The last full day of the nanocon is always bittersweet. On the one hand, you’ve just had several fun days of gaming with great people, good food and drink, and tons of memories generated. On the other hand, it’s all about to come to an end.

Of course, now that I’m 55 trips around the sun in age, I’m pretty good with heading home after a week. Not that I’m exhausted, because you are when you exercise your head that much in that short a period of time, but because I generally feel that I did what I wanted to accomplish. This year in particular, I felt like I played the games I wanted to and had a great time doing it. Really, not one unpleasant game out of the whole week, that’s a good sign.

I’ve learned to front load the really heavy stuff, or at least don’t do anything new and Campaign for North Africa-esque after four days. GTS was very familiar to me, so that didn’t count, and the two new games for me, Talon and Time of Crisis, were both very manageable and early on. I felt I did an excellent job of managing my mental resources, especially in a difficult sleep environment.

Saturday was always going to be a “whatever people want to play” day for me, and that’s pretty much where we ended up. My scheduled game was Terraforming Mars, using the Venus Next expansion, one of the expansion maps (the one with the deep desert achievement), and the corporate deck. I immediately took the corp that focused on Venus, and that proved to be a good choice. I even went so far as to lock in the special Venus achievement fairly early in the game, and the Venus terraform track was the first one completed.

By far my biggest issue was JeffF, sitting on my right, who cut me off at least twice from strong moves, one to grab the last of the milestones, and I think one for the achievements as well. And he always did it as his second action, so I sat there hoping and hoping and hoping and then BOOM! I had a decent microbe machine up and running, and was really the only person putting foliage on Mars for quite a while (it was a fairly minimal map until late). Bryann was making the monies at an incredible pace, and Greg, our fourth, did some wonderful things I’m sure but he was across the table so I paid less attention to him than anyone.

No pictures, by now I was fortunate just to be awake.

At the end, it turned out that Bryann and I tied for first in points, with Bryann taking the tiebreaker based on cash or income or something crazy. Just one of those milestones, Jeff, just one, and I’d have taken the lead all by myself. Sigh. One of the best games I’ve played of TM, I do like the configuration we used, but it’s a solid four hours done that way.

We had some time before dinner, which was going to be at the pizza place in Lincoln City that starts with a G (Gandalfini’s, Garropalo’s, whatever), but they were so dismissive when I mentioned that I was bringing in a large party that we decided to go to Newport and the Rogue Brewpub instead. We were across two tables, but that worked out fine as there was some staggering to when people arrived. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and I suspect that will be our go to Saturday dinner in the future.

But it was a few hours before that all happened, so Bryann, Greg, and myself sat down and tried Aeon’s End, a game I’ve been very interested since about the time it became impossible to get a copy. Fortunately, there is now a second edition out, and I ended up getting both the War Eternal box along with the base set as well as a couple of smaller expansions, one of which was The Void and another very cheap first edition expansion that had very different layout. We used the base set “starter configuration” which was the right choice, although we got owned hard.

AE is a coop deck builder with very strong RPG elements (although not campaign, at least not at this time). Each character has it’s own strengths and weaknesses granted through the mix of Crystals (money) and Sparks (attack) you get in your first two hands, which are always the same at start for a given character. Some characters have almost no sparks at all, some are at par between sparks and crystals. Each player also has one or two “unique” starter cards, usually a money or something else deal, which also starts the game in hand or in the draw pile. Finally, each character has a special ability that can be triggered under specific game conditions once enough “charges” have been purchased, and that number will change from character to character.

There are also several Nemeses that you fight, which also have a wide range of abilities depending on the Big Bad in question. In our game, that was the Rageborne, who is at the very least supposed to be fairly uncomplicated. The biggest thing about this Baddie is that he builds up Rage via the Nemesis deck, and when he gets enough he executes a special Strike card that does more bad stuff, although the Rage drops a bit. Yeah, that’s the uncomplicated Boss.

Throw in a Market similar to Dominion, and AE becomes a surprisingly complex game. Choosing a good mix of support and DPS characters is important, as is choosing the right Market cards. In our game, the market was preset, although I screwed up the Nemesis deck by setting up, deciding there was no interest, only to get interest about the time I’d put the nemesis cards sorted back into the box. No easy way to get those back, so we built the deck as normal, although there is a bit of hilarity here.

You see, both War Eternal and the base game come with different “basic” nemesis cards, but apparently you don’t really want to mix them. To make things worse, the cards have nothing to differentiate them from the other set. Mixing will result in some really bad combos at times, especially if you get a lot of minions, or things that nerf GraveHold (when it gets to zero health, you’re dead, Jim). I’m not at all sure which basics got used, I have the War Eternal in the three basic tier dividers, and the base set under the single basic divider. War Eternal is a much more difficult game, apparently, so better to use the undivided basics.

And we got our ass handed to us. Partly, we only had three characters, so that meant whatever the character we didn’t choose (and we may just have chosen characters randomly at that point) may have been somewhat crucial to success. All I know is that we were just getting into the nemesis tier 3 cards when Gravehold went down.

Because this is a deck builder like Time of Crisis is a deck builder. It’s a core mechanical element, and I should note at this point that you never shuffle your deck (or at least you shouldn’t unless a game effect forces you to), simply flipping your discard pile over to become the draw pile when you need a card and one isn’t handy. But it’s not the whole game. You need to function as a team, a la RPGs, choose your buys wisely, plan your moves accordingly, and generally play at a much higher level than most deck-builders. And with this many expansions, which fill the portion of the box form built to hold the cards, you can’t just have a one-size-fits-all strategy. Choosing the team should take a bit of time, as should choosing the Market. There are randomizer cards, but in that direction lays madness, or at least a quick and unsuccessful game experience.

I know this, because we pulled it out again at our last game night, randomized the shit out of the Market, and did worse.

I should also mention I love the semi-random turn order mechanism as well. In any six turns, four will play player turns, two will be Nemesis turns, and there could be ten turns between your plays, or you may go twice in a row. So much for planning, although I think this was necessary to prevent AP, plus excellent tension.

I have set up a solitaire game (just playing four handed, no special rules) and I’ve gone through to try to identify each character’s basic strengths and give them appropriate roles, such as healer, or Focus Master, or Card Trasher, or Ogg the Bloody. Hopefully that last one is because of monster blood. I’ve done the same with the Market, we’ll see how it goes.

All of that said, I’m a huge fan of this title. I think it takes a game like Dominion, gives it a ton of theme, extra stuff to do (the breaches and how they interact with Spell cards, the primary damage dealers, is genius), and you end up with surprisingly deep gameplay that is evocative of a role-playing experience. Pretty impressive given that the variance between characters only pops up from time to time, even with the unique starter and the variable mix of money and fightey each character begins with. Special abilities are great, but they will cost between eight and twelve DemonBucks (c) and I’ve built them up only to see the Nemesis wipe them ALL OUT. Grr.

Then dinner.

Then Sieben Siegal, also known as Zing! and a couple of other things. This elegant trick taking game is maybe my favorite so far as “serious” games go (Sticheln, for example, can be enjoyed with a lot of hootch. SS, less so). This was JeffF’s first game, we also had Chris, Bryann, myself, and David. Poor David ended up right before me, and I had five statistically unlikely hands in terms of distribution, so the singletons and voids were causing havoc all over the place.

If SS has an issue, it’s that someone who is in the lead can take the Grim Reaper and at worst lose four points. During our game, it struck me that the best way to deal with this is simply to only allow each player to take the GR once for the entire game. I will use this house rule going forward, I think it makes the decision whether or not to take him much more interesting.

I lost a few points in the first hand, then got my Seventh Sign *on* and cruised to a victory. I consider myself a very good player, having come up on Bridge and Pinochle and being able to count trump well. Like those games, if you know how to play well you’re fine right up until distribution bites you in the ass. Or David’s ass, he complained the whole game. Of course, what he didn’t notice was that JeffF was sitting to his right… Hmm…

That should be enough for now. The final entry for the retreat will include the Olympics results, some thoughts on the retreat from both an organizational and a participatory perspective, and a great picture of the partially constructed Falcon sitting in the passenger wheel well of my car. You don’t want to miss that!