We Need to Talk About Agency

 

 

Most of you will have read to title of this article and wondered what the hell I am blathering on about. Although that could probably be said for many of my articles, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

 

I should just stop waffling and get on with it, shouldn’t I?

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It has only been in the last few months that I have heard the term ‘agency’ being used in reference a few games. It caught me out. So naturally I did what I normally do in such situations. Completely forget about the term and think about other things. But as with all such matters, you hear it once and you start hearing it again and again. So naturally I did some digging.

 

A very simplified definition of the term is how much control a player has over what happens to them. It has frequent use in the video game industry, where the concept of control can sometime be an illusion. The Call Of Duty games are an example of where there is very low levels of player agency. Whilst you are given a concept of a bigger world and bigger level around you by the impressive visuals, you are railroaded into very specific routes that take you from one set piece to the next. Compare to the Grand Theft Auto games where players have got lots of choices to make (although the individual missions may cut that choice down to more defined parameters). By their very nature, video game agency will always take players to the same place – the end screen (although there maybe multiple endings depending on choices the players make during the game).

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So how does this translate into tabletop games?

 

Like video gaming, you know what you are getting into when you start a game. You cannot argue that you have any influence upon the game’s outcome with Snakes and Ladders (unless you load the dice – but then what sort of person are you?). Having read and reread the rules, you will have an idea of the choices that are open to you. Furthermore, you will have a concept of how your role in the game can influence both the experience and the outcome. Perhaps you won’t appreciate every little detail at this stage, but already you have at least a rough understanding of how much agency the game affords you.

 

Of course, you will never get truly free reign – even in the most open of game rules, as the game has to provide you with a challenge. Of course in Pandemic I could travel to New York, but that isn’t really going to be of much use if an outbreak on Bogotá is going to cause us to lose the game. In those firefighting situations, your agency goes flying out of the window.

 

However, in a competitive game there is another variable you need to consider – that of your opponent (or opponents). Any game which involves conflict means that your choices and influence are going to be limited by what the other players do. It may be fairly minimal – a game of Rummy in which players are collecting similar numbers for example. Or very deliberate where you will lose playing pieces, cards or positions on the board. The drama of the game is created by this clash for control. Returning to my earlier statement, you must expect this when you sit down to start the game. It is precious little use to complain about what your opponent is doing to you if you know that possibility exists in the first place.

 

So if there is nothing that can be done about agency, why am I talking about it?

 

Say you and I were to play Blackjack with one another. However, whilst you are playing the game normally, I am allowed to search through the deck on the occasion I decide to hit. What is going to happen on that occasion? You have complete choice and control over your actions. But neither action is necessarily the better option, as you ideal situation is a draw (or a very unlikely win should you get a natural 21 on two cards). By one change to the basic rules, I have removed your agency from the game. And the only option is therefore not to play …

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Of course this is a very silly example and any casino doing this would rapidly find themselves with customers. But my point is this – there becomes a point where denial of an opponent’s agency moves beyond a game’s conflict and turns instead to a negative play experience. And I would argue that there are two reasons for this denial of agency – poor game design or an intentional player strategy.

 

We do have to accept that game designers are not perfect – they are only human after all. So it stands to reason that sometimes a circumstance will just slip through the design process and play testing. It’s not a perfect situation but it happens. I have found games that feature a rare situation that creates a “feedback loop” of cause and effect. This essentially strands a player whilst their opponent can happily carry on to their hearts content to win the game unimpeded. This can happen quite by accident, although players upon finding this solution can attempt to manufacture it for following turns …

 

Less forgivable than these corner cases are where an element of a game is designed that someone in the process clearly believes is a good idea at the time, but fails to think through the consequences of their actions. Never has this been more pronounced or memorable to me, than during the heady days of 2nd Edition Warhammer 40,000’s Dark Millennium supplement. Players were each dealt a hand of strategy cards at the game’s beginning and one of these was titled Virus Outbreak.

 

The card would cause virus to erupt from a point on the table and models within a certain distance would be removed on a certain dice roll. However, a removed model would trigger the process anew. Stories were told of entire armies dropping dead at the start of the game. The game designers later told players to remove this card from their strategy decks, realising that perhaps it wasn’t a very good idea.

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Sometime, as the writer William Faulkner suggested, it is best to ‘kill your darlings.’

 

And this brings us onto a very salient point. It is important to remember that a game’s designer or manufacturer always has the capacity to do something about these situations that find a player’s agency negatively impacted. It is only recently that several rules changes were announced for the X-Wing Miniatures Game, which altered or neutered play styles that were seen as counter intuitive to a player’s agency (A few months ago when playing against one of these ships, I found myself in a situation that wherever I moved my own piece, I would be getting a bomb dropped right on my face). It is crucial, not just for a player’s enjoyment, but also for the game’s sales, that designers are able to keep abreast of such situations and have the opportunity to remove anything that they see as damaging (although responding a bit quicker might be nice …).

 

The second situation is more problematic, as players can clearly have a difference of opinion over what is negative play. From personal experience, it emerges from where players have an opportunity to design their own play style before the game – usually in a miniatures or a collectable card game environment.

 

Take Magic: The Gathering for example. All of my friends who play this are aware of my style. I am a dyed in the wool control player (for the uninitiated control play is designed around preventing your opponent from using their better cards against you). Give me two untapped islands and a hand of Counterspells any day. Yet in doing so, I am deliberately targeting a player’s agency. I am stopping them playing their game the way they want to. Someone would argue that I am creating a negative play experience for my opponent as a result. I would refute this as by the nature of the game, I cannot have more counters than they have spells. So I am forcing them to be more strategic in how they play. Someone may enjoy that challenge. Another would find it a grind. Who is right? Who can judge?

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I have seen plenty of wargamers design lists solely to select the best elements of a force. The primary motivation is to win and does not consider the experience of the other gamer. But producing a “top tier” list in itself does not always negatively impact an opponent’s agency. There has to be an element that renders the other side’s choices ultimately meaningless. So a model that can only be dealt with in a very specific or lucky set of circumstances. A card combination that shuts down an opponent’s play options.

 

I would propose that we as players have a duty towards one another, but this duty is a two way street. We should be looking at our intentions when we are playing games and whether these intentions are going to ruin the game for another person. But on the other side, when the chips are down and things are not going our way, we need to accept that often this is down to luck or skill, rather than some inherent weakness in the game or extreme agency negation by our opponent. We all want to enjoy our play experience. And we all want players to sit down to a game with us again.

 

Interfering with agency is an unavoidable consequence of playing a game. But our intention must ultimately be to ensure both people enjoy the experience whatever the outcome. And provided we can honestly say we went into a game with those intentions, then we can be happy that we have played our part.

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Proper Grown Up Gaming

When I first started with roleplaying games, they were almost all exclusively fantasy based. Create a character, get some equipment and find the nearest cave/monster lair/wizard’s tower to ransack. It was dungeon crawls a-go-go and my collection of game reflected this. It started with Advanced Fighting Fantasy; then Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and finally onto the granddaddy of them all – Dungeons and Dragons. Being a young teenager, I wasn’t really interested in imbuing my characters with life, goals or motivations. In fact characterisation was a bit of a dirty word. I was all about the monster slaying and the looting.

There were probably two things that changed the way I looked at roleplaying games. One was the magazine Arcane that ran for 20 issues in the mid-1990s. It reviewed new gaming products, provided gaming scenarios and ran several thought-provoking and motivational articles on how to be a better roleplayer. Damn I loved that magazine …

The second was when a friend of mine returned from his holiday with a brand new roleplaying game for us to try out. He told us a story of finding it in a small bookshop in Scotland (I am probably adding more mystique to the story than when it was actually told – but that’s how memory works) and he purchased it after briefly flicking through its pages. Once my other friends and I had a chance to go over it, we were similarly enamoured. The game wasn’t fantasy as we knew it. It was set in modern times. But not the modern times as we knew them. And there wasn’t a single dungeon in sight. We were being introduced to a new world – A World Of Darkness. And the first look at this world was through Vampire: The Masquerade.

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Designed in 1991 by Mark Rein Hagen, Vampire: The Masquerade (or VtM) was the first book that detailed a dark world beyond our own where monsters truly did exist. Vampire, werewolves, wizards, ghosts and the Fae were all part of the original five book source books that detailed the hidden societies running in parallel – or sometime dominating our own. The games all operated under the Storyteller System, the title of which probably gives you the clearest direction of the designer’s intent. This is a mature game that wants to craft narratives, beyond ‘how much treasure can I get out of this place.’

The Storyteller System has a very simply mechanic at its core. Characters are designed by allocating skill points to Attributes and Abilities. Attributes are like other games’ statistics and are broken down into three classifications – Physical, Social and Mental. Abilities also have three groupings – Talents, Skills and Knowledges. Each of these is scored out of five.

Whenever a character is required to roll dice to try to do something, the Storyteller (the name for the GM in this game) will tell them which Attribute and Ability to combine. The player collects a number of ten sided dice equal to this. The Storyteller will also give a difficulty number. The player must roll the dice and counts each dice roll that equals or beats that number as a success. The number of successes equals the degree to which the task is accomplished. One success is barely succeeding. Five is succeeding beyond your wildest dreams. However, any dice that comes up as a 1 removes a success from you. Roll more 1s than successes and you have ‘botched’. This is usually when the Storyteller plots something very bad happening.

The joy of the system is that it allows many different combinations of abilities to cover a multitude of situations. So climbing a wall is almost always going to be a combination of Strength and Athletics. But what if you need to spend five hours programming without a break? Well with the Storyteller system you can roll a combination of Stamina and Computers. Trying to impress someone by pretending to be a doctor? Charisma plus Medicine. The system activity encourages you to come up with unique ways to use your character’s strong points.

However, VtM wants you to go beyond the statistics in order to create your character. It encourages you to start with a concept for your character and build around that. It could be a very simple one – ex-cop for example. Or you can go into more depth – one of my favourite characterswas Victor, who had been orphaned in the Blitz and his need to steal to survive had then developed into full blown kleptomania. The Storyteller as a result was able to play with this – dangling items in front of him he may be compelled to steal. Presenting me with a German character who would have fought on the other side of the war to see how he’d react.

Accompanied to this was giving characters Natures and Demeanours that encouraged you to play the character rather than a manifestation of yourself. Playing according to your characters Nature gave you a way to recover statistics. Also added into this were backgrounds – that could add allies, finances or mentors to your character’s make up.

The game even went so far as to encourage the players to go through a one on one session with the Storyteller prior to starting the full game. The characters were given an opportunity to explore various facets of their human life before becoming a vampire and their eventual turning to the undead (known as the Embrace). Whilst we initially ignored this (being the stupid kids we were), eventually I came to realise how key this was in building a character.

The background for VtM is the concept of an organised undead society living amongst humanity. Vampires learnt long ago that whilst individually they are superior to humans, the sheer numbers of mortals and their very real (and widely known) weakness to sunlight meant that they could not continue to do what they wanted and lord it over humanity in plain sight. So a plan was hatched to ensure mankind believed vampires to be myths and remain hidden from them (referred to as the Masquerade – not just a clever title).

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As a result, the vampires (or Kindred as they refer to themselves) have developed a feudal government amongst the modern day cities. Each city has a Prince who rules it and a number of advisors and lackeys to ensure their will is enforced. The vampires themselves are organised into a number of clans, each of which exhibits characteristics of various vampire myths or powers. So there are the noble Ventrue; the hideous Nosferatu; the hedonistic Toreador and the loners with animal powers, known as the Gangrel. As a result, Kindred occupy positions within much of the society and are able to control elements to suit their own end.

Of course no roleplaying game is without its antagonists. And VtM makes its antagonists both external and internal. The threats to the Kindred consist of the Sabbat (those vampires opposed to the Masquerade); vampire hunters; numerous other supernatural beings and even those ‘friendly’ vampires jockeying for position within the current political structures. Each vampire also fights an internal struggle against their most primal urges –known as the Beast. Vampires exposed to extreme stresses or short of blood run the risk of giving into their being and going in a state called frenzy, when they are only governed by two needs – to feed or to survive.

Every vampire needs to beware the Beast, as they all have a statistic called Humanity. Going into frenzy often leads to acts that cost a vampire part of their Humanity. And as Humanity is lost, the vampire gradually becomes more and more animalistic. Like Sanity in Call of Cthulhu , the loss of all of one’s Humanity sees a character’s end.

White Wolf described this setting as Gothic-punk – think Tim Burton’s Batman for a concept of the aesthetics. Dark brooding buildings covered in gargoyles interspersed with flickering neon signs. A sense of urban decay (both physically and metaphorical) where humanity’s worst traits are exemplified. To an impressionable teen in the 1990s, this reflected a part of youth culture and the sense of rebellion against authority that came with it.

VtM was a personal game – indeed it advertised itself as a ‘game of personal horror’. It was all too willing to look at morality and corruption. It explored the meaning of what it was to be human on an individual scale. However, the story going on in background looked at the wider themes. The creator, Mark Rein Hagen admitted that ‘The game and the world became about religion and belief’ when the decision was made that Cain (he that slew Abel) was cursed by God and became the first vampire. Moreover, the grand power struggle between the eldest of vampires (called the Jyhad), brought in to question the concepts of governance and free will. Much of this was left to the individual will of the Storyteller, so each chronicle became much more personal.

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In being introduced to VtM, it felt like a lift of the veil. There was much more to roleplaying than I had previously perceived. In Dungeons and Dragons the game felt it was a series of combat sessions linked by connecting scenes. In VtM combat could happen, but it was the exception rather than the rule. We were moving within a society – one where those with the most to lose and gain frequently had centuries of practice to ensure they got where they wanted. Picking a fight was often a one way trip towards True Death. Once our Storytellers had experience of this new way of playing, the drama intensified and we were much more dedicated towards in interested in our characters than we had with the cookie cutter dungeon plunderers of older times. VtM had such a lasting effect on my roleplaying, that the echoes of it still affect me today. Each of my characters has a backstory and a motivation that I actively want my GM/DM/Storyteller/guy with a screen and dice to explore with me in collaboration.

VtM was well received by the gaming press. Upon release it won the Origin award for best roleplaying rules. It even spawned two video games – the ambitious Redemption and the flawed masterpiece that was Bloodlines (a game that if had been released finished, would probably have been regarded as one of the greatest RPGs of all time). It was eventually discontinued in 2004 following the Gehenna events (ie. we are blowing the world up – decide what happens). In its place came the new Chronicles Of Darkness setting and the source book Vampire: The Requiem. It overhauled the system and changed the background, whilst borrowing some elements from the old books. However, it never captured my imagination as the original VtM did. Thankfully, in 2011 the original was released on DriveThruRPG and White Wolf have this year provided us with the first look at a new VtM (although you may want to have look at the thoughts of Charlie on WDR before deciding that this is a good thing …).

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Looking back at VtM (and my teenage years), there was a realisation of how much I value that time and what this game gave to me. It wasn’t the perfect system and it needed full buy in and effort from its participants to make it work. But when it did, it demonstrated something to me. It showed me that what people had described as a childish pastime, had both intelligence and depth. It treated me like an adult and trusted me to play in that fashion. And most of all, I wanted to repay that trust.

Thank you Vampire: The Masquerade. Thank you for everything.

Close Encounters of the Board Kind

Yes – the title of this article is a terrible pun. I apologise for such misdemeanours. But it’s got your attention, right? Then it has succeeded in its aim …

I am fairly late coming to this game, despite it being 40 years old. Thankfully I have recently rectified this mistake and found what appears to be a simple ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ style game, with a lot of depth and strategy. Designers such as Steve Jackson and Richard Garfield have stated how this has influence their own games – and if you consider they are referring to Illuminati and Magic: The Gathering respectively that is indeed high praise. It has gone through several publishers over its life time and has won the 1991 Origins Award for Best Fantasy Or Sci-Fi game.

By now, several of you are telling me to get on with it, because you already know as to what I am referring. To those of you who are newer to the board gaming hobby, I speak of the seminal Cosmic Encounter.

Cosmic Encounter was designed by Peter Olotka, Jack Kittredge

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, Bill Eberle and Bill Norton. Originally published by Eon Products, the latest version is has been in print with Fantasy Flight Games for the past 9 years – with 6 expansions currently available allowing additional players and variants on the basic game.

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Each player in Cosmic Encounter represents an alien race chosen at random from a wide selection at the game’s start. The players start by setting up twenty tokens on five planets that start under their control. These tokens represent basees when on planets and star ships when used to attack other players. They are also given a hand of cards which are a mixture of Attack, Negotiate, Reinforcement and Artifact cards (in previous versions of the game Negotiate and Artifact were known as Compromise and Edicts respectively).

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The aim of the game is to establish colonies on five planets outside your starting system. Of course the problem with this is that all the other planets have colonies upon them belonging to other players. So you have to find a way to get your tokens there – by fair means or foul.

Each turn a player draws a card from the Destiny deck which will state which enemy they need to attack (or if they draw a card that is their own faction, they get to choose). The player choses a planet with tokens of that players on it and commits up to four of his own tokens to attack. Both players then have an opportunity to invite other players in as allies in the attack (who can also add up to four tokens of their own to assist either side). It is at this point, players will play one of their cards secretly into the combat. Attack cards add a fixed number to the number of tokens in the combat (so attack card 9 and 3 tokens gives a combined total of 12). The side with the highest score wins. The losers tokens are sent to the warp (a dead zone from which the tokens are gradually released back to players). A successful defence gives the player a bonus encounter card. If the attackers are successful, all tokens in the attack are immediately placed on the planet and that player is one closer to victory.

I mentioned the prisoner’s dilemma earlier and the introduction of the Negotiation cards is what facilitates a modified version of this. Players can convince one another that an agreement between them may be the better option and can play these cards instead of attack cards. However, players are under no obligation to honour this and can instead put down attack cards in response to Negotiation cards. Where this happens, the negotiator and their allies are wiped out, but is allowed to take a card from the other side’s hand in recompense. Where both sides agree to negotiate, the players have a minute to reach an agreement over the exchange of bases or cards. If they fail to do so, both players end up losing tokens to the warp as punishment for their dithering.

Whilst the game’s strategy appears simple at first, it is complicated by the addition of the Artifact cards and the individual Alien abilities. Each of these allows players to bend the games rules in certain ways. Artifacts have a number of different abilities – some of which include the capacity to release all ships from the warp; cancel other alien abilities; or block allies from being involved in a challenge. Careful marshalling of these cards can leverage a crucial advantage for you at an important point in the game.

The Alien cards give players a persistent means to influence the game and often substantially change the play style for the players. The titles of each alien is more of a generic description of their style of player – so titles such as Magician, Healer and Ghoul give you a concept about how each race plays. The abilities can be situational; a different victory conditions or a standard change to the basic rules. An example of the later is the Virus who counts the combat score by multiplying the number of ships they have by the encounter card played rather than adding. The Genius is able to draw cards rather than establishing colonies – and can win the game by having 20 encounter cards in their hand. Some of these powers appear serious, although there are a number of races that have “jokey” abilities (although not necessarily to the extent that it makes the game unwinnable). The Sniveler is the most well-known of these, where players in a losing position can whine about it and other players must give them ships, colonies or cards or suffer penalties of their own.

So what is it that makes Cosmic Encounter so good in my opinion, especially when I in the past I have found games with such a long history to have failed to sufficiently evolve. I think the point about Cosmic Encounter is that it does not have to evolve, as the game has always managed to feel fresh in its player interactions. If you consider that the basic game contains over 50 aliens and each expansion adds even more to the mix, there are so many different combinations of abilities that could occur.

Unlike other 4X style games, the destiny deck ensures that there is no fortressing in your home systems and trying to build an impenetrable defence before venturing out. There is an immediacy which ensures that the game plays much quicker than others. Some may dislike the artificial nature of creating conflicts and the lack of choice, but I find it adds tension and prevents conservative play. Moreover, due to the number of cards in the destiny deck, it prevents players ganging up too much on one individual and brings the game to a conclusion usually within the hour.

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I also like how the galactic civilisations theme is does not feel integral to the game’s design, but neither does it feel tacked on. For those individual for whom anything sci-fi is no go, I feel there is an opportunity to bring them into this game and I am pretty certain they will forget about it in the bedlam that erupts from the word go. Furthermore, it works as a great introduction game – no dithering over turns and players having an opportunity to get involved at all times through the alliances that emerge.

Moreover this game is as much as anything a framework for the social interactions that are carrying out between the players. There are threats, agreements, pleadings and back stabbing that makes an episode of Game Of Thrones look like a family picnic. But most of all, there is laughter. The game does not take itself too seriously and it does not want you to do so either. This is not a po-faced space opera. This is a sci-fi game that thrives on immediate and repeated chaos. It may knock you down, but you sure as hell want to get back up again and re-enter the fray again.

Despite being late to the party, I adore Cosmic Encounter. I can get it on the table with little fuss, explain most of the rules within a few minutes and then crack on with being honest, thoughtful, deceitful or whatever way I feel with going to the job done. As so many of my games are co-operative, it’s nice to know that at times you can just be looking out for number one. And in doing so, dominate a small corner of the infinite cosmos.

Sun, Sea and Six Sided Dice

So I’ve been on holiday. A proper one with air travel, beaches, swimming pools and sun. Glorious, glorious pale geek skin burning sun. And now I’m back – very much to normality and the sad realisation that the UK is not very hot at all at the moment.

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Of course whilst I was sat on our apartment’s balcony I had a sudden idea for an article and precisely no means to write it. It came whilst my wife and I were engaged in playing cards – a deck of cards being one of the first things any good traveller stashes in their band luggage. My wife is incredibly lucky at cards – irritatingly so, to the extent that pretty much any game we player tends to end with her victory. And hence our games of cards end in frustration and countless statements by me of ‘How the bloody hell did you manage that?’

 

There comes a point in a holiday when you are frankly sick to death of playing cards and you start remembering that you have a lovely shelf full of much more interesting games sat at home that you could be enjoying right now, rather than waiting for the damn ace of clubs to come out of the deck. But of course a nice big strategy game is not something you really want to waste your precious weight allowance upon. So I ask the question – what are our options?

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I am of course aware that several manufacturers make travel versions of their games. Whilst my youth is full of memories of playing these (and I do still have fondness for Connect 4), a small version of certain games doesn’t really bring the holiday spirit out in us. Travel Monopoly still involves the bitterness and recrimination of regular Monopoly, just with tiny irritating and easy to lose parts. Congratulations – you have somehow found a way to make Monopoly worse. Despite the miniaturisation of certain parts, some of these games have still found a way to spread over a wide area making them practically useless on a plane’s fold down table.

 

So moving away from dedicated travel versions of games, I have tried to emphasis what in my opinion makes a good game for holidays. And I think I have distilled it down to three parts – compact yet clear; robust components and non-repetitive game play.

 

Of course the size of the game is a very important element of what you will slip into your bags. Unless you are going on a specific type of vacation or have very generous luggage allowance, Twilight Imperium is probably not the sort of game you want to be taking with you. This tends to lend itself to card and dice games, but anything in the Tiny Epic series will fit the bill. As holidays often involve a lot of waiting around – at airports; for transfers and at the resort whilst people are getting ready – being able to produce a game from your pocket and get something started quickly is invaluable.

 

However, a small game does need to have bold parts that make it clear what is actually happening – especially with the rules themselves. I do not want to spend an hour of my holiday providing everyone with a detailed exposition of what is happening or what each individual symbol or icon means. I do not want to read blurry small text off a card or find my fold out rule booklet runs to several pages more than is entirely necessary. You are not at a gaming convention (ignore this sentence if you are going to a gaming convention), as it needs to have a pick up and play element to it that gets people into the game a quickly and painlessly as possible.

 

Unfortunately, the tender administrations of airport handling staff are not as gentle as we would like. Whilst we would like our precious luggage smoothly helped onto the plane in a manner befitting an elderly relative, reality suggests this probably isn’t going to be the case. And so, as bags are wedged into the tiniest gaps, kicked about the airport floor and utilised as pillows due to the delay, perhaps we would hope that our playing components remain undamaged. A study box is a big plus, as well as well constructed playing pieces that will not shatter at a moment’s notice. Alas, my box for Cartoon Network Fluxx this holiday did not fall into that camp and I opened my hand luggage at the room to find its contents scatter amongst my clothing and sun cream.

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However, the most important part of a travel game in my opinion, lies with the final part. Ensuring that however portable the game is; however hardy its parts – that when you get down to playing the game the experience of the game play makes you want to come back to it again. A week is a long time to be playing the same thing over and over again – God help you if you are booked to be away for a fortnight. So you need to be certain that your game play will have enough variations in it and strategies that will make you want to experience new challenges or new way of trying to win.

 

For example dominos is a perfect example of a classic portable game that lacks variety of play. I do not dislike dominos – but you are essentially playing the same game repeatedly. Instead you could pick up Ominoes, which provides you with a matching symbols style game with simple mechanics and variations of game play to keep you interested for longer.

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How you find that variety of play is up to your own personal preferences. You may want a high variance due to random factors and luck, so the aforementioned Fluxx might be the type of game that would suit you down to the ground (a word of warning that certain people will find the randomness too much and potentially annoying). Munchkin (which is another game which can produce a diversity in opinions) finds its variety from the chaos caused by the “take that” elements of several players trying to screw one another over. The duelling card game Star Realms takes a third approach – giving you five different ship types to try and build fleets out of, as well as an option to go for quick damage or build your trading elements first. Each of these games are ones I would recommend for holiday play.

 

I do feel it would be remiss of me to not mention one major player in travel gaming. Thanks to the joys of modern technology, taking some of your more intensive games can be done as simply as downloading an app for a reasonable fee (or even free copy of the game). I am no exception – as I was able to take Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, Star Realms and Hive with me, all thanks to a small collection of microchips and wiring in my hand luggage. And hot seat games do bring back the memories of everyone gathering round a single computer like my fist tentative steps into technology with my old Amstrad CPC (ask your parents …).

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As much as anything with gaming – it’s a matter of personal preference. And for me and my family, even when the promise of our holidays offers us something new to see and do, we always like to bring a little bit of home with us.

 

Lie To Me

I was bought a copy of Liar’s Dice as a Christmas present by a well-meaning friend. My love of board games is well known amongst my social circle (to the end that I ended up speaking with a couple I had never met before down the pub this weekend, thanks to my friend pointing out that the board game shelf there was ‘up your street’). So it was with the best will in the world that I unwrapped the cylindrical container and pulled out a fresh copy of the game. And as it was Christmas, we naturally played the game the same day. And the results …

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I think I need to interject here with a disclaimer. You will have come here expecting me to discuss a horrible mess of a game. And some of you probably consider Liar’s Dice to be that. And I sympathise. But this game is on my list of those to avoid for one simple reason.

I am absolutely dreadful at this game.

Liar’s Dice as the names suggests , is all about deception – so I am immediately at a disadvantage with my inglorious history at bluffing games. Each player starts with a cup filled with five standard six sided dice and are required to roll the dice under their cup, keeping the results concealed from the other players. Players are then required to guess how many dice from all the cups are showing a particular value (so you could declare that there are a minimum of four dice with a 3 showing). The next player either has to increase the value of the dice facing; the total number of dice or challenge the previous player’s call. If an increase occurs, the choice falls to the next player until a challenge occurs.

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Upon a challenge all dice are revealed. If the player making the claim on the dice was lying, they lose a dice from their pool. If the challenger incorrectly called the player a liar, they lose a dice. The game carried on until players have lost all their dice, by which point they are out. The winner is the player with dice remaining.

I can tell what are thinking right now – ‘You appear to be describing an accessible game that pretty much anyone can understand.’ Or you are thinking, ‘I’m certain they played that in one of the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies.’ Well you would be correct on both counts. Both my sons will happily play Liar’s Dice and in many ways this is part of the problem. And I want to make it perfectly clear, it is my problem …

When you are playing a game of Liar’s Dice and your seven year old son is shaking a cup full of dice, whilst your measly one rattles around in an empty mocking fashion, you know that something has gone horribly wrong. Perhaps if it was only on the odd occasion, it would be manageable. ‘He just got lucky,’ you can say to yourself. But after the third or fourth time in a row, you have to accept where the problem truly lies. So I suck it up, take the higher road and immediately ground him for having the audacity to beat me.

It’s called parenting.

Obviously, I did not actually do this. I can only put my problems with the game down to this, sometimes you get an absolute mental block with a game that you cannot seem to shake. Yes – I am very poor at bluffing games. Whatever my tells are, they are clearly shining beacons to my friends and family. But Liar’s Dice is also a game of educated guesswork and probability, which I am normally really good at. Statistics and odds are actually one of my strong points in gaming (which is probably why dice are so hateful to me most of time – just to prove my rationality wrong). And yet – Liar’s Dice laughs in the face of my logic and careful planning every single time.

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There are other parts to the game that I am less than fond on than my complete lack of skill. The game does suffer from player elimination and with a run of bad luck someone can be forced to sit out from an early stage, which is particularly painful in a six player game. The late game does have issues when players may only hold one or two dice each and you can get stuck in a situation where there is no good choice. You either have to make an obviously false bid or challenge on something you know to be true. I am not keen on these situations where there is not an obvious out for a player – it’s always good to have a choice.

One of the other problems I have with Liar’s Dice that it is a game of educated guesswork. Not that I have a problem with this style of game, but that Wits & Wagers exists. Because Wits & Wagers takes this theme and runs with it – quite simply if I want to try and make logical bets on the information I am provided, I cannot see a single situation where I would take Liar’s Dice over that.

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Having said that, Prepare For Boarding has always been about my opinions and experiences. And I have been pretty clear that you may find that enjoyment in something that leave me cold. It is worth remembering that Liar’s Dice is a previous winner of the 1993 Spiels Des Jahres for a version known as Bluff. There is clearly an audience for this game and unlike previous games in this series, I would not actively look to discourage you from trying this game. However, if I want to make leaps of logic or if I want to bluff with my friends, there are places I would much rather go that to a game where I can be regularly humiliated by my kids …

CCGs – Still Relevant?

The origins are lost in the mists of history (or my befuddled memory – which may actually be the same thing). I was a teenage and had just returned from holiday in some sunny location for two weeks. When I came back my friends had these curious decks of cards that seemed to represent monsters and spells being cast by wizards against one another. I was (still am) a geek and so naturally this interested me. Before long Magic: The Gathering had its terrible hooks into me and I was spending a heck of a lot of money on packs of cards.

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That may be unfair. I still like Magic: The Gathering, although I am no longer splurging money on it like it was going out of fashion. And before you turn away from this page in disgust, this isn’t a details discussion on Magic either (I have not got the time and you probably don’t have the patience to endure that). Rather I wanted to look at the concept of Collectable Card Games (or CCGs) as a whole and whether they were still a valid model of operation.

 

I am undoubtedly about to tell you fine readers how to suck eggs, but in the small chance that anyone here does not know what a CCG is, I shall elaborate. A CCG is defined by the collector purchasing random packs of cards and assembling them into a deck by which they can play the game by its rules. It is usually agreed that there must be some strategic element to this play to differentiate it from other trading cards that operate on more basic gameplay level (if indeed there is a game attached to the cards). There is usually a secondary card market attached to these games, whereby players can purchase individual cards in order to complete their collection. Trading cards between players is also a frequent occurrence (also leading to their secondary title of trading card games).

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Magic is the grand-daddy of all CCGs being released in 1993 and almost singlehanded responsible for the big boom of CCGs in the mid-1990s. Companies such as White Wolf; Decipher; Upper Deck; Topps and others all leapt onto the bandwagon. The success of most of these games (or conspicuous lack of it) demonstrated quite clearly that the market could not support a vast number of these types of games and it left only a few from the maelstrom standing by the current time. The vast number of ‘dead’ CCG is testament to that. Even Wizards of the Coast, manufactures of Magic found that within a couple of years of their initial release, they had to make cut backs of their staff.

 

However, CCGs still carry on to this day and the popularity of Magic, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! shows no sign of waning. However , there is a question, at least in my mind, as to whether the model of the CCG is still relevant, particularly in the face of new means both of distribution and of gameplay.

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Returning to Magic , as of July last year, the card pool consisted of 16,505 different cards which stretched a period of 23 years. Consider owning all of those cards. Furthermore, try to deck build with all of those cards. That’s pretty intimidating.

 

‘But Adam’, I hear you cry, ‘There are formats that allow people to compete with more limited card pools.’ Quite correct. And limiting the pool by the means of Modern and Limited Magic does allow for players who do not have the collecting history to compete. But when you limit, it also places restrictions on the archetypes. Normally two or three key decks emerge which become the ‘big boys’ of each set.

 

This is not me complaining about tournament play, because I understand that it is a staple of a lot games. I have played in gaming tournaments myself with a variety of success (although never a Magic one). But what I am trying to demonstrate is to how intimidating the can appear to a new or to a casual player. Those players who are fully invested into the meta and have invested the time and money into either the luck of blind purchasing or by seeking out individual cards, have an effect upon those players who buy a few new packs a month and just want to play to enjoy. The game essentially becomes a competition between who has the biggest wallet rather than a balanced playing field.

 

I agree this this is not a problem restricted solely to the CCG environment. Certainly competitive play in any form of game often has people clamouring for the ‘new hotness’. One only needs to look at the development of the Warhammer 40k tournament community that became a quiet literal arms race over who could grab the biggest (and most expensive) models and slap them all onto the tabletop as quickly as possible. But is there an alternative …

 

Enter Fantasy Flight Games and their Living Card Game model.

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FFG were no strangers to CCGs prior to 2008. The had acquired the license to Chaosium’s old Mythos game and released it in 2004 as Call Of Cthulhu: The Card Game, having employed game designer Eric Lang to turn it into something more accessible than the previous iteration. And it was fairly well received still operating within the normal model. Then in 2006 everything changed.

 

An announcement was made that Call of Cthulhu would cease to release products in the normal distribution and would instead release monthly “Asylum Packs”. These packs would consist of 20 cards in triplicate, ensuring that any player purchasing them would get exactly the same cards as everyone else. The move proved so popular, that two years later they elected to re-release the entirety of the game via this format. Since this point, everyone of their game has been released in this format and has seen other companies adopt a similar approach (Upper Deck’s VS System relaunch in 2015 was produced in a similar fashion but with a different name).

 

The LCG system essentially means that deck planning and building is a very structured and precise process in which you know exactly which sets are needed. There are numerous deck builder systems online which can identify the cards and their relevant locations. Furthermore, the secondary card market does not really result in extortionate pricing because most players realise that there is no need to pay over the odds for a cards when it is relatively easy to get their hand on it by just buying the respective pack.

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Furthermore, as each new pack produces only 20 new cards, it means that players do not need an encyclopaedic knowledge of the cards in order to function effectively within the game. A smaller card pool produces much less opportunity for conflicts between cards or rule problems that can bog the game down unnecessarily.

 

However, this limited card pool has other problems. Certain towards the start of the game, the development of the ‘meta’ is almost glacial and one big slash release can weigh the advantage towards a particular faction or type of deck. In order to counter this, you will often find that release rates are accelerated in order to keep customers interested. Whereas Magic the Gathering may have four big releases over the course of an entire year, LCGs will have many more. I find less excitement in the release of a new card deck for something like Game Of Thrones, than the latest Magic set which feels like a huge event.

 

And whilst you may think the financial impact of the card game hobby is reduced by the LCG model, this is not necessarily the case. Say a LCG has 6 factions and you only are interested in one of them. Well each new set may contact 2 or 3 cards relevant to each individual faction. You are now buying a 60 card set for perhaps 9 cards. A deluxe expansion may be focused on an entirely different faction to the one you play, but will still have cards that you need for your side. The situation becomes worse with FFG’s Core set model, which normally requires that you buy 2 or 3 basic sets in order that you have multiple of several basic cards that you need (Test Of Will from the Lord Of The Rings LCG – I am looking at you!).     Like the CCG release model, you are still buying a lot of chaff in order to make the deck you want.

 

The game does need to be carefully managed as well, in order to avoid bloating. The original Game Of Thrones LCG eventually collapsed under its own weight, as FFG felt the need to introduce a new mechanic with each cycle. And as every cycle was legal in competitive play, you had to have knowledge of several additional rules beyond the base game in order to make it operate. Eventually, they had to release a 2nd edition – which meant that the card collection certain people had been cultivating for a long period of time was essentially worthless. There is no argument in my mind that the second edition is a superior product. However, I still resent the fact that I have a box of cards on my shelf that is essentially a nostalgia piece. For all its history and many different rules that it has implemented, I can still pick up my Ice Age or Legends Magic cards and play with them in the right environment.

 

I think what the current gaming environment shows around the two models is that whilst LCGs are gaining popularity, the presence of a gaming behemoth in Magic The Gathering means that it is highly unlikely that this will go away any time soon. FFG clearly also don’t believe that the type of distribution that CCGs operate under are dying, as recently they have produced a collectable dice game using a similar style of production in their Star Wars Destiny game. We also need to bear in mind that product styled towards a younger audience, such as Topps Match Attax football cards, also follow the CCG model and based on the number of cards my son appears to have, they also continue to be popular.

 

As much as anything, if you want to go down the card collecting rabbit hole, there is so much choice still available, that it is unlikely that you will fail to find something that appeals. And somewhere with the combination of theme, budget, play style, mechanics and countless other items, it has to be your enjoyment that should ultimately be the deciding factor.

AireCon Or What I Did This Weekend …

So it happened and I am certainly feeling the after effects of two car journeys over 4 hours in length over the course of three days. But this slightly tired blogger made his way to the Saturday and Sunday of AireCon 4 and had a right royal time of it.

Before I begin, I think it is very important that I give out some thanks to all the people who made my time up there so enjoyable. Firstly my gratitude to the fine team behind AireCon who let me go there in the first place – Ben, Mark, Ric and Nabil. I would like to thank Mike B from Who Dares Rolls for being my convention Yoda. Also many thanks to Jay of Breacher 18 and Luke from the Broken Meeple for making me feel most welcome in their company. And just a general ‘huzzah’ to all to lovely people I met there – be they fans of gaming or exhibitors showing off their wares.

AireCon was held over two floors of the Harrogate International Centre – with the ground floor being devoted to the events and the top floor featuring the exhibitors, stalls and gaming library. The library was extensive (approximately 350 titles provided by Travelling Man) and I had more than enough opportunities to give some unknown titles a try. Very much enjoyed conquering celtic tribes in Inis and although I am not sure how I did, I somehow was able to come out the winner in Ponzi Scheme (games that I will need to talk about in more depth in future – definitely expect an Inis discussion).

The exhibitors section had a good variety of goods for sale – naturally lots and lots of games; but also accessories, art and candles inspired by Lovecraftian mythos courtesy of Eldritch Essences. The was a Bring and Buy section that was always busy and full of people looking for a bargain. My offer to buy Charlie from WDR a replacement copy of the Lost game from there was met with the derision it deserved …

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The part that really interested me from the exhibitors section were the display games – and I’m imagine that all of you are clamouring to hear my thoughts on them. Well –I will let you know about a few that I had a go at …

What you see here is The Football Game by The London Board Game Co. The designers, Simon and Mark, were happy to chat through their intention to put together a game that recreated the feeling of a football season, with easy to play mechanics but one that offered you plenty of tactical options. You roll dice each round to see which of your players score you points, then play cards to modify these points. There are also dice that mean your players may be effected by injuries; knocks and events. It’s all done very neatly.

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The artwork is a mixture of bobble head style football figures and the bright colours that one may remember from the old Roy of the Rovers style comic strips. There are plenty of references of football slang, terminology and popular culture, which clearly shows the love that the designers have for football as a sport. And the decision to concentrate on a season, rather than a game has paid off. Most clever of all was the way of winning – teams move up and down a table that is broken into descriptions rather than numbers eg. Relegation, Lower Table, Mid Table etc. Depending on the starting value of your team, you will gain more victory points for where you finish. A poor team that somehow finishes mid table, will score more points than a better team there. The game becomes less about who has the best team and who gets the best out of what they have – think of the points as board confidence or fan’s backing

The Football Game has already funded through Kickstarter and is due to land in April this year. It is one of my finds of the Con.

Four Elements is a dexterity game that the designer Robert told me started out with him and his friends flicking draught pieces and Jenga blocks at one another. The aim is to knock the opponent’s king piece off the table by flicking laser cut pieces of different designs at each other. Each element utilises different shapes and can be formed by players into a variety of different defensive patterns and set ups.

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It reminds me of the old Vikings and Barbarians game Crossbows and Catapults, but done in an abstract style. The pieces are big and bold – and there were plenty of children stood around the tables gleefully smashing bits of plastic into one another. The Kickstarter for this is due at the end of April.

Next I was able to take in Ominoes – an already released abstract strategy game by Yay Games that involves attempting to move dice around a grid and form blocks of matching symbols. The designer, Andrew Harman, took me through a game that was easy to pick up and also, as I found out, very easy to mess up when the board starts to get crowded. Match symbols is easy, but when you have to move a dice of the same symbol three spaces before you place it, it can become very tricky. You can also move your opponent’s dice and there are wild cards that let you mess with opponents or score points in all manner of various situations. All of this was too much for my befuddled mind and I got soundly beaten. However, Ominoes is an absolute delight.

Sub Terra from Inside The Box Board Games is a co-operative game that combines the tile exploration of Betrayal At House On the Hill and the player roles of Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, with a dash of survival horror thrown in for good measure. We all took the role of cavers that had become trapped in a system riddled with hazards and horrors lurking in the darkness. My geologist (selected on the basis that his beard was the best of all the illustrations) and his friends wandered around for a good while, negotiating gas pockets, floods and cave ins. These were all triggered by a deck of cards that represent both which hazard occurs this turn and also the length of time our cavers’ lamps will last (last card goes and the players lose).

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The system would appear to reward a safety first approach – players being able to check out the next room for an action before moving. However, players can also throw caution to the wind and jump straight into the unknown, which can end very badly. However, when the monsters spawn in the cave they will chase the players down, so any such care suddenly goes out of the window. The game does not have an absolute win/loss end game. Players are given an end score dependant on how many of them find the exit and make it out. Our group were unfortunately split up by the time the exit revealed itself – and the Scout and I decided our hides were worth more than the poor saps left in the caverns, stepping out into the lovely sunshine and a silver reward ranking in the process.

The game has been successfully funded via Kickstarter, but there are late backer options available. The game flows well, is paced almost perfectly and cranks up the tension to near fever pitch when the game comes to its end.

My next port of call was the frankly gorgeous looking Gloom Of Kilforth which the designer, Tristan Hall, was pleasant enough to run myself and Mike through. It is a fantasy quest card game with a Gothic edge that has been brought to life through the artwork of Ania Kryczkowska. I am susceptible to a little bit of good old fashioned questing and the art and design immediately drew me towards it.

Tearing my eyes away from the folder of pretty pictures, as I sat down I was pleased to find that there was a very solid game behind the beauty. As we struck out into the world to complete our individual hero’s sagas (a unique path chosen at the game start to determine how your character can win), we venture through forests, plains and mountains encountering many places and creatures as we went. Mike’s Vampire Rogue very quickly defeated a Hobgoblin, who appeared to be sat upon a treasure hall, before spending a lot of time looking for a hidden place of power (the Unseen Bridge was not just a clever name). My Elf Priest ended up chattering with a goodwife, finding a hidden shrine and finally being robbed all over the course of a single turn. As Mike completed the first part of his Saga with ease, Tristan explained more about the game.

The game can be played either competitively or co-operatively with players either facing their own unique adversary or a combined foe. Tristan has also built the system to ensure that no player runs away with the game but in a fashion that works it into the game as a tactical option, which felt seamless.

I’ll be honest; Gloom Of Kilforth utterly blew me away by how well-crafted it is. It has hit its Kickstarter targets, but there are late back options available.

War Of the 9 Realms was the offering from Wotan Games and took its cue from Viking mythology. Intrigued at the promise of mortals and Gods clashing over the world of Midgard and the fact that the game features twelve sided dice (which any serious dice fan will tell you are the best), I sat down with Mike to see what happened when a bunch of Vikings try to kick the seven bells out of one another.

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What actually happens is you get a nice hex based skirmish game with a unique units and abilities. To attack you roll a number of dice equal to your attack (and modified by whatever skills you may get or fate cards you use) and have to beat the defence value of the target. You score a wound for each multiple of that defence value you get – or for every 12 you roll. Beat the targets would value and they die. Kill the opponent’s leader and you win. Seems simple enough?

However, there is a nice system of action management alongside this game. You get a number of actions points each turn, which you use to move, attack and trigger other abilities. If you do not spend them all, any leftover can be used to counter attack against anyone that targets you.

Furthermore there exists a second way of winning – feeding the Ravens. Essentially this boils down to a battle of attrition – whereby ever wound is added to the Blood Cauldron track and once this maxes out, you can claim victory. This was the way I was able to beat Mike and as you can see by the picture, he’s overjoyed by it …

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The entire process took 20 minutes and was good, Valhalla inspired fun. We got to see some other parts from the finished game that would feature more warriors, various board and other factions that, but still maintaining the easy access that made the game a hit for me. It also promises a second play style, Epic which gave the factions unlockable abilities by spending Valour points. Lawrence, the designer, has stated that Epic play is also balanced against normal play – so players can tailor the game to their own skill levels. The game was on Kickstarter last year and unfortunately did not make its target, but Lawrence is planning to give it another go this year, and I for one, am hoping it succeeds.

My final game of the event was City Of Kings – another fantasy quest game that featured a world conquered by evil and a group of heroes breaking out from the last city to reclaim the world around it. This game was big – a large dual-sided tile map and unique player cards (approximately A4 size) upon which you track your experience, equipment and wounds. In addition there are numerous cards, tokens and other pieces that make this the behemoth it is.

In addition to exploration, the game also incorporates worker management, as each character has a wagon they can be sent out to harvest resources in newly uncovered mines, lumber mills and other locations. This leads to a resources management system as the workers ferry items back to the city, before using them to craft new items to help the heroes upon their quests. At times it felt like a board game version of Command and Conquer. There was a lot going on here and I’m still a little confused by how much was happening, but I was attracted to a lot of the little nuanced things that the game did. The morale system for example, that drops when a hero is defeated. If the heroes are beaten down one too many times, the morale hits zero and the game is over. Also the chance that when workers start gathering resources, they may cause too much noise and build up tokens in that increase the chance of something coming to take a look. The Kickstarter for this starts at the end of March 2017.

Regrettably that was the end of my AireCon adventure – my panel appearance was unfortunately cancelled (I guess no one wanted to see me. Excuse me I have something in my eye …). But that did not detract from what a cracking weekend I had and what a great experience it was to share with all the people at the Harrogate International Centre.

Here is to many more conventions in future and a return to AireCon 5 next year …