Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Madicon 20: The Good, the Bad, and the Nerdy

I rarely get to go to a con… and when I do, I want to just sit and play games until I forget to eat and start having blood sugar crashes.  Vintage games are, more than anything else, what I want to play.  It’s depressing, but nowadays… I’m mostly glad just to be playing anything as long as there’s other people that are actually into it.  Before going into the specifics of Madicon, let me review my previous Con experiences for comparison:

AdventureCon 2007: I went to this one specifically to meet up with a couple of other gamers I’d met on the internet so I could play an old game that I’d always wanted to try.  I was stood up with no explanation.  While the guests were nice, overall this really stunk.  The only game I got to play was some guy’s demo of the BattleTech clicky-base game. Even then, I got the feeling that the guy didn’t actually want to play– he was just doing demos for the swag, I guess.

Gamers of Winter 2009 was nearly a disaster when the con date was changed from MLK weekend to Valentine’s weekend at the last minute.  Still, I was bringing my CAR WARS pal with me, so games were going to get played no matter what.  This was my first exposure to other “alpha gamers” and I played (and won) an eight hour game of Titan.  In return for us being good sports at other peoples tables, one game geek reciprocated and gave us a chance to play a couple rounds of three player CAR WARS.  It was a bit of a drive and cost some cash, but this was overall a pretty good deal.

Light Cycles in a Box

The 2010 Wilkesboro, NC Sci Fi Fantasy Con put on by my small town library was a hoot.  I volunteered to run a Star Fleet Battles table as soon as I heard about it just because it was so cool to have such an awesome library.  I imposed upon a non-gaming friend to come demo with me.  One of the librarians was dressed up as the 70’s TV Wonder Woman.  (Heh.)  I got a couple of good games in… and then… during a lull in the afternoon after the YuGi Oh tournament was over, a few teenagers came over to the table to check things out.  We played a quick game of Star Fleet Battles and blew up some spaceships.

MACE 2010 in High Point, NC… this one had been just down the road from me for years and I’d had no idea.  I’d met a guy at the Winston Salem boardgame club beforehand and we’d agreed to play Dune for most of the con.  This worked out beautifully, because we had three gamers that were new to this Avalon Hill classic… and then we easily got ahold of three more people that had played the game heavily back in the days of their youth.  When I wasn’t playing Dune, I hung out with these Euro gamer fanatics that had come up from Greenville, SC and that would play all kinds of great board games until one o’clock in the morning.  To top it off, there were CAR WARS games being run by “Big John” and he had really great miniatures, too.


Given then above… I didn’t have my hopes too high up for Madicon.  It’s not a gamers-only type con and the number of scheduled games was only a fraction of what they’d had slated back at MACE.  Also… I was once again going to the con by myself– no wingman at all.  So my chances of having an epic con experience were not good.  Still, there were a couple of okay games on the schedule.  I steeled myself for the worst while hoping for the best….

Arriving at the con, not long after the doors were scheduled to open, I elbowed my way through the crowd of geeks to make sure I signed up for the Serenity game. I chose Mal because… if you’re going to role play… you should play something totally different than yourself. In that case, the strong, good looking, streetwise leader is pretty much the way to go there….

Old school Battletech... FASA's answer to CAR WARS and Star Fleet Battles

I was nervous about the BattleTech tournament… and when I saw a guy that I knew to be up to speed on the new edition, I asked him if he would be so kind as to run me through a refresher session. He went for it. We used the first technical readout and he wanted the Awesome. I didn’t think any of the other mechs in that tonnage class could stand up to that mech, so I asked him if I could play a Stalker. He agreed and I laid out to map sheets from the third edition boxed set. He remarked that it was a huge amount of space for the fight… but given his longer range capability I was hoping that he’d be able to use it to get several turns of maneuver in before the game turned into a straight die rolling contest.

My opponent headed for the Level 1 water hex while I used my best speed to close the range. I used trees for cover if it didn’t cost me too many hexes of forward movement. Under the old rules… partial cover (from the water) was worth -3 to my to-hit rolls… and that was on top of my -2 for running. I pretty much couldn’t hit him given our agreement to use mediocre default 5/4 mechwarriors. He pinged me with his PPC’s a couple of times. I charged on in in order to take full advantage of my massive amount of short range weaponry… and then my opponent surprised me by walking towards me from his water hexes. (I would have walked backwards in his place.) Somehow I got to range one and poured on the firepower. In all the commotion, he failed a piloting roll and went down… the next turn he failed another one trying to stand up. Somewhere in there I landed two kicks to the same leg location and he was then out of the game.

If I could do that game over again, I would have played it with a good 75 ton mech instead of an 85 ton mech– my mech was way better than his in this situation. Talking over the rules with my opponent, I learned that the partial cover rules had changed in the new edition– it’s just -1 to-hit now… with leg hits being ignored. That’s a much better way to play that, in my opinion….

The quick-playing, easy-to_learn Tsuro can handle up to eight players.

After my Battletech game I wandered around the con a bit. The Dragon’s Den had some game stuff… there were some comic books… some people were playing a D&D 4e board game… and the Storm Troopers were hanging out watching fan films and giving out free snacks and ice cold drinks. I saw some folks playing this neat looking game called Tsuro and asked to join in. It is fast playing and easy to learn and is just about the best attempt at an implementation of Tron Light Cycles that I’ve ever seen in a board game.

The idea behind the game is that you draw a hand of three tiles and use them to maneuver your piece around the board. If an opposing piece is adjacent to the tile you’re about to place, you can send possibly send them off the board to their deaths. This indicated to me a basic, boring strategy of snaking around the edge of the board as far away from the other players as possible. You then wait for your opponents to run out of space. The next day I tried a more aggressive two player game of Tsuro where I dove into the middle of the board to try to box in my opponent… but this doesn’t quite work as my opponent could just go through my walls. However… he later ended up in a tight spot while I had managed to to maneuver over to the big empty spot. Not quite the “take him into the maze” moment depicted in the classic 1982 film, but close.

I somehow manage to win even though I understand none of the new symbols....

After a few games of Tsuro, we got a pretty good game of Race for the Galaxy going. I’d only ever played the base game a few times and understood maybe half of the symbols and tactics in that. Now I was faced with all kinds of crazy new stuff… including bonus tile thingies and spendable victory point tokens called prestige. I didn’t want to annoy my new found alpha gamer friends, so I didn’t ask about the new weird rules and just discarded any card that looked weird to me.

My strategy was to mostly invest in military worlds. I usually played to either settle or develop. One of my opponents played explore a lot and that was all I needed for that. For the final turn… someone played something to let me get the one more card I needed to get another 6-point development card out on the table. I had two of them there at the last… and they just so happened to fit well with the kind of cards I had out. The large number of bonus points I got from those nudged me into a lucky victory.

Finally... something you can use a set of double twelve dominoes for....

The next day, I blundered back into the con after staying up late with several other geeks. Again, there wasn’t a lot of games going on. I sat in on C J Henderson’s “Abuse the Author session” and when I came out, I had missed the start of the big Dungeon Lords game that I wanted to get in on. I was a bit distressed at this point as I thought I might not get too much gaming in during the weekend, but finally sat down to the monster game of Chicky Dominoes. The chicks that were playing it were pretty kind to let me slip in even after missing the first round, but it turned out that their generosity did little to hurt their final standings.

I’ve had double twelve dominoes my whole life– I’ve always been a bit mystified by them, though as I never learned any games with them. (I only recently learned a game that can be played with double twelves….) Chicky Dominoes is played in twelve rounds. Everyone gets a hand of n dominoes and the person that has the highest unplayed double starts with it. You connect onto the line as you’d expect, but if someone plays a double, the next three plays have to branch out of it like a chick’s foot. (People that can’t play draw once and may play their draw if they can.) If someone goes out, everyone else scores a number of points based on the pips remaining in their hand.

So there are two obvious strategies, then: play your big number dominoes early to get rid of them and play your doubles late in the game in order to force the other players to draw a lot. After playing several rounds, I had to rethink these two, though. I got stuck with doubles that I never got a chance to play and… even worse… people would play these monster doubles when I’d already gotten rid of my big number dominoes! By the end I was finally paying attention to what doubles still hadn’t come out, but I really ended up being my own worst enemy in this game.

A Serenity RPG session in progress...

After that it was about time for my scheduled Serenity game. MACE had had a couple of rooms filled to the brim with geeks at various tables banging the tables and yelling at their GM’s. My hopes were really high for this game, though, as I love Firefly and Traveller and I was really hoping to become fast friends with some more gamer types.

The first check came when we the game was rescheduled. Well… not rescheduled– the time on the sign up sheet was great if I wanted to catch the evening Battletech tournament. But then… the word got out that the game was bumped back up to where there’d be a conflict again. I asked the dude running the Battletech game if I could come into it late and he flatly turned me down on that citing how it would be unfair, etc. Being the angry middle aged geek that I am, I complained to him (he was the con chair) about the overall con organization and he replied that that’s just the way things go at a con: you have to choose what stuff you’re going to do.

So I was already miffed going into the Serenity game. Then the second check came…. We were missing “Zoe.” She turned out to have forgotten that she’d signed up for the game and was found downstairs with the Bopper people. She came to the table with a couple of plastic machine guns.

I think we might have gotten our character sheets and dice out… watched a Firefly clip and read some scripts to set the scene and help to get us into character…. Then the other shoe dropped. “Zoe” had never played a role playing game and had never seen Firefly or Serenity. Third check.

Every time anybody did or said anything in character, the other players would pipe in and explain what the character would really have said. Fourth check. The plot split the six players into four different groups. When one of the groups was playing the other players effectively sat out unless they heckled the people who actually got to do stuff. Two players on the end loudly hashed out the details of some other role playing game that I never heard of when it wasn’t their turn. Fifth check? ARGH!

It wasn’t my game, so I didn’t say anything. I felt like flipping the table over and storming off, though. My character very quickly ended up separated from the other characters, so I didn’t get to interact with any of them during play. Everything Mal was involved in was combat where the outcome seemed to be derived from whatever the plot required. The solution to the adventure involved River waltzing though as a sort of deus ex machina. Argh.

A three-way duel to the death...

Well… the Serenity game ended early, so I was only thirty minutes late to the Battletech game. I got there and the organizer was frantically putting together the Mechs we were going to use. Apparently, they’d been left in a bag somewhere and got crushed by the rave geeks. I wasn’t too late at all and had time to grab a snack.

Three people showed up for the game. Me, another old guy that had a stack of Battletech stuff in his garage, and… the girl that went for $70 in the geek auction. Yep… that girl is not only a Shadowrun GM, but she’s also a huge Battletech fan. (She’s the first person I’ve ever met that is fanatical about eighties era game that didn’t go to high school during that decade.)

We all ponied up five bucks to play and picked out a custom mech design. The other players had a hard time choosing, but I didn’t see anything that was much better than the 3/5 mech with four PPC’s. There were faster mechs and mechs that could jump… but they all seemed to take way too big of a hit to their firepower in my mind. (In CAR WARS, I always designed for maneuverability above all else, but four PPC’s was enough for me to give away that sort of initiative.)

We started the game from the map edge. I headed for the center of the board with the big central hill preventing one player from targeting me. I didn’t want to get sandwiched between my two opponents. Dude didn’t feel like getting between us either, so he charged the girl. He got one hex away from her and had partial cover. I shot at the girl from my position… and then… she turned and shot a large laser and two pulse lasers at dude. The large laser missed… but the two pulse lasers hit. Then she rolled location… head! Dude made his piloting and consciousness checks, whatever those were. (We all had really good pilots.) Then she rolled the second pulse laser location. It was… head again! Dude’s mech got its head blown off.

I felt bad for the guy as he didn’t seem to get to play much and there it was that the big game was over for him within three turns. Ouch.

So we were down to a duel. I stayed still in order to keep my to-hit penalties low. She came to me. She’d taken damage from me earlier and also some damage from dude. She could jump… but she had mostly short range weapons. She came toward me after dancing around a turn or two. I think the -3 for jumping really hurt her chances for hitting. I wore her down and she was soon missing a lot of center torso armor. I scored internal hits, but never really got any criticals when it would have mattered.

She came into point blank range. I was so close to winning and had so much armor, it didn’t matter much that I’d lost initiative. She could do tremendous amounts of damage, though… especially when she ignored her heat levels. She fired everything two turns in a row and then made a crazy number of piloting, shut down, and ammo explosion rolls. She retreated in order to cool down. Somehow, she was still there. I started walking backwards so she’d have to walk down my field of fire again to get to me. She bravely positioned herself in some woods to continue the fight. A few more shots, though, and I hit her center torso one last time. Game over.

It was a pretty good game, but I think my mech had a huge advantage over the other designs given the terrain. I’d continued my “angry nerd” theme for the weekend by questioning the judge’s ruling on which of my weapons were in arc. I was so sleepy at that point that I wasn’t even sure what the rule was anymore. I was flabbergasted early on when he started explaining how one of my opponent’s moves could have been a lot better. I asked him to cut out the kibbitzing because I didn’t want to hear it for the rest of the game, but it still probably made me look like a competitive, sore winner type. My opponent was an extremely good sport, though– she played well with what she had, knew the rules better than me, and was an all around great opponent.

C J Henderson running Call of Cthulu

Meanwhile… at the next table was the Call of Cthulu game I was missing. I walked over to get a sense of what was going on. One of the players was acting out the final scene: “I say… yes, Master.” He then called his friends up to where the cultists and monsters were and everybody died. The end.


2 responses to “Madicon 20: The Good, the Bad, and the Nerdy

  1. Jim Davenport April 26, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    Hey Jeffro, I enjoyed reading about your con experiences. I’m glad you’ve stuck with it even after several sub-standard experiences. I’m lucky to live in Columbus, OH and get to go to Origins each year as well as the odd tiny-con now and then.

    I was distressed to hear about the ugly Serenity game you participated in. I feel like someone took my baby and dressed him up funny. (I was involved in writing the RPG and some of the subsequent products: Although I tend to run Serenity using Savage Worlds rules at times, I’ve run campaigns using the Serenity RPG rules and run con games using them. What you describe sounds like a perfect storm of suck. I’ve handled folks who come to the game never having seen the show or movie, but that isn’t common. Splitting up PCs in a con game is just asking for suck. Allowing people to correct others’ roleplaying is epic fail on the GMs part.

    Anyway, if you’re coming to Origins this year, drop me a line. I might be able to hook you up with some proper Serenity goodness. :)


  2. jeffro April 26, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    Wow, thanks for dropping by, Jim.

    (I feel bad about trashing somebody’s game here like that, but… while there’s plenty of game reviews out on the web… actual first-hand reporting on what some of these cons are really like is pretty hard to come by. I consider it my civic duty to geekdom.)

    If I can ever make it out that way, I will definitely look you up…!

    And congrats on getting a Traveller-like rpg on sale at most major book chains…. That’s a pretty cool feat given today’s market for such things….

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