As Christmas approaches I guess now is an opportune time to remind people that last year I listed a number of great boardgames that people might seriously be glad to get in their Christmas stockings. Like my friend Lloyd, I never liked boardgames much (though I did briefly play Magic the Gathering in the mid-90’s!) until I discovered Ticket to Ride and was immediately sold on the new wave of Eurogames. I believe the second boardgame I bought back then, and played very heavily for weeks thereafter, many times a day, was Z-Man Games Pandemic.
Now Pandemic is reviewed on this blog, and let me start with what is really the conclusion of this new review – while Pandemic The Cure is a completely separate stand alone game, it is really exactly the same game with different mechanics. if that sounds confusing, well, let me offer some quick advice -
A. This is a collaborative game – the players play together against the game system, and all win or all lose. You are not competing against the other players, just against the game! You play specialist trying to contain disease epidemics and save humanity,
B. This is an excellent game, rated highly by the four of us who have played it so far, and as good as the original Pandemic game.
c. This is a stand alone game, not an expansion — having said that…
D. The mechanics are much more abstract than in Pandemic – so I strongly advise you to buy or at least play that game first. It’s as good as the new one, just different, and you will appreciate Pandemic: The Cure much more if you have played Pandemic first!
E. If you own and enjoy Pandemic, I suspect you will really enjoy Pandemic: The Cure
For the rest of this review, having established the above, I am going to assume some familiarity with Pandemic, even if only from reading the detailed review on this blog here.
So what is it about?
In this game Matt Leacock has simply reinvented Pandemic to use a different set of mechanics, and with custom dice as the core mechanic, rather than the cards cubes and board of the original game. It’s not just thematically similar, it is really the same game – but the difference in mechanics makes it very different in play. As a result you will want both. Ticket to Ride did something similar with a custom dice variant, which we all disliked intensely, and which we have not played since the week we bought it – here we the new game just as much as the old one. It is different enough to appeal, familiar enough to seem good old Pandemic – and to be fair I have not actually played Pandemic much since Z-Man brought out the 2nd edition with different card backs meaning the second expansion was incompatible with my earlier games, and only making the replacement cards to upgrade available from Canada at an extortionate price when you added in postage. That was to me as a 1st edition customer enough to annoy me in to deciding to buy no more of their games — I’m glad I relented, though still deeply annoyed. (I ended up using horrid card covers that slip so don’t play Pandemic any more.)
So what is the difference?
Pandemic: The Cure (PTC henceforth) dispenses with the city cards, the cities on the map board, in fact all cards from Pandemic except for a number of Special Events (versions of those from both Pandemic and the On The Brink expansion).
Instead of a board you begin with six cardboard circles, numbered one to six – and 12 dice in 4 colours, representing the four diseases in Pandemic, are placed randomly on these. Like disease cubes in Pandemic after each player turn you add more dice/cubes, and diseases can outbreak. Every game we played that we lost – 7 out of 9 – ended with us reaching 8 outbreaks, but the game can also end if you run out of dice/cubes to place on the regions, which we played carefully to avoid, or if you reach the end of the contagion track, which despite rolling astonishingly badly in one game never happened.
The regions are the 5 continents of the original Pandemic, with the Indian subcontinent split off. The disease dice in red, yellow, black and blue drawn randomly from the “infection bag” are very attractive, and while six sided are not numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 as you might expect, but are instead numbered to reflect the prevalence of different diseases in a region in the original game – so Europe is particularly susceptible to Blue disease dice.
The “board” takes up about half the space of the original game, perfect if you don’t have a large table – but this game is not suitable for trains or travel. The beautiful custom dice are just that custom – and losing one, and this game is full of plastic dice, well that is it for your game. You need all the dice! Whatever you do, don’t lose them – if one drops on the floor stop and look for it immediately.
This is made more true by the fact that each role – all familiar I think to Pandemic with On the Brink expansion players, though I can’t remember if the Contingency Specialist appears in that game. Each role now comes with a set of custom dice, in the colour of that role, and different from any other role’s dice. The dice give you options – travel by ship, fly, cure, or collect samples, or disastrously a biohazard marker which advances the contagion track and increases the virulence (and number of disease dice placed on the regions at the end of your turn), Most roles also have some special symbols which give them additional options.
On your turn you roll the dice 5 for every role but the Generalist who gets 7 – and then spend them in any order, except the Biohazard dice resolve first. You may keep re-rolling any dice until you use them on your turn, but each role increases the chance the biohazard symbol will come up and increase the infection rate on the contagion track. The custom dice are very pretty, and make for genuine tactical choices.
When you remove disease counters they now pass to the “Treatment Centre” in the middle of the “board” from which samples have to be taken. Some dice will from time to time comes up with a + symbol and placed in a pool in the CDC, and may be used by *any player* at * any time* to buy one of the three Special Event cards always turned up. We really liked this – it is far less luck based and more tactical than the old Pandemic special events.
The role of luck
My initial thought was that this game would be much less strategically challenging and far more luck based than Pandemic. Surely all these dice make for more randomness? Actually I think the balance is nicely met, and PTC is like Pandemic a game that rewards careful planning, but in which, yes, luck does play a significant role. It always did in the original game, and I think that is part of its appeal. Things can turn bad very quickly, and you have to constantly judge whether to re-roll a dice to get an action you want at the real risk of tipping the balance further towards a loss as disease takes over by rolling a biohazard symbol!
Nowhere do you feel the luck of the dice as much as in the “Cure Disease” mechanism. As in the original game you win by curing all 4 diseases (though unlike the original game you can never eradicate a disease totally), and to do this you collect sets of samples taken from the “treatment centre” in the middle. However each sample must be “bottled up” by one of your Role dice, reducing the number of actions you have until you finally cure that disease. It is much easier than in the original game to pass samples from one player to another, but when you get enough – probably 3, though the Scientist could perhaps manage with 2, and 4 is often best – you can try and cure the disease.
Unlike Pandemic where you have to race to a research centre (they don’t feature in PTC) you can try at the end of any turn. Unless you are in the same region as the Scientist (who makes it 2 easier) you gather up the disease dice, and try and roll a total of 13+, with + symbols counting as zero. Now remember the disease dice are not numbered 1 to 6 – at least one face has a + (zero here) and the other vary – I have not checked the maths. Experience suggest 3 dice of samples MIGHT just let you cure the disease, 4 often works and 5 is pretty much guaranteed if you can get that many together. If you fail your role action dice stay bottled up another turn, but at least you can try again then. And as in Pandemic, if you cure a disease, you can remove satisfying numbers of cubes…
In poor taste?
Z-Man have released this game at a time when an Ebola epidemic is afflicting parts of West Africa causing vast misery and suffering. Is this in horrendous taste? This is the kind of thing that makes me queasy – still I do find playing Pandemic actually has made me more aware of the work of the CDC and other organisations that combat epidemics worldwide ( I see no reason why you should have to play CDC and not any other international relief or medical organisation though, but it is an American game) and at least a little good has come from it, with Pandemic parties arranged to raise funds to fight Ebola. You can find details and how to host one here.
Because we were reviewing the game, we did not ponder the morality of it. It seems in no worse taste than Monopoly (a celebration of predatory capitalism) or most wargames – and in fact here celebrates the heroic struggle against disease. I have examined my conscience and decided it is OK to enjoy this game, but it has made me decide to donate more to the struggle. And as Tom noted, not just Ebola – there are diseases we have cures for where funding can definitely prevent deaths today.
Still, I felt it worth noting…
An excellent game, with attractive well made components. Our plastic ring had one hole (the zero on the Outbreaks) imperfectly drilled making it hard to put the green hypo marker in, but other than that minor flaw the components, especially the dice, are attractive and well designed, and the cardboard regions are sturdy and workmanlike if not attractive. The role cards show a mix of genders, if that bothers you, and are well illustrated and fairly clear. The rules need careful reading, but once you spot the differences from Pandemic, and actually play, it all falls in to place. Do check the rules booklet on each new element when you first play, but if you are used to Pandemic, this should be exceptionally easy to learn. The box says age 8+ – I would have thought age 10+ – and it is not a game I would buy someone aged younger than 13. It is really for adults, and intelligent, sober adults – it requires too much concentration to play after more than a couple of beers! Supposedly it lasts 30 minutes, though most of games were nearer 45 minutes, but I have played three times in two days with different players and each time we enjoyed it enough to fit 3 games in. It is fairly addictive.
If you enjoy Pandemic, or used to but have since found it grew stale, buy this game. If you are a Robert Smith fan hoping for the boardgame of Disintegration, best avoided ;)
In past years I have written advice for Freshers of the University of Gloucestershire. My friends who work or studied at the uni have added to it. You can find it at Fresher’s Week in Cheltenham: Six Things I Wish I Had Known
This year, a warning. The University has probably told you not to bring your car to uni. You may think this is insane. No, they are sensible. Here is why.
Most housing developments round the college have allocated to them in planning between 0.3 and 0.5 parking spaces per household as far as I can make out. So basically, at best you or your neighbours can park outside your houses.
Now a lot of working families have 2 cars – this is luckily offset by he fact that many people in Cheltenham don’t need a car at all, or can’t afford one, or can’t park the bloody thing. However if a typical student house with 4, 5 or 6 residents (that typical student terraced house was originally built for a family of 2 adults and a kids) all bring a car along – you are going to have hell from your neighbours from Day One. Maybe fortunately, that won’t happen, because you won’t be able to park in your street.
The council has recognised there is not enough parking, so residents – meaning homeowners in the main – can pay £70 or so for a permit which lets them park in their streets, but of course there are only half the number of permits needed. Most of Cheltenham is covered with these permit schemes, street after street, and you are not going to be able to get a permit.
So if you bring a car, where can you park it? Well you can rent an off-road parking space or garage- they are like gold dust, and the one we have costs £800 a year, but anything from £800 to £1000 is reasonable. If you will be driving home every week, or to work somewhere not serviced by public transport, that is one solution. Another is Cheltenham is well serviced with car parks – but it is going to cost you at least that much and involve getting up to put tickets on your car unless you can buy a season ticket.
Now if you park your car near a couple of our sites, its pretty likely to be vandalised, broken in to or wrecked anyway, because these areas are not actually *very nice* – and if you park outside someone’s house, they might just torch your car. Now things are much better than twenty years ago, but seriously, I have lived here for decades now and I would not take the mickey out of the locals around FCH or Hardwick; I am have a healthy respect for my teeth. Violence is uncommon – I was the victim of unprovoked violence in day time on the streets only twice in all my student years, and I was unlucky — but seriously, as some of my friends who live in St Pauls and can’t get their cars off their drives because the four students in the house across the road all brought a car will tell you — annoying your neighbours is a bad idea in these parts. You are going to have a bad time.
Still, if you figure you can afford the insurance, aggro and prescriptions/dental work, you could bring a car. However what good is it? If you are in Cheltenham in any sensible student housing you are close to either the town centre or Bath Road, and it is unlikely you will need to drive anywhere. I have lived here since 1987 without a car, 27 years now. I went nightclubbng, shopping, and to lectures on all campuses, and was just fine.
Still you are determined. OK, so you drive to The Park, or FCH, and then what? There is uni permit parking, and some space in the car parks for those with special needs, but they cost. Otherwise, you can just drive round the streets looking at the permit only parking areas designated for residents, and wondering what the hell you do now.
So don’t being a car. There is a fine inter-campus bus service, which I campaigned for back in the late 1980, so you can thank me later. It has stopped being free a couple of years back, but it will get you from A to B. Or there is the Honeybourne Cycle Path, Have a look at this guide to cycling in Cheltenham – especially the map. Copies are usually available from FCH and possibly Park Reception.
From FCH or Hardwick it is a minutes ride to a path that leads up to this mercifully flat (no gradients as former railway line) route which will take you up to the Railway Station, where you can cut through on to the Landsdown cycle path to St Stephen’s Road then down to The Park; 2.38 miles of easy cycling. From Pitville Halls cut through by the Pump Room, down the hill to Pitville Park and through to Tommy Tay;ors Lane then join the Honeybourne by the Leisure Centre. Cycling is extremely popular in Cheltenham right now, and if you do run in to the problems you can at least out-pedal any hassle one hopes. :)
So yes I have painted a bleak, but I think realistic picture. Use the bus, walk or cycle. Don’t bring your car to university, unless you can afford to pay for parking. It’s going to get even worse as the Permit Scheme finally reaches the far side of St . Pauls and Peters this year,
And hey it’s not all bad. Here are some University of Gloucestershire ghost stories for you!
Tonight I started thinking about my time in LARP – live action role playing – and what I learned from it. I doubt many people will be interested, but if you are a larper, freeformer or follow me because of my Ars Magica writing you might find something that sparks memories here. Tonight I’m just going to write on this, even if it is self indulgent and there are much better and more important things I could write about, because I really need to get back in to the habit of writing, and because it’s fun to write about myself because I’m an egotistical maniac. :D
I started playing rpg’s young – Traveller was my first purchase, and I played D&D at school and then with various friends, but most notably Axel Johnston and Mark Weston in the early days. I was a founding member of the Mid Anglia Wargamers club along with Phil Mansfield, and also got to play RPG’s there, and in the mid 80’s sessions of the “Nameless Anarchist Horde” rpg group were regular events on a Thursday night at my parents. Axel was hosting his Runequest and Cyberpunk games on a Monday, and Peter Clark was running games on the weekend. RPG was a big part of my life, but I was also a committed miniature wargamer and board gamer, and indeed some of my board game designs I now realise were actually pretty good and far ahead of the curve.
However, this is about Live Action RPG, and I guess I first heard of that in the early to mid 1980’s when a company called Treasure Trap started to run adventures at Pekforton Castle – sort of D&D for real. Ever since the invention of D&D back in 73/74 roleplayers had dressed up and gone to conventions, doing what today would be referred to as cosplay. When my gaming friend James moved away to Kent, he returned a few months later (the last time I knowingly saw him actually) and told me about how his GM (or DM, Dungeonmaster in D&D parlance dressed up for the game in robes etc. I smiled and said “cool!” but I must admit my first thought was “what a freak he must be!”. However, going beyond dressing up, and actually acting out the narrative of the game, moving from “rpg as radio play with an improvised script” to “rpg as full costume drama/contact sport” – that was a pretty obvious development too.
Now I have been involved with lots of strands of LARP, and for a long time now – almost 30 years – but I have noted very little interest in the origins of the hobby, and almost no attempts to write a history or LARP. As far as I was concerned Treasure Trap in the UK founded in 1982 was the earliest commercial LARP company, and the only one I had heard of. Curiously the UK roleplaying magazine White Dwarf was to my memory scathing and derogatory about Treasure Trap and “Live Action Role Play” or LARP as it became known, and I seem to recall the word “freaks” and “rubber swords” being used a bit. I may well be wrong — it has been thirty years, and while I still have many old issues laying around, I can’t locate the article or editorials in question, but when the company ran in to difficulties with accusations of financial misbehaviour and general misery in 1985 — the ins and outs of which again I never knew, and only gleaned from an often hostile gaming press – there seemed to be a note of relief.
Now maybe I’m imagining it – if there was hostility to LARP, it was probably on the part of one or two writers anyway – but I think I understood it, and shared it to a certain extent. D&D and gaming generally had been suffering from the US backlash against the game, led by BADD and the legendary Patricia Pulling, whose son, a gamer, had committed suicide. Worse was to come — Chick Publications brought out Dark Dungeons, possibly the most infamous anti-gaming tract ever in 1984.
Uni & The Dungeonmaster
If that was bad, we were all reeling from something far, far worse. It is so shameful I hesitate even now to mention it in public. Yet I must, and years of therapy mean I can now recall it, and indeed sadistically inflict it upon you. Take 20 minutes to watch this. You will never be the same again…
Yes, the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon really killed 90% of the credibility of the game. Long before even that however, something to have a more enduring legacy had occurred.
Enter the Steam Tunnels
In 1979 a brilliant but troubled 16 year old prodigy named James Dallas Egbert III had gone missing from Michigan State University. His parents called in Private Eye William Dear, a tough guy PI of the old school I think from his book. He however also comes over as humane, understanding and pretty liberal — and genuinely out to save hi client, the missing boy. Dallas, as he preferred to be called had issues with his mother (according to Dear) who had very high expectations from him, but the real issue seems to have been he was far younger than anyone around him, and he was also homosexual at a time when that may have been a bit harder than today. After 30 days Dear got him back – but the media circus that erupted was very much focussed on the fact Dallas was a keen D&D player – though kicked out of the only group who admitted to playing with him for being high all the time it seems — and may have been playing D&D in the 8.5 miles of steam tunnels beneath Michigan State University campus.
Now let us be clear – Dallas was manufacturing heavy drugs, and using them, and involved in gay sex while a minor which could have got his apparently older partners in to huge trouble. The reasons for his disappearance he gave were family expectations, but he may well have had other reasons, or parts of it may have been involuntary, or, well who knows? It was a long time ago, and tragically Dallas killed himself later. His original disappearance was part of a botched suicide attempt, and later he tried again while missing. This is all awful and miserable, but it had nothing to do with D&D. William Dear however played up the gaming angle, and attempted to play down the drugs and gay angle, and the media got very excited by those steam tunnels which it became clear were used by students to travel and play games and for darker purposes. Still Dear had uncovered the first LARPERs – and curiously also records in his book that some people were by the summer of 1979 playing D&D on company computers after work hours by modems – putting internet RPG sessions back to 1979.
Now in the USA the Dallas Egbert case was headline news, and it was noted in the papers over here, with the D&D leads to boy vanishing spin I guess. I think many people were more intrigued by what he reported about people playing “D&D live” though. In 1984 Dear published a full(-ish) account of the case, The Dungeon Master, which is often referred to as anti-gaming literature. I have read ever one of the 402 pages and I don’t get that impression at all. William Dear himself paid sixty bucks (so about £90 in today’s equivalent cash) to a student to run a D&D adventure for him, and narrates it in the book (high on DM fiat, sounds enjoyable though). He has only positive things to say about the staff of TSR, the game manufacturers, and seems generally positive as do his staff about the geeky SF fans, Tolkien Society members and D&D players they interacted with. However there was a five year gap between the case and newspaper headlines and his book coming out.
In that time an American author Rona Jaffe wrote a novel that loosely refers to the steam tunnel legends, and in the minds of those who remembered coverage of the Dallas Egbert case might have seemed connected. In fact there may be no connection — because plenty of people other than Egbert had played D&D in the MSU steam tunnels, including according to Dear professors, and his inquiries uncovered a whole subculture of “live D&D players”. Southern Methodist University and California Institute of Technology had these proto-larpers in the tunnels there; and Dear reports “It was a seven-day-a-week vocation for some students at the University of Iowa” (Dear, 1984, p.163)
What is also interesting is the gender aspect in these larp circles. “Half were girls. Dungeons & Dragons isn’t an arm wrestling contest, it’s a mental game. The women in our group were very imaginative. It got tough in the tunnels, of course, but it wasn’t the sort of tough that required lifting heavy boxes or duking it out with John Wayne types. The women could handle the conditions as well as any guy.”
(Dear 1984, p.158)
The DM for at least one MSU tunnel game was a woman. I have been trying to work out how the game was played – were there live combats? – as Dear mentions other campuses where wooden weapons were employed, usually bamboo rattans at this point – but it is not clear from his text. What we do know is this
“You could get lost very easily. And the conditions were terrible – so hot you thought your brain would boil… The DM would hide treasures, which all of us had chipped in to buy, and the person who found them could keep them. And there’d be niches you could reach in to. You might come up with a handful of decaying calf’s liver, or soggy spaghetti representing an orc’s brain, or something equally unappetising. Of course you might find a treasure. The DM did not really have to set traps. There were plenty of those already”.
(Dear 1984, p.158)
Rona Jaffe’s book Mazes and Monsters took as it’s plot a steam tunnel game of D&D, or Mazes & Monsters as known here, that goes badly wrong. One of the players becomes obsessed with their character, and ends up, you guessed it, nuts in the steam tunnels. CBS bought the TV rights, a made for TV movie followed, that you can still catch from time to time, probably only because the obsessed boy was played by a very young Tom Hanks. ;)
It’s late, and you have plenty to watch. Tomorrow I’ll pick up the story in 1985, when for the first time I decided to abandon sanity and head out in to the woods to play D&D live, with no real idea of what I was doing :) What could possibly go wrong? I’ll also reveal the story of “Romeo & Juliet meet the Verona Chainsaw Massacre” the KEGS school KILLER game, and finally our Halloween 1985 attempt at playing Call of Cthulhu Live, which was extremely cool.
And yes, some of this has been embarrassing. Geeky silly sterotypes abound still today, we just laugh at them more. I rather wish my 1985 experience in Lawshall woods – or was it Hartest woods? – had even been as respectable as this video Harry posted earlier — which just goes to show that embarrassing stuff was not exclusive to the 80’s ;)
First, Merry Christmas!
Secondly, we have all been there. A family Christmas turns toxic when someone suggest playing a board game, and Aunty drags Monopoly out of the cupboard. Now Monopoly can be a lot of fun I guess – but it is not for me. There are MUCH worse games on the market — but there are also some real gems out there, which deserve to be better know. I write games, design games, create games, and there are many that are like a special kind of Purgatory that can put you off the idea of board games for life. So today, hampered by a badly cut finger that makes typing really difficult, I thought I’d have a go at listing 12 games that you might actually enjoy playing this Christmas. I’ve played all of them, and missed an awful lot of favourites out, but seriously, these are all great games.
I’m not ranking them by quality, but by complexity and price, with family suitable and “people-who-don’t-play-games” games first. Some of these really require a serious effort just to learn, so try the lower numbered games before you rush out and drop fifty quid on Agricola unless you are already a hard core gamer. At the end I’ll list places you can get them from, as unless you have a local hobby retailer you might struggle.
So without further ado, on with the games!
Game 1: HANABI
Hanabi is ace. It’s a game about fireworks, and making them, but really it is a game about collecting cards in sets of five, and working together to match colours and numbers. At around a tenner, and playable with 2 to 5 players, age 8 and up, you can play a complete game in 20 to 30 minutes. The cards are boldly designed and pretty enough, but this game is sadly utterly unsuitable for the colour blind, as I have pretty good colour vision and under electric light struggles sometimes to tell green from blue, and white from yellow, so if you are red/green deficient you are really going to struggle. The rules are very short, and really it’s a sort of Patience card game where the players work together to try and complete 5 fireworks before they run out of cards or time or make too many mistakes. The catch is you can’t see what cards you are holding, holding your hand to face the other players. It is quite hard to explain, but for a simple fun family game, I would highly recommend it.
Game 2: SETTLERS OF CATAN
This is a modern classic, a fun game for those aged ten up, but also Becky’s favourite game of the moment. Perhaps the biggest drawback of this game is it only works with 3 or 4 players, and while it lasts an hour and a half that speeds by. An island is constructed of hexagon tiles, and players build roads and houses across it by collecting cards and playing them in sets. You can find this one in your local W.H.Smiths and prices are usually around £30 to £40, but honestly it’s worth it if you have two or three other people who you might play games with. I’ve been playing since 1995 and I’m not bored with it yet. My review can be found here on this blog, and you can find loads about the game on the internet.
Game 3: TICKET TO RIDE/TICKET TO RIDE EUROPE
The game that turned me in to a hard core board game player after years of not being keen on them. Even Settlers has begun to leave me unsatisfied after ten or more years of play, when I picked up this game to take to Becky’s one Christmas. We played it at least weekly for months, in fact maybe a year, before my Agricola passion took over. Ticket to Ride is the USA map, Ticket to Ride Europe covers –well, Europe! — and both are great games, which handle 2 to 5 players well, age ten and up I would say. Coloured cards are a feature but the pieces and cards have symbols on so if you have good eyesight colour blindness many to be such a big issue as in say Hanabi, where the symbols are hard to describe and differentiate at a distance. However the pieces and tracks on the board are small, so be cautious and check – don’t take my word for it. So what’s it about? Railways, and building tracks between cities! I review the game here on this blog and there is a good online version you can play free a few times to see if you like it. Expect to pay thirty to forty pounds for this one!
Game 4: LOVE LETTER
A ridiculously simple but clever game that uses a handful of cards and some little pink cubes for scoring. My copy came in a red velveteen bag that a friend said looked like it should contain some device from Anne Summers! Set in a court where the Princess has taken herself off to her her room after the Queen was arrested for treason, and various princes are trying to get the staff to smuggle love letters to her. You play one of the princes (or princesses I guess) trying to win the heart of the Princess, and you do this by playing special cards. For 2 to 4 players, aged ten and up this is a real gem worth seeking out. It only takes 15 to 20 minutes to play, the rules are a bit complex but once you get them elegant, and it costs under a tenner, indeed maybe £6 to £8 I think. Definitely recommended.
Game 5: PANDEMIC
The theme of this game is utterly grim. Viral pandemics have broken out across the globe, and you play the desperate attempt to contain them before they wipe out humanity. This is one of my favourite games, and a co-operative one – the players as in Hanabi work together to beat the game, not each other. The game supports 2 to 4 players, though you could adapt it to play it on your own I think if you really wanted. A clever game mechanic sees little wooden cubes spread across the map each turn as cards reveal where the diseases are flourishing, and you race around the game map sharing resources and ideas with other players trying to stop a cataclysm. If you work in a Path lab, or have friends with a love of medical drama, you must buy this. My only caveat is this – buy the Second Edition. I owned the First Edition, and the supplement On the Brink – and I have just bought the latest supplement for the game, but I then had to buy covers for all my cards as the second edition has new artwork, and so the In the Lab supplement is only really usable with second edition. Given how much I had already spent buying the first editions I was hacked off, though pleased when I found the company sell a set of cards to upgrade your old version to the new. Until that is I found out how much they cost, and that retailers don’t carry them so I’d be paying to have them shipped from Canada. Poor show, I probably won’t buy any more Pandemic stuff now, though I have covered my old cards with card protector sleeves so I can play In the Lab if I want to.
Game 6: CTHULHU 500
I don’t know much about motor racing, but I am a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction. Unfortunately far too many games in my opinion try to involve elements of his Cthulhu Mythos, but in this case the bizarre mix of racing cars and eldritch tentacled horrors actually works. A fun card game for 3 to 8 players with fairly light mechanics, you will need a couple of ordinary six sided dice. Definitely worth a go, if you can find a copy! I’d say the complexity level was about that of the old Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, so age 12+?
Game 7: KING OF TOKYO
Another game I reviewed on this blog, a homage to “Giant Monster ate my city” type movies. Designed by Richard Garfield who gave the world Magic: The Gathering, this is a great little family game for age 12+. with 2-6 players playing the part of Giant Monsters competing to trash a city. It’s great fun, and fiercely competitive, and while it has some small pieces and is a bit pricey at around £30 I think anyone could learn the rules if they read them carefully and the components and presentation are beautiful. Do get this one for a Christmas rampage! I have already reviewed it on this blog.
Game 8: DOMINION
A card game of considerable complexity and sophistication, we played this loads for a while. You need the table space you would use for a board game, and it is hard to explain except to say it is a bit like Magic the Gathering or a collectible card game, where all the players have access to the same cards. I enjoy this one, but do think it is less suitable as a first game unless you have played some card games like Magic first. 2-4 players aged 10+, maybe even 12+ as the strategies get mind-boggling pretty fast. So what’s it about? Well you collect cards and play them to get money to buy cards to acquire kingdom cards. Yes I know that leaves you little the wiser, but trust me it’s a good game! Twenty to Thirty minutes, probably around 30 pounds.
Game 9: 7 WONDERS
This one is quite complicated as well. Play through several periods of history building up your civilisation by acquiring technologies, monuments, armies and building your Wonder of the World! It’s again really a card game, but the hands of cards are swapped between players after each turn, and there are little game boards and coins as well, and some tokens used in scoring. A really fun game, the complexity is probably age 12+, and you need three to seven players. Takes a little while to understand and explain the rules, but once people understand the rules a good game can be played in 30 minutes. Prices seem to range from twenty five to forty pounds for this one.
Game 10: TWILIGHT STRUGGLE
NOT a family game. GMT Games produce serious wargames in the style of the old SPI/Avalon Hill Games ones, but this is not a hex based wargame – it’s a card and map driven simulation of the period 1946 to 1990, covering the whole of the Cold War. It’s for two players, one playing the Soviet Bloc, one playing the USA and allies, and I guess the subject matter is grim — the game can end in a loss if one player accidentally goes too far and causes a Nuclear Armageddon. However if you lived through some of those years, and have a good knowledge of 20th century history, this is about the finest three hour tense political and military game you can play I think. A lot of counters, well written and informative rules, it simulates the perceived reality of the Cold War from the perspective of the Soviets and Americans — a chilling game of brinkmanship, imperialism and real world horrors. Cards reflect actual events of the Cold War period, and doubtless some people would argue the game is in horrific taste, but it is certainly educational and makes you think. It is a also a beautifully constructed game, giving a balanced outcome — if the Soviet’s don’t win early though they face a serious struggle to hold off the US. The Space Race mechanic is great, and how many games give you the decision to boycott the Olympics or not, hey? 1989 dealing with the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in that year is another game with similar mechanics and an equally perfect evocation of an era. If you are 30+, love modern history, and want a serious two player game, look no further. It’s a long way from Christmas jollity though!
Game 11: STAR WARS: X WING
Less a board game than a little wargame you can play on the kitchen table featuring painted models of Star Wars ships. For your thirty pounds you get everything you need to play, with one X wing and two TIE fighters. The introductory rules are absurdly simple, and suit age 9+ I’d say for 2 players, but there is a decent little wargame in here with a lot of complexity once you move to the main rule book, and the manoeuvre rules are really quite cool. The only drawback is you want more and more ships, and at about £12 a ship it could prove pricey, though I would say an additional fifty quid would give you enough ships to satisfy most folks, or you could just buy a second basic box set. I like this game, and it seems to appeal to the lads, but not as much to the ladies — though I am sure big Star Wars fans would love it! Definitely worth buying this Christmas, some branches of Waterstones have it in. A lot of fun with pretty model spaceships, and only 30 minutes or so to play a dogfight like you saw in the movies!
Game 12: AGRICOLA
If you know me you probably know that my current favourite game for the last couple of years has been Agricola. It works well with 2 to 5 players, though I think I play 3 player most, has difficult rules that take a lot of reading to understand, and takes an hour to two hours to play — but once you master the rules and complexity, it is a beautiful game. I have played it a LOT – a couple of hundred games now – and it is one of those rare games that I think is improved by a supplement, in this case Farmers of the Moor. However Agricola will set you back £50, and is definitely age 12+, though with the amount of play I have had from it it certainly has been worth every penny for me. I won’t describe it in detail here, as I have already reviewed it on this blog, but Agricola remains as of Christmas 2013 my all time favourite game, having replaced Diplomacy in my affections.
So Where Can I Buy These Games?
Firstly a warning. If you buy online, many of these games have supplements and expansions. If you know about the game you will recognise the difference, but there is no point in buying an expansion without the game itself. So check you are buying the game, not a supplement for it!
If you live in Cheltenham first try Proud Lion, your local game and comic shop shop on Albion Street, across the road from the back entrance to Debenham’s. Ben can advise you well, and he keeps a good selection of titles in stock upstairs. I would certainly recommend Green Knight Games, another local business (mail order) who have an excellent knowledge of the games and are always helpful and efficient.
If not, you can try ordering from the net. Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com stock many of these titles, Leisure Games in London stock pretty much everything too, are very helpful, and do mail order — and it is worth checking your local branch of Waterstones or WH.Smiths, where some of these games can be found. There are of course hobby shops up and down the country, and they vary greatly in customer service – sadly I can no longer recommend Wayland’s Forge, Birmingham, after a friend (Andy) gave the guy behind the till a sum of money when we entered the shop and said “this is for CJ’s birthday, let him just grab what he wants”, and then when I went to pay a couple of minutes later found the shop guy had converted it to Store Credit – so I could get no change, buy no second hand goods and the money Andy had given to me for my birthday had suddenly become tied to buying stuff there. Admittedly it was odd Andy gave him the money before I completed the purchase, but for refusal to backtrack or do anything about it I stopped shopping there, which must have cost the business rather a lot over the years. I’m still annoyed about it 7 or so years later! Of course the bloke in question may be long gone by now, so perhaps worth a try.
I do hope you will try a game this Christmas! This is by no means a definitive list, and many of my favourites do not appear, but do offer your suggestions in the comments section below, and advice on local stockists near you or games you have enjoyed. :)
A few of you may know that I write a lot for the books for the Ars Magica 5th edition roleplaying game published by Atlas Games, and that I am something of an enthusiast for the game, originating and often hosting the UK Grand Tribunal convention, running the Arcane Connection podcast and trying to get more people involved in playing Ars Magica and even creating tutorials on how to play, as well as occasionally contributing to Andrew Gronosky’s Project Redcap and Mark Lawford & Ben McFarland’s fanzine Sub Rosa.
Over the last 14 years I have been heavily involved with the Ars Magica community, from the Berklist to the forums and beyond. By this stage a few of the fans know my name and know that I spend a lot of my free time on Ars Magica, though I’m certainlyu not one of the big names of the field. In fact, I doubt most Ars Magica players have any idea at all who I am. This made the events of today very touching, and unexpected!
Lloyd came over this evening, bring a big box which had been delivered by Amazon to my old address. Inside the box were two parcels –
“To encourage you to further endeavours. The Secret Masters of Ars Magica”. An anonymous gift! Was it a bomb?
Nope it was an amazing microphone! Anyone who has ever listened to Arcane Connection the Ars Magica podcast knows that poor equipment has bedevilled almost everything we have ever tried to do, so this is truly a wondrous gift, better than a whole rook of Creo! And yet there was even more!
The second parcel contained this –
It is a magical device enchanted to cast Image from the Wizard Torn, a dubious benefit to anyone who ever seen my Presence -5 form, and who knows that the humble monk Chretien de Roamer has the Flaw Monstrous Appearance! It is however absolutely perfect for the Google Hangout Ars Magica chats I am experimenting with, and I am floored by the generosity of the fans.
Now for the first time in several days (lot happening right now, but sadly not Ars related good things) I wandered over tothe forum and found the person responsible for sending the Amazon to deliver the parcel. Poor Lloyd! He has barely recovered, only his Parma Magica saved him from her feminine wiles, deadly sorcery and ferocious single weapon attack! (The traditional Redcap delivery would have been just as acceptable chaps ;) ). I therefore must thank Timothy Ferguson who despite my protestations for some time that I would never accept a gift or donation towards my podcasting and Ars related activity went on and did it anyway. :D I hope Timothy was not the only contributor: the only problem is I don’t know who else to thank, and with my magical supplies so short, and the Stonehenge Tribunal limit on turning base metal to gold, well I can’t hope to reimburse people in the traditional way, by silver coins.
I am humbled by this gift, and rather astonished. I did not think the podcast, forged with the technical skills of Kevin Sides who somehow keeps my PC running, and let us not forget the third member of Arcane Connection, Tom Nowell, who often bought the cat food while I bought another £3 microphone (they die frequently!). Without Tom and Kev’s enthusiasm, and all the folks who have managed despite difficult time zone issues and poor connections to appear as special guests, there would be no Arcane Connection.
I will however repay folks, or at least try, in another way. I have a project for my usual 30 days in November series for the forum — not saints this year, or hermetic Tribunal cases — something rather different — and possibly a second one. Furthermore come December I shall try and provide a little Christmas present for everyone — an adventure — but right now i’m still formatting and sorting out the pdf’s for the last one, months overdue, which goes to Grand Tribunal attendees! Assuming everything is OK over the next week or so, (I’m awaiting some news which may prove stressful in the extreme, but hoping all good) I promise to continue doing what I can to reward and expand the fan base.
So thank you very much to the chaps and ladies of the Ars Magica community, especially to Timothy Ferguson for refusing to take no for an answer, and to David Chart and Atlas Games for giving me the opportunity to keep doing what I love! I’m not a big name rpg writer, or even prominent member of the fan community, but it was lovely to be given the opportunity to keep producing stuff and reassuring that some people actually enjoy it!
So thanks so much!
all the best
It was an overcast day, and I was walking through Bury St Edmunds with my best friend, Hugh. After lunch sometime, killing time before our scheduled afternoon classes. I don’t know the date or even the year — and Hugh is not sure he was with me at the critical moment. I think he was a few steps behind: certainly he joined me within a few minutes at most, but I recall talking to him immediately after the experience. Memory plays funny tricks.
I can’t recall precisely what we were doing — we had I think bought aniseed balls, but why we had strayed as far as Chequer Square I don’t know. I don’t know what we were talking about, what I was thinking or feeling, or why Hugh was a few paces behind (by my memory) as I looked left down the side of the cathedral, and saw myself looking back.
Not exactly — this is the memory I have of what I saw, and Hugh confirms it is what I said I saw…
A crocodile of school kids, rather strung out and disorganised, in St. James middle school uniform, walking towards me. The sun had come out, suddenly everything was warm, and the bright light bathed the scene. They were walking down the path from the gate that leads from the left side of the West Front towards my position, between St. James Church (the Cathedral) and the Norman Tower.
And I was among them, looking at myself. I was very neat, but my shirt hung out a bit (this was always characteristic of me) and I did not appear to notice myself looking back — only myself some five or six years older, a hippy looking type with shoulder length hair and a slouched demeanour very different to this upright young Chris I was viewing.
Frustratingly, I don’t know how the experience ended, I know I looked again and I was not there, and I think I asked Hugh if he saw me, and he looked at me oddly, and I told him what had happened, Hugh says he clearly recalls me telling him about the experience, but whether it was there, later in town when he met me, or even back at the school he can’t recall. He was concerned because I was clearly very upset and “not myself”. He remembers the realisation I was ill, and that we spoke at length before I went to my afternoon English class with I think Jill Curtiss back at KEGS. Hugh wasn’t doing English – he went off to his class — but by that time I was feeling very odd indeed, and was shaking a bit, had nausea, and a bad headache.
Our conversation revolved around the fact I thought my Middle School me would have hated my Upper School me – and now if it had seen me, the reason I felt so dizzy, “not me” and in fact downright odd might have been because previous-me was now making life changes that would result in now-me no longer existing. The fact that I claimed to have seen myself did not seem to worry Hugh – he was convinced I had, and intrigued, and I think we both thought our conversation was perfectly normal, which just shows how imaginative and odd we could be. The fun of the whole parallel time lines/ weird Dr Who type vibe was spoiled by my increasing anxiety, and the fact I felt absolutely awful. I was by the time I somehow made it up the stairs to my English class suffering from a stomach pain, legs like jelly, and a raging headache.
Was it Miss Curtiss or Miss Daniels who took that class? Again I have no idea. My friend Gary McFegan may well have been there — but I don’t know. What I recall was I was sitting by the door, facing across the room from the windows, and the dull light shining in seemed ridiculously and painfully bright, and it slowly dawned on me I had a fever. I could not look at the window, covered my eyes with my sleeve and began to retch.
Whoever took that class, they realised I was very unwell, and told me to go to the nurse, or home, or something. I offered no explanation, and think I just walked out of school and to my grandmother’s house, only a few streets away. There I recall sitting quietly in the dark of her front room with the curtains drawn, until somehow I was taken home to my parents, and went straight to bed. I don’t know if my parents knew I was ill – mum never took or gave pills, and so I was probably left to sleep it off. I have vague memories of flashes of pink and green lights, and of a raging headache. I never get headaches. This was incredible.
I think I missed a couple of days of school, because I felt like I had been through a tumble dryer. I ached from head to foot. I felt abysmal. Yet at no point was I running a temperature, and curiously it was only last night reading a book on hallucinations I finally understood what had happened back then. I had had my first migraine.
Most of my friends who suffer from migraine seem to do so regularly — at least not infrequently. I have had three migraines as far as I know, and the next one was in the early 1990’s when I lived at Hewlett Road, Cheltenham. Each one has hit me terribly hard, but there appears to be a decade or more in between them. However I have lived with migraine sufferers, and have seen their symptoms. I never realised however that what happened to me that day was a migraine induced hallucination — I had never heard of such a thing.
I think I would have forgotten the incident, putting it down to a trick of the imagination, if I had not been so ill afterwards. Oddly, despite having spent two decades of my life working on other peoples ghost experiences, and hallucinations, and having trained in psychiatric nursing in the early 90’s for a while, I have never thought of this as a ghost, or even a hallucination. I put it down to some wild hiccup of the mind. It had scared me badly, but nothing bad happened. Hippy Chris morphed in to CJ as we know me today, and that bizarre moment when I appeared to be seeing myself, well, it was an in-joke for Hugh and I to laugh over.
I was also frankly embarrassed. I have always prided myself on my rationality, and while I recalled a tale of Goethe seeing himself (or was it Schiller?), and probably knew even then that the doppelganger was an omen of the percipient’s death, it was easier to forget about it. I think I have told a handful of people over the years, maybe mentioned the experience in passing online, but I have never felt it “paranormal”. (Compare and contrast with my obsession with the event at Thetford Priory). Even now I hesitate to share the story, as it does make me sound nuts. The truth is of course that given the right conditions, we can all hallucinate.
So why do I think it a migraine? Well the symptoms I felt after the “vision” certainly sound like migraine to me now — though I’m no expert. Becky is making her final amendments to her PhD thesis, and is deeply involved in the mechanics of the apparitional experience right now, and I had picked up a pile of her books and was reading through them. Oliver Sack’s popular 2012 book Hallucinations was among them, and I was reading through it when I found the section on autoscopy, seeing your own body from outside, most commonly mentioned in Out of the Body Experience (OBE) research. I had noted years before the section in Green & McCreery’s classic Apparitions (1975) on what they term “autophany”, seeing one’s own apparition; and I knew the case from Gurney’s Phantasms of the Living (1886) of a lady called Sarah who alarmed herself and guests at diner one night by manifesting by the table! Strangely despite my own odd experience these cases had never really interested me much — but on reading Sacks book I suddenly realised the link between the migraine that followed the experience and my doppleganger vision.
It seems I am in good company — the great naturalist Carl Linnaeus had similar experiences, linked to his migraines according to Sacks. So did Goethe, though we know not if migraines was involved, and also Guy de Maupaussant, who wrote Le Horla. I have never had such an experience again, and in a sense I am relieved: there was a strong sense to me, however unreasonable, that my double was in fact hostile. Given I interpreted the experience in terms of a projected memory, or a timeslip — I considered both — that is actually quite odd. I quite like myself after all!
Migraine is just one reason for this kind of unpleasant experience, and a search on Google shows up several papers on the subject published in the last ten years. And yet, despite my immense love of studying the apparitional experience, and the years I have read round the literature on hallucinations to understand it, I have a curious reticence about even speaking of this odd little thing that happened almost thirty years ago.
Last night, Hugh and I, still friends and now both living 150 miles from the scene of the incident talked about it over a boardgame, and I thought maybe others might be interested. So many kind people have over the years risked ridicule t share with me or Becky or other researchers their own anomalous experiences, and I find it easy enough to discuss what happened at Thetford; that was something one could easily classify ghost, and “ghosts are OK?” in our culture I guess. So I am sharing my story, and hope it might perhaps reassure others having truly weird experiences that nothing bad came of it, either in the form of a severe and prolonged illness, or being haunted to my doom by my doppleganger. I’ll tell you what though: migraine was bad enough.
Firstly, and foremost. It is all Kevin’s fault.
I never set out to organise anything – organisation and me are distant acquaintances, at the best. I rarely know what day it is; I sometimes struggle to recall the year. I find myself booked to six events on the same evening, and having failed to arrange a bus ticket to any of them. I can barely manage to dress myself, or organise getting dinner on the table. I may be the world’s most useless man. I may well live forever, as I will never get round to turning up on time for my funeral.
Well so my friends would have you believe. What my detractors would say is rather less charitable.
Of course I think I am a highly organised, very focussed individual with great project management skills. My issue is that I commit very heavily to doing stuff, unpaid stuff generally, that makes incredible demands on my time. I would argue that years of actually doing stuff, organising events and getting books written and projects completed shows that I actually am far from how my friends portray me. My persona is that of a muddle headed hippy; in reality I’m extremely efficient. They just believe the hype :)
Still, I’m the last person you would ask to organise a convention or conference. Or it would seem, the first…
It all started back in February 2007, on a mailing list dedicated to the roleplaying game Ars Magica. There was a discussion about conventions, and about how Amber (another rpg) players have their own events. And then Kevin announced yes, we should — and volunteered me.
And in a sudden fit of insanity I said yes, OK then, and that was it. I was a convention organiser…
Now Grand Tribunal is about games, but you can organise conventions and conferences and meet ups for almost anything. In this post I’m going to talk about what I have learned in my years of running events, the pitfalls, and the many positives. Grand Tribunal UK has only about 30 attendees each year – we are a tiny event – but a great deal of work goes in to it. If you happen to be interested in Ars Magica, or running a con dedicated to another roleplaying game this may be useful to you — but I hope what I have to say has some interest to anyone with a hobby they are passionate about.
Firstly, what was my con about? Ars Magica is a roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons, played round a table with the players pretending to be characters in a Mythic, slightly Fantasy version of our real 13th century. It’s been around a long time, has a very complex background and is rules heavy, and is an awful lot of fun. Players are distributed around the world, and some play on the internet, and others don’t play much at all because other players are hard to find. In Cheltenham I had built up a small but dedicated group of players, so that answers the first question for a con organiser — “why here?”.
Does Anyone Want This Event?
I knew I had a small group who would attend, and that is important. For an event like this to work, you need a critical mass of people, something I learned in my days DJ’ing. No matter what I played, no matter what club, unless you have enough punters in to actually make people feel they can dance without being watched by the other six folk propping up the bar, the night does not work. You are playing to an empty cavernous space; a few shuffle uncomfortably, others down there beer and head off in search of a more fun venue. Then a party of folks arrives, or the pubs kick out, or — well whatever the reason, you suddenly have 30-40 people in the room. The atmosphere builds. Get to 100 and you have a real night going, and people hit the dance floor.
My experience of academic conferences is that people come to socialise and network as much as listen to the speakers. I spent many an SPR Study Day or Conference standing outside in the rain talking to Tony Cornell while he smoked outside and regaled me with accounts of his researchers — the chap was probably the greatest 20th century ghost investigator, and he wrote two of the best books on the subject — do pick up this one, pricey though it is. Tony often missed lectures and official events — and it did not matter. (Incidentally while Tony developed a grave distrust of all people from Cheltenham in the field, and we stopped speaking in the mid-90’s, I learned more from him than I would have in any amount of formal talks and miss his gnomic wit and bitterly sharp intelligence, especially now he has died).
Anyway you need people. If everyone who will come can comfortably fit in a pub or living room, maybe that is your venue sorted.
First Things First
So you are going to need people to come to your event. Before you book a venue, before you write a programme, before you invite speakers or work out how to market, you need to know that you will have some people who think that the event is a great idea, and who volunteer to come, and to help out. In reality they might well not actually do either, but in this internet age starting a discussion about the possibility is the very first thing to try.
Assuming people are enthusiastic, you can now try and co-opt people in to your schemes, on the organising side. My first rule is “assume you will end up doing everything yourself”. No matter how good you are at people management, people have families, jobs, ill health and unexpected life events. And let’s face it, many people who will happily type away saying they will do something will then forget all about it, or spend months and years bemoaning the cruel indifferent Gods who condemned them to working on your event for no pay and precious little thanks. So with the best will in the world, organising your project roles, setting up a large committee and drawing up a set of goals, deadlines and project stages might be a complete waste of time, as these folk are volunteers. If you have paid staff, all these are great ideas — but most of us for a project of the scale I’m envisioning won’t have.
The Horror That is Dates
Next up – dates. The only thing I can really say here is that for your first event, sooner is better than later. A con a year off is too far for most people to commit to for a first event. I think we opened the doors about 3 months after the original idea was put forward. If the event works, you can plan a whole year in advance for the next one – but would say 8 to 10 weeks is the most for a first event.
A lot of people won’t be able to make any date you choose. Or rather, of your key audience, some folks will be unavailable on any given date. You will have to upset some people who already have commitments then. It’s inevitable – just choose a date and stick with it.
I messed up with dates twice, and I will reveal all, despite it making me look rubbish. The first time I simply booked the event for a weekend when there was another big event scheduled in Cheltenham – well a horse racing event. I had checked the Festival calendar, and made sure I was not clashing with the music, jazz, science or literature festivals. I chose a weekend when there were no other big games conventions in the UK I could find (easier a few years ago). Accommodation gets more pricey in town when something big is on — and is harder to find. And then I found out there was one of the two biggest race meetings of the year that weekend – the one I had never heard of, as opposed to the Gold Cup which I obviously had.
The second screw up came when I assigned the dates using the previous years holiday calendar, and found I had chosen a Bank Holiday weekend. Never, ever, run a little event on a Bank Holiday. It may seem an obvious choice, but a) accommodation is at a premium b) loads of big events occur then and people will go to those instead and c) many people work their family and holiday bookings around Bank Holidays. Luckily one of the delegates spotted the problem immediately, and I was able to change the dates before anyone had booked travel or accommodation. Yet neither of the people who had checked my booking had noticed the problem.
The Scope of Your Event
OK, so now you have a date, and hopefully an idea of what your event is about. In my case it was about Ars Magica, a game I had by that time written on several books for. Astonishingly parts of the fan community recalled my name and seemed enthusiastic to meet me, and I realised that getting the other authors along would be a big draw — and I found that a little odd, because rpg fans usually focus on rules mechanics and the quality of the book, and seem to pay little regard to the authors, as opposed to say Crime Fiction fans where authors become celebrities. E. Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, Greg Stafford, Marc Miller, Robin Laws, Ken Hite, Monte Cook — they are celebrity rpg authors, but most of us are barely noticed I think. Still I wanted the authors, and while they were spread over four or more continents, a gratifying number of the British authors signed up. And then t my astonishment two of the biggest names in Ars Magica, Matt Ryan and Erik Dahl said they were coming – from New York & California, respectively.
An Audience With the Authors panel was an obvious choice, and while the Line Editor David Chart could not make it (he was living in Japan) he immediately said he would write a short piece giving advance notice of the plans for the line, secrets that could not be leaked, but would be the exclusive knowledge of the fans who made it to the event. Once he said that, sign ups increased even more. There is nothing like a big revelation to get peoples attention, as the hype over the announcement of the new Doctor Who on TV tonight is demonstrating.
Still I actually lacked real concrete ideas of how the event would work at this point. I knew gamers would play games if given a quiet private space, and so decided to ask the delegates to bring games they wanted to run, and we announced them as we heard about them to get people excited. I started putting out regular announcements on mailing lists and forums dedicated to the game.
I was not going to run a general games convention or a hobby meet up, but one specifically about Ars Magica. I did not have any figures for how many people played the game, but I hoped there would be enough to provide a small but fanatical group of delegates :) By this time we had about twenty people who has indicated they were coming…
OK, so I wanted to run a convention dedicated to Ars Magica (and other products by ATLAS GAMES). I would be referring to their intellectual properties – trademarks, copyrights etc. I had always intended to run a non-profit making and unofficial event, but it was clear to me that I had to ask ATLAS GAMES for permission. So I did, and they were happy to support us, publicize the event and dent us some free stuff which we raffled off for charity, and which proved another major draw to the event. It was all systems go…
Except I still had no venue. With only twenty people at this point I obviously did not need a large venue, but gamers need tables, chairs, quiet and a room big enough for the live action dress up and be wizards game I now planned as a Saturday event. Many pubs have rooms you can use for free, but they expect you to drink, and anyway pubs tend to be noisy, even in private rooms. I wanted a larger, ,multi-room venue. Church Halls, Community Centres and Scout Huts were the obvious choices, but I would need one for a whole Saturday and a Sunday morning, as I expected the delegates to leave about midday.
The catch was I had no idea of final numbers, no money to pay for the venue if it all failed without incurring considerable hardship and until I announced the venue I could not really confirm the event. Also with people now coming from Norway, the USA, Germany and France I needed to be very quick, as flights needed to be booked and accommodation found. Yet I could not set the price or even confirm the event until I knew the venue cost…
I was lucky! I found a wonderful community centre at a very reasonable cost.
A Word On Venues
I love the venue we use, because it is close to my home, spacious and has car parking close by. Two regular attendees live directly opposite, so last minute printer hitches or lack of mugs or rulebooks can always be quickly sorted. It’s private, clean and has multiple rooms. However…
Not all the delegates were as easy to convince as me. The venue looks very ordinary (some would say shabby) from the outside. My expectations are not those of all of the fan base, many of whom can afford to eat meat every day and own cars, houses and attend prestigious events like theatre trips that cost ten times what this whole weekend would for a single ticket. For some, the area where I live must have seemed like a real slum, and the venue not be quite what they anticipated.
There is no implied criticism here. I think people were just surprised when they found it was just a church hall, as they were used to big games conventions run in beautifully landscaped university campuses. I did actually end up using a room at the university on the Sunday morning as my venue was not free, but that cost almost as much as the venue had for the whole of Saturday. Universities make money in the summer as conference venues for businesses with megabucks to spend, and only using the Student Union to make the booking made it affordable at all. I did try the university again one year for a quote, but then they switched to a third party conference facilities company and the price sky rocketed out of my budget, and all my plans went to waste.
Seven years later and everyone seems to have real affection for our lovely venue. The money we have been able to donate to help the Community Centre has perhaps helped a tiny bit, but every year the custodians improve it, and they have been incredibly decent to us. I would not hold it anywhere else now.
I did initially scout out another venue, a 13th century castle with a Youth Hostel set in a tiny village, about an hours drive from my home. Eventually I gave up on the idea – while it was lovely, and had plenty of accommodation at very reasonable rates, and let’s face it delegates pay more for accommodation than any other aspect of the weekend, it is very remote, with no public transport links, another hour from Heathrow or Stansted and difficult to find. Then I discovered quite a few delegates really did not want to stay in cheap YHA dormitory accommodation, and given the lack of local hotels, I realised the venue just would not work. Several changes of management at the venue, each of whom seemed to know nothing of my previous correspondence and plans made me abandon the idea. Atmospheric, but impractical, and again the final asking price would have been many times what I finally took in ticket sales.
One thing I will say – when you get a price, get it on paper, and makes sure you sign a contract as soon as possible. Our venue have been wonderful, even reducing the price for us, but the other venues I’ve worked with have pencilled in a booking, changed managers and price structures and then doubled or tripled what they were asking. Luckily I had gone with out community centre, and could tell them “No” very firmly.
Another option was a hotel’s conference facilities. This may be perfect for your event, but a word of warning — most are designed for committee meetings, not hordes of gamers and socialising, and a single room environment may or may not serve what you want from your event. In my case it was less than ideal. Furthermore conference facilities were only at anything approaching a realistic cost if I made a block booking on a certain number of hotel rooms — and then I would have to try and dictate where delegates stayed, and factor accommodation in to the ticket. I could not see this working at all.
My advice is simple – find a small, inexpensive venue, close to your home, and use it. Ensure the venue has Public Liability insurance that will cover users, and then at least you are slightly more covered. Make sure you read the terms and conditions, and the place has decent disabled access and toilets. Try to avoid upstairs venues like the plague, as even those who don’t visibly have mobility issues can struggle with steep stairs I have found. If you must use an upstairs room for something, make it absolutely clear. Because I took this in to account from Day One, I am delighted to say we have never had an issue with it.
Accommodating Your Guests
You might be planning to use a local camp site, and hope the English weather holds out. Guest of Honour like Erik and Matt we have put up in our own homes — though that is less than ideal, because you may find you have a huge amount to do in the hours before and during the event. Some people will come for the day — but many others will come a long way.
My solution was to post details of hotels, motels, B&B and camping options, as many as I could find, and to list the local Tourist Information. At least once guest stayed somewhere I later found they actually felt was verging on the unsavoury, and I made sure that place was not listed on the site. However I decided I had enough to do without worrying about accommodation, and rather than make the mistake I nearly did with the youth Hostel dorms and go for cheap and tied accommodation, or ask people to stay at the hotel I considered as a venue, it was better to let the guests chose their own accommodation and book it themselves.
We have had people show up without booking any rooms or had their room fall through for some reason (or just missed trains), and we have done what we can for them, and no one has ever slept in a hedge so far, but they might one year. I’m totally clear that we will do what we can to help you find a room, but ultimately booking accommodation is down to the guests. However we found a way to minimize this possibility!
Oh and as an afterthought, one of the most bizarre things i ever found – the discount rate for booking blocks of room sin hotels can actually be considerably more than the cost of booking the same rooms individually. Yes, really. I was astonished by this!
It was important people could ask advice about accommodation options, transport, car sharing, room sharing, and other matters. I created early on a YahooGroup dedicated to the con, which gets really busy for about a month a year, then goes quiet. The whole community of delegates and others who can’t make this year but are interested participate, and this is where the whole thing gets put together. I strongly advise you to consider a dedicated forum thread or email list to handle this kind of enquiry and where people can get to know each other before they turn up.
I got lucky here again – Karl bought the website domain www.grandtribunal.org and kindly let us use it, and Pitt Murmann has set up a wiki that has been invaluable and allowed all delegates to add content, edit and develop the site. This year we are using a wiki developed by Andy Oakley, which is just like Pitt’s much much faster than a conventional website to update. Nowadays we also have a Facebook page, and Twitter is used during the weekend to allow us to quickly send updates to all delegates as to where we all are and what is happening.
How Much Should I Charge?
A lot of the events have put on over the years have been completely free, but I knew I would have heavy costs for this event. I needed people to book in advance so I could pay the venue deposit, and I really did not want to make tickets available on the door as I had to know how many people were coming (actually to my delight every year I have run the con — in Part 2 you will learn about how friends ran it later on and the USA version, and the different options their experiences provide — a couple of people have arrived unannounced on the day on a whim! This is great, but hard to work with for a very structured event, but please please do come! Not everyone can plan weeks or months in advance, as I know all too well.)
So pricing. I did not want to make any money – any profits would go to charity, and in fact I have made small losses twice. Nothing serious, just a little. A few facts to consider when pricing –
1. Cover your venue costs. Obviously!
2. Look for hidden costs – tea, coffee, milk, squash, snacks, washing up liquid etc . There will be many. Put at least £20 aside for this sort of thing.
3. Charge something. If you charge people will take it more seriously. No idea why, but even a small charge makes people actually commit and feel they got something back.
4.Offer a generous range of small discounts for those with less money to throw around – the unwaged, OAPS, etc. You will feel bad when the price you have to charge excludes some people, but try to be fair and not give away tickets. The most important discounts for those who book early, before a certain date, which allows you to know your event will work and is viable in terms of numbers and pay deposits and advance fees
5. However, be aware that a number of people, including close friends, may not be able or willing to pay anything. Some will just drop in for a single event and therefore don’t want to pay. Close friends often figure any event you put on should not cost, because they don’t pay normally to hang out with you. Most of my close friends actually do pay, but you can’t really charge the people who spend a whole week setting up, organising the event, making stuff, and running to pick people up from the station, unless they really insist. I learned this not from my con but from non-game related events, but it is worth noting. The numbers on the delegate list may not reflect the numbers who paid!
The problem with letting your friends come for less than cost price is that it soon becomes impossible to charge almost anyone, as all regular attendees are soon friends. We don’t have this problem with Grand Tribunal, where I insist even my best friends pay (the only official exemption is my co-organiser and he pays anyway by putting much more than his ticket price in to the event supplies and so forth).
Unfortunately, you have to get good at badgering people. Most people are absolutely lovely though, and will do all kinds of stuff and pay extra just to help, and this year we had donations from two people who can’t come but just wanted to help out! Thanks to Pitt Murmann and David for that!
In Part 2 I will discuss how it all went, and what we have learned over the last six cons, two of which were organised brilliantly in Cambridge by my friends Neil and Sheila using a slightly different model. More pitfalls and traps will be revealed, and all the fun we have had.
Finally, if you happen to be interested in Ars Magica or rpgs, larp, freeforms or boardgames, you might want to just come along. Grand Tribunal UK 2013 is taking place in Cheltenham, England from August 16th to 18th – you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org for details, but check out the website at www.grandtribunal.org
Grand Tribunal is held by kind permission of Atlas Games. “Grand Tribunal” and the “Grand Tribunal” logo are trademarks of Trident, Inc. d/b/a Atlas Games, used with permission. Grand Tribunal is Atlas Games excellent board game of magic!