A diary of sorts, wherein I moonlight as a games writer. Under haphazard construction.
Of Rooms and Booms on Tabletop Gaming Day 2014
When I arrived at Leisure Games in London for their Tabletop Gaming Day event last weekend I was wondering whether anything would justify the £15 train fare and lost Saturday morning. I’d almost bailed on going at the last minute, thanks to visions of a tiny, overcrowded store, full of nothing but full, already-in-progress games and nowhere to sit or stand. When I was greeted by exactly this as I stepped in the door, my heart sank. Quinns could be heard busily conducting a game of One-Night Werewolf, and I was immediately terrified by the prospect of making a gibbering arse of myself to him, but with the exception of that it didn’t look like there was going to be much else to do. I mean, the first game I got a chance to sit down and play was Ticket to Ride and that’s about trains.
I may be exaggerating my apathy towards trains slightly for comic effect, but I didn’t expect to end up having such a good time at that table, or any of the others. I thought it’d be too cramped and busy, that I wouldn’t enjoy the few things that were available to play, and that I’d just spend most of the day browsing the merchandise on repeat, until eventually getting bored, buying something and going home. Obviously I was wrong, otherwise I’d not be writing about it, but wow, how wrong.
Ticket to Ride is positively ancient and incredibly popular in the wider boardgame community, so it’s one of those games that gets talked about all the time without ever really being explained in much detail. It’s a staple, along with Catan, which I don’t think ever really went as mainstream here as he household names of Monopoly, Risk and Scrabble did. It definitely wasn’t a title I was familiar with before I started getting into boardgames proper. Landing for the first time on Catan’s shores and hoarding sheep felt like something of a rite of passage, and I got the same buzz out of sitting for nearly two hours competing to build railways across Europe. I can speak with authority now about how much fun it is to drop three tickets in one turn, as you sneakily connect two distant, winding routes in an enormous Hail Mary between Warsaw and London that puts you miles in the lead, before watching in tense horror as everyone else slowly but surely catches up, despite your best efforts to sabotage them. It’s evil and deceptive and really, really good! You begin by warily circling- finding your feet, making early gains and trying to foresee the shape of the game to come. Don’t be too obvious, or you’ll be blocked off. But take too many long, oblique routes and someone else will beat you to where you were trying to get to, without ever realising that they’ve thwarted you. Only rush into the lead when you feel strong enough to hold it, and hope damn well you’re right. I misjudged, I came second. As the main lines between major cities are taken you’re constantly, constantly fighting, never quite sure how much time you can afford to spare gathering resources before making another push for points. Towards the end I overheard someone standing near the table quietly remark how much it looked like we were playing a wargame, to which I turned around and growled that we were playing a bloody wargame.
The games of Netrunner and One Night Werewolf that took up most of the rest of the day were good, and I was pleased to find DiaMonsters, my import from Japan, was well-received, but it was Quinns’ surprise that really stole the show.
Two Rooms and a Boom is on Kickstarter at the moment, but has been available as a print-and-play affair for a while now. I’d heard of it from Shut Up and Sit Down, because I read next to nothing else on board games, but I gather it’s been attracting a lot of attention on other sites and at conventions and shows as the next big party game things. Describing it as “a hidden role game like Mafia/Werewolf” doesn’t really do justice to how much more social and tense an experience it is.
You’re divided into two teams, given your team identity in secret from the other players and split into two groups which are unable to hear or communicate with each other. You’re then tasked with electing a leader who must decide who to exchange as hostages with the other room over the course of 3-5 rounds with increasingly short grace periods in between. The goal for the Red team is to have the Bomb player in the same room as the President player at the end of the game whilst the goal of the Blue team is to prevent that from happening. How do you elect a leader? How do you know who’s on your side? How do you decide who to send? How do you work out who the power roles are? Questions, questions.
Where Werewolf fosters a witch-hunting atmosphere in which you’re never quite sure who you can trust, in TRaaB you keep your cards whilst playing, and can choose to partially or fully reveal your identity to other players in your group at any time. If someone else manages to see, tough luck. Your allies are found more easily than in Werewolf, but there are always potentially enemies within earshot. The more info the players on each team divulge, the easier the process of eliminating players down to find the President or the Bomber becomes.
Colour check? Sure. Cool. Full reveal now? No? Ooh, why not? There are two spies, are you one of them? No? Then why not full reveal? We’re on the same team! Hey, she won’t full reveal to me. Has she full revealed to you? Really? What colour are you? So you can vouch for her, then? Prove it. Wow, okay, so..
At which point you catch the urgency in his glare like a slap to the face, and it becomes painfully obvious that of course she won’t full reveal, she’s the fucking President. And by kicking up a fuss you might just have blown her cover to one of the two Reds over there.
I like this so much more than Werewolf, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. It may just be because of the incredible first game I had as the President, but it feels more positive, somehow. There’s a greater sense of cooperation, and more incentives to trust people and work together.
In my President game I had to locate the Doctor and reveal myself to him in order to not automatically lose the game. When he full-revealed himself to the entire group after perhaps the most heart-stoppingly tense four minutes of trying to stay concealed in my entire life, I felt like hugging him. Every Blue in the group suddenly knew they had an ally, and once I full-revealed myself to him (after starting an argument to plunge the group into chaos and quickly darting to secretly flash my card in his face!) we were all united. When the penultimate round of hostage exchanges brought a tall, uncommunicative stranger into our midst who refused to reveal even his colour to anyone, we were all set on edge. Had the Bomb come amongst us? I felt relief and gratitude to find him loyal to me, but my heart nearly exploded with love and joy after the game, when I found out that he and one of the allies we’d traded over the round before had almost all the Reds on the opposite team thinking that he was the President. They knew that to keep the Bomb in the opposite camp to me, the majority of the Reds would have to believe that the President was there too. They were secretly protecting me!
It is just sublime.
That the Reds had sent their best lead to join us because he was being too awkward and suspicious would have been a massive clue that the Bomb was to follow on the final trade, but we only found out the full truth after the game had finished. We missed the trick and I paid the price, but oh my God.
In the next game I was an Amnesiac who in the penultimate round turned out to be a Bodysnatcher, and three players weren’t even interested in Red and Blue. They were Greys. A Sniper, his Target and a Decoy. If the Sniper identified the Target correctly at the end of the game, he won, otherwise he lost. I traded the identity of his target with him for the identity of the Bomb. Sublime!
Did I mention we were playing this on the pavement outside the shop?
The whole day was wonderful, and finding Quinns, one of my idols since reading PC Gamer, to be every bit the amazing person I’d expected, only made it more memorable. Had he not been there it would still have been a blast, though, because board games! And social games! And wonderful friendly people!
I’m going back on the 4th of May for their next open day. In the meantime, I really need to investigate the Cambridge scene more. Inner Sanctum is so big, there must be some seriously awesome groups there.
If there’s not, then I guess I’m starting one.