playing catchup: my Gathering of Friends

April is always a whirlwind month for me and this April was no exception.

The big event, of course, was Alan Moon’s Gathering of Friends, a 10 day, invite-only game con, held annually in Niagara Falls, NY, and hosted by legendary game designer Alan R Moon. This was my 5th year (wow, how can it have been five years?), and my longest stay yet – I attended for the full 10 days.



As is my preference, I played more prototypes than published games and the published games I played tended to be small, light games. I’ll attempt to highlight a few games I enjoyed that haven’t been heavily covered elsewhere.


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Playing SHADOW THRONE by Teale Fristoe at #gof2015

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SHADOW THRONE, by Teale Fristoe, is an intriguing card-drafting game. A step or two above Phil Walker-Harding’s SUSHI GO! in complexity, with a dark fantasy theme, SHADOW THRONE is a little meatier, adding some welcome player interaction to a style of game that often lacks it.



LOONEY QUEST, by Laurent Escoffier and David Franck, is the best attempt I’ve seen at converting a video game experience to the tabletop. In it, players exercise hand-eye coordination to plot paths, enclose objects, and pinpoint targets on a series of video game-like level maps by drawing on a clear acetate sheet. Players then then check their accuracy by overlaying their acetates on the screen map to see how accurate they were. We were especially taken by how the game box itself was used in play, both as the “console” and as an ingenious method of tracking scores.


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Playing ABRACA…WHAT? with wizards! #gof2015

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ABRACA…WHAT?, by Gun-Hee Kim, is an entertaining game of wizards attempting to deduce the unknown spells they carry by trying to cast them! It has been compared to Alex Randolph’s classic deduction game CODE 777, and the comparison is apt. ABRACA…WHAT? takes the basic deduction structure of CODE 777 and overlays a lighthearted magical combat system that encourages more than a little play acting and silliness.



Play testing prototypes is always one of my favorite activities at any game con, and I played quite a few good ones here. My dear friend Greg Daigle, designer of HAWAII, always brings a clutch of his smartly designed, beautiful prototypes, and I look forward to playing them each year. He has a couple this year, including a pirate game, that were very promising.


One bare-bones prototype that got quite a lot of play over the week, was Vlaada Chvátil’s early prototype of a very clever word game code named CODENAMES. This is one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” kind of games that is so simple and engaging it’s amazing nobody’s done it before. This is sure to become a classic with the right development, and Vlaada has the design chops to pull that off.


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Play testing #LXIX at #gof2015

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I got a few good play tests in of my own game, LXIX: THE YEAR OF FOUR EMPERORS. Lots of positive response from some very well-respected designers, and with their input I’ve found a couple final tweaks that should put the finishing touches on it. I sent LXIX home with a world class publisher, who will assess it over the summer. I have high hopes for this game.



What makes The Gathering truly wonderful are the friendly, generous attendees.  This year, even more so than in years past, I connected with so many new people and made new friendships, and reconnected with those friends from Gatherings past. It really feels like a family reunion.

One of my favorite moments was during my very last moments at the Gathering and didn’t involve any games at all. It was the Monday morning after the final day, when we last few stragglers were finally trickling out of the hotel. I had packed my luggage and game bags into my vehicle and checked out before stopping into the hotel Starbucks to grab a coffee and a breakfast sandwich for the road, when I ran into CAYLUS designer, William Attia.

I’d played a couple of games with William during the week, including an intense play test of LXIX, and had a nice conversation over a long lunch with him and Greg Daigle. I had gotten to know this quiet, reserved fellow, so it was with pleasure and friendship that I met his greeting and wished him safe travels, as I was about to begin my long drive back to Madison.

William had a sandwich of his own and his ever-present cup of tea, so when he suggested that, surely, I had a few minutes to sit with him and eat before driving, I couldn’t resist. We breakfasted and talked about what books we were reading. He avowed a passion for the classics, and we talked a while about Jules Verne’s oeuvre and the more and less successful games based on his novels.

At last, our sandwiches finished, I could responsibly delay no longer. It was good bye until next year, or the unlikely event that he should find himself traveling in Wisconsin.

It was a delightful conclusion to my Gathering week and a fond memory.


Bonus Link: Check out my friend Nick Bentley’s excellent abstract game CATCHUP on iOS.


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