My daughter and I escaped to Dundracon 40 this past holiday weekend for several days of pure board game bliss.

Dundracon 40 happens to be the longest-running tabletop gaming con on the west coast; it even sports its own Wikipedia entry. Despite its age, Dundracon remains a small, local convention. The con currently holds sway in San Ramon, California, and we found it to be efficiently run with a friendly staff. Over the weekend, I had a chance to play a bevy of board games.

First up was Shadows of Brimstone, Caverns of Cynder expansion. Shadows of Brimpstone is a sprawling co-operative dungeon crawl published by Flying Frog Productions, set in a weird west of heroic men and women facing down unspeakable evils from underneath or beyond Earth.

The heroes delving into the Caverns of Cynder.

The heroes delving into the Caverns of Cynder.

Thorvald Soldahl acted as GM, which was a good thing since most of us were newbie players. Shadows of Brimstone bears a strong resemblance to similar dungeon crawls, such as FFG’s Descente, but includes its own set of quirks and fiddliness. Soldahl painted most of the miniatures, which looked great. It’s one of those games I thoroughly enjoyed playing, but probably wouldn’t actually run it myself. The players dived into spirit as well as the mechanics, so a good time was had by all.

Leaving Earth Missions

Leaving Earth Missions

Next up was Leaving Earth, a game thin on components but heavy on gameplay — heavy, as in math. Lots of math. The game is ostensibly about running a nation’s space program, starting in the mid-1950s, and beating other nations to a randomized set of missions. Each mission is worth a set number of points, and the country with the most points at the end wins. The mission tiles elegantly form a continuous backdrop, but the components are sparse: laser-cut rocket ships and cards representing boosters, astronauts, and other resources. Research cards are a bit larger, and form the basis for building your little space program.

It’s an entertaining concept with fairly deep historical research by the designer,  Joseph Fatula,

Leaving Earth Components

Leaving Earth Components

who also managed the game. That was a good thing; the rules are relatively simple, but you need to calculate the amount of energy needed to accomplish each mission. The math itself is just simple arithmetic, but as missions become more complex, you practically need to create a small spreadsheet to figure out how many booster stages, supplies, and people you’ll need.

From a strictly gameplay perspective, the game also suffers from a runaway leader problem. Once it’s clear who’s going to win, there’s really no point in actually finishing the game. I understand balance can be tricky in a game like this. The runaway leader issue can be mitigated by the mix of random missions, too. If one or two big ones come out, most players will chase those, and leave the others alone — thought it’s possible for a clever player to focus on lesser missions and rack up a high score. The game has some potential, but the edges are rough enough I’d only recommend it if you have a strong interest in the topic. The most fun in the game was having Fatula run the game; he obviously has a passion for the history of the period which shined through as we played.

Late afternoon saw me diving into Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia. Published by Stegmaier  Games, I own the original Kickstarter version of the game. The theme is a colorful, dystopian world in which everyone deludes themselves into happiness.  Euphoria‘s uses worker placement as its base mechanic, with dice representing workers. The numbers you affect some locations you place your workers on, but are irrelevant in other cases. It’s a medium-weight game, and as with most worker placement games, the key to victory is getting your resource engine up and running. The components, by the way, are gorgeous.

Euphoria's colorful board hides a somewhat melancholy theme.

Euphoria’s colorful board hides a somewhat melancholy theme.

Multiple paths to building your engine exist; at the start, you pick a character card which gives you some bonuses and tends to shape your overall strategy. Given the multiplicity of paths, it’s easy to get distracted and find yourself trailing the leaders, as one new player discovered. You don’t win by accumulating victory points, but instead you have a set of 10 stars you distribute over the course of the game, which cost resources and actions to add to the board. The first person to unload all his or her stars wins. This particular games turned out to be pretty close; of the five players, four were down to a single star before when winner placed his final star.

I also finally had a chance to play Castles of Mad King Ludwiga thinky game about building a crazy Bavarian-style castle. Players buy tiles, then try to optimize their castle layout in order to outscore opponents. The cleverest mechanic is how tiles come out. Players take turns as the Master Builder, who decides the pricing on the tiles. Pricing tiles is a strategy unto itself. If you want a particular tile, but price it too low, someone else might scoop it up. Each unbought tile in a round accumulates a single coin, which reduces the tile cost. In some cases, you could actually make money on a tile — if you can use it. It’s a neat game of geometric placement coupled with a little careful price bluffing.

My first castle. Yes, it's terrible.

My first castle. Yes, it’s terrible.

We had a chance to play some smaller games as well. One of my favorite card games of the past few years is Carl Chudyk’s InnovationInnovation’s chaotic gameplay and odd terminology isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s an entertaining game provided you’re willing to entertain a little chaos and adjust strategies on the fly. Originally published by Asmadi Games, Innovation recently received a cosmetic face lift and some streamlining by its new publisher, Iello, and is a better game for it. Emily and I also sat down with Hocusa new spin on an old card, poker-like card game.

The weekend, as all weekends do, drew to a close. My weekend at Dundracon 40 proved to be one of the densest weekends of gaming I’ve enjoyed in a long time. Next up on the Bay Area con circuit is Kublacon, in late May near San Francisco International Airport. Hope I’ll be seeing some of you there.

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