to the ukulele’s future.

Day 333: Kobe

Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant

After a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers (my favorite sports team) Kobe Bryant announced that he’s retiring at the end of this season.

There’s an unofficial tradition in my family: picking a Laker to have a love/hate during his career. My uncle always complained about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. My dad couldn’t stand Magic Johnson.

Kobe was my love/hate Laker.

When things went bad, he was a ball hog, a player who didn’t play the game the right way, and a diva that would sabotage team goals in order to score more points or try to be the hero.

When things went well, he was basically Jordan 2.0.

His greatest individual moment was the perfect example of his good/bad: he scored the second-most points in NBA history, 81, on the same night where he dished out two assists. Two assists by one of the all-time greats on a night he was virtually unstoppable?

As someone who came of age when Magic could completely dominate a game without taking a shot, I saw this as one of the greatest sins a player could commit: not sharing the ball.

And yet, I remember that night, completely blown away by his shooting display (and the fact that the Raptors never double-teamed him). It showed everything good and bad about Kobe. His greatness was never in question; his commitment to playing the game the right way was. It’s why, even as a diehard Laker fan, I’d rather watch LeBron James. He’s the one who took the torch from Magic when it came to playing the game the way I watched it in the ’80s. A player who used his talent to make his teammates better.

Kobe was the closest thing we’ve seen to Jordan. He forced his teammates to bend to his will through his unparalleled dedication and preparation to the game he loved.

For me, his greatest display was during the 2001 playoff run, when the Lakers defeated three straight 50-win teams, going 15-1 in the postseason. The way they demolished the favored San Antonio Spurs was spectacular: Shaq and Kobe at their peak playing-powers, a modern Wilt-Jordan combination with the perfect set of complementary players and the best coach in NBA history.

Kobe played perfectly during that run, scoring at will yet doing all of the things a great teammate does: share the ball, rebound, and defend the opposition, but most importantly he made everyone better

It’s a shame that he and Shaq couldn’t work things out because I’d be writing about one of the all-time great players from the Greatest NBA Team Ever.

Instead, I’m appreciating one of the greatest to ever play the game (and one of the top five guards in history: MJ, Magic, Kobe, West, and The Big O) who was part of one of the most incredible postseason runs ever.