Helcon 2008 review, part 1

Helcon came and went. It’s by far my favourite board game event, and once again proved to be excellent. It’s small enough, about hundred people or so, yet offers plenty of good board game action. I travelled to Helsinki with Sami, Olli and Robert and five bags of stuff, mostly games I sold or wanted to sell.

We managed to navigate to the location without problems, which is no small feat, since none of us had any previous experience of driving in Helsinki. I knew the route, though, so we made it easily enough. The event was held in the same location as before, the meeting hall of The Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission. This time we were able to play for 24 hours a day, which was a nice bonus for some people — I don’t really care for night games myself. I prefer sleeping (heresy, some might say, but I’m very much a morning person).

Some games were pretty popular: I’d say Powerboats, Ghost Stories and Battlestar Galactica were the top three, people played these a lot. There were at least three 18xx games played and a group of war gamers played a game of Here I Stand which took pretty much the whole Saturday. There was also a Dominion tournament, which was a success.

Here’s what I played:

Gipsy King box

Gipsy King. I started with this 20-minute game from Corné van Moorsel. Some folks praise this in Geek and I can see why: the game is pretty good for such a quick game. It’s pretty abstract — the theme is completely hollow, to be honest — but looks nice and is easy to play: just slap down pieces on the board, trying to make large chains of bits. There are some nice timing issues — you can pass a turn to get advantage later — and other neat details.

I thought Gipsy King was decent, but in the end not very interesting. There’s a comparison I must make: why play this when I could be playing Die Dolmengötter? Not bad and I can understand some people like this, but I am not thrilled. I wouldn’t say necessarily say no if someone suggested this, though.

Powerboats box

Powerboats. The other game from Cwali. This is a boat racing game with a pretty cool die mechanic. The game uses three-sided dice. You start with one and can adjust the amount with one each turn, either add one or remove one. You must roll any new dice and you can re-roll the old ones — or you can keep the old values. So, if you want, you can keep your speed. This is nice, as it reduces the luck of the draw.

The racing happens on a large hex map. The boats can only turn 60 degrees (one hex side) in turn and only before moving. There’s a nasty rule where you must drive in a direction where there’s enough room — if you roll too much, you can find yourself going in wrong direction. The water is full of obstacles, of course. It’s simple and fun, so no wonder the game was popular. I thought it was entertaining and the game scaled to six players well. I’m just not very keen on racing games — if I was, this would be a mandatory purchase. Our game took 30 minutes for a single race, but with better players it would’ve been over sooner — I spent quite a bit of time in the bushes.

Steel Driver box

Steel Driver. This was one of the games I really wanted to try. Steel Driver is Martin Wallace’s latest take on his earlier Prairie Railroads games — this is interesting because Wabash Cannonball shares the lineage. The games are somewhat distant cousins, I’d say. Steel Driver is different, but good.

The basic idea is similar. Railway shares are auctioned, the bid money is used to build track and players try to get as much money as possible. However, in Steel Driver money is purely points. The bidding is done with cubes: everybody gets the same amount of cubes each round. Cubes can be stored for use on later rounds. There are five rounds and each railroad sells exactly one share each round. Our five-player game took 65 minutes.

Once all shares are sold, the railroads operate. They can build one link on the map and gain income for the cities connected. This goes on for several rounds until all railroads have ran out of money and must pass. Passing order determines the order railroads operate on the next round. Players get money — points, that is — for the value of the companies they run each round.

Most of the points are made in the end, though. The map has cities of different colour and in the end, those cities are filled with cubes. The companies take turns picking cubes from cities where their networks reach, trying to collect sets of different colours. The bigger the sets, the more money the company makes. Each shareholder gets paid accordingly.

It’s interesting. The end game is particularly curious, as it makes up for such a huge share of the money players make. The early game is basically setup for that end game. You want to get as many shares as possible in companies that will make good money in the end. That’s a nice challenge.

The biggest difference between Wabash and Steel Driver lies in the money, I’d say. I like it, because the difference in the auction systems makes both games interesting and worth owning (I’m saying this because I already own Wabash and have ordered Steel Driver). For now I’d say I prefer Wabash a bit, but want to explore Steel Driver some more.

Instead of one huge post, I think I’ll do several shorter ones. So, this is enough for now. Next up, Preußische Ostbahn… see part 2 for that and part 3 and part 4 for other games.

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