The World Boardgaming Championships is a yearly convention run by the Boardgame Players Association, a non-profit dedicated to bringing boardgamers together to enjoy their favorite games. I've attended the World Boardgaming Championships every year since its inception in 1999. Hell, I even attended the convention the preceded it, Avaloncon, since 1993. Over the years I've seen it grow in both size and scope, as well as adapt to the changing tastes of the hobby at large.
Despite that, the World Boardgaming Championships has always stayed true to its mission to be a convention not centered around publishers and designers, but instead the players themselves. Each year a few thousand players come to WBC to compete in various tournaments—of the 150+ held—learn new games, meet new people, and hopefully find time for some open gaming as well. There are even Junior events for kids, which allows WBC to be somewhat family friendly as children will have their own tournaments to keep them occupied while the parents play games elsewhere. Plaques are awarded to those who place well in events, with a few events rewarding plaques all the way down to 6th place. Those who place well in an event will also earn laurels: points that will be displayed on their badge in subsequent years, providing an indication of their past success.
I've often found that when I say "World Boardgaming Championships" to gamers who have never attended before, their initial reaction is one of nervousness or uncertainty. "World Boardgaming Championships? Sounds intense, I'm not cut out for that!" they say. It's easy to assume that the convention is filled with hyper-competitive players who will delight in dominating newer players and taunting them afterwards. Or that new players will be shunned for not knowing all the intricacies of a given game. In my experience, those are the exception, rather than the rule, when it comes to the people who attend WBC.
One aspect that helps prevent those sort of issues are how the events themselves are classified in one of three different categories: Advanced, Beginner, and Coached. Advanced events do require a firm grasp on the rules, but these are usually games you wouldn't consider competing in unless you were already familiar with them anyway—usually war games. Most of the tournaments are instead classified as Beginner level, which means that as long as you've played the game once, or attended the demo for it, you're welcome to play. Other players will likely be helpful and understanding of minor rules errors, especially in the preliminary heats of Beginner level events. A handful of events are Coached level, where you don't even have to have heard of the game before showing up to play, usually dice games a step or two above Yahtzee in terms on complexity. And I'm sure that there are even those who attend who don't compete at all, but merely come to engage in some open gaming, perhaps sampling some of the games in the Open Gaming Library.
So, what was WBC like for me this year? Well, this year's WBC was significantly different for me than any previous one, as while I competed in fewer events than ever before, I spent more time gaming overall. I compete in about 10 different events most years, and spend most of my time between events relaxing. This year, I only competed in 5 events, and one of those only at my wife's insistence. I spent as much time as possible open gaming instead, playing games I own but hadn't gotten much playtime out of yet, teaching a few of my favorites to other people, and even learned a new game or two. I think this was due to a combination of being a bit burned out on some of the events I always compete in—Titan: The Arena, Pirate's Cove)—and having new games I was itching to play—Argent: The Consortium, Blood Bowl Team Manager, Twilight Struggle. Despite competing in fewer events, I do think it was my most enjoyable WBC in recent memory.
As a result of the World Boardgaming Championships steady growth, this was the first year that I actually had any events on Monday. Two, in fact, although I skipped the Adel Verpflichtet heat to get settled in and to do some open gaming. That evening I entered a heat of Circus Maximus, a chariot racing game that I've competed in since 1993. Seated with some of the most experienced people in the game, I knew I'd be in for an interesting race.
Two players were running light chariots, focusing on speed, while the rest of us were running heavy chariots capable of dealing more damage when ramming horses or other chariots. While one of the lights stayed behind the pack to avoid an early death, the other light rushed forward, knowing he'd be out of our reach after several turns. I managed to ram his chariot on just the second turn though, inflicting enough damage that he immediately flipped after rolling low for his wheel check and was out of the race. Afterwards, I set my sights on one of the faster heavies, managing to reduce his speed by ramming his horses a few times. He swore revenge but couldn't manage to score a hit on me due to my driver having more skill—pro tip: always go with a +2 driver. Nonetheless, I managed to eliminate myself on turn 6. Knowing I likely only had one more shot at the new leader, a different fast heavy, I took a chance by ramming his wheels, hoping that I'd roll high enough, plus the bonus from my driver skill, to only damage him. That wasn't the case, and we both ended up taking some damage to our wheels. I sustained enough damage on mine to cause me to flip immediately—again, after rolling poorly on a wheel check. After being dragged by his horses for 4 turns, my driver finally succumbed to his injuries, mere seconds after the player who had sworn revenge suffered the same fate due to an unrelated attack. The player who flipped me ended up winning the race some time later. Definitely one of the more interesting matches I've had in recent years.
Tuesday was all about the Auction and Auction Store. Members can register games beforehand to be either auctioned off or sold in the Auction Store. Items in the Auction Store have their prices decrease throughout the day, providing potential buyers with the interesting decision "Do I buy this game now to ensure I get it, or take a chance by waiting so I can pay less?" Surprisingly, I didn't find anything I wanted in the Auction Store this year, whereas my wife and I bought 6 games from it the previous year. I spent hours in the Auction though, waiting for one of the two shrink-wrapped copies of the deluxe edition of Twilight Struggle to come up. I managed to snag my copy for $10 under retail, so I'm pretty happy with that. My goal before next year is to play it enough that I feel comfortable competing in the tournament for it.
Wednesday is for Wooden Ships and Iron Men, a game the simulates Napoleonic era naval warfare. Originally released nearly 40 years ago, my dad and a friend of his have spent the last dozen or so years developing a tournament version of the rules. They've added historical accuracy wherever they could (without sacrificing gameplay), added more opportunities for interesting decisions, as well as numerous other tweaks to better simulate the period. As one of the Assistant GM's for the event, I run the demo for it, as I'm better than my father at explaining the game—his words.
Sadly, this year one of the players who attended the demo came in with a negative attitude and complained every chance he could. Looking back, I question whether I did the right thing by allowing him to remain, instead of asking him to leave for being disruptive. Although it was quite satisfying when he tried to complain about a rule not being realistic, one of the original rules too, rather than one of the revised ones, only to have one of the original playtesters, and an expert on ships of the time, explain to him that the rule in question was perfectly accurate.
Having already won a single ship scenario (e.g. a 1v1 match) of Wooden Ships and Iron Men a day before, thanks to a lucky critical hit that set my opponent's ship on fire, I sat down and played a two ship scenario designed to recreate the 1781 Battle of Cape St Mary between the Dutch and the British—I played as the Dutch. I had helped my dad playtest it the month before and quite enjoyed how different it was from the scenarios I'm familiar with. I was eager to see how the balance changes I had suggested worked out.
.Lady Luck was not on my side this time, however, as an early shift of the wind left one of my ships a sitting duck, allowing my opponent to score a brutal stern rake, dismasting her immediately, and to make matters worse, the mast failed to fall free, forcing her to remain motionless for nearly a dozen turns, largely due to my atrocious dice rolls.
What followed was a series of grapples, where I manage to have my other ship shoot ahead to protect her and grapple his ship. I attempted to board numerous times, but once again my die rolls weren't good enough, though I still managed to capture the ship after my marines killed the only remaining crew. At this point, my two ships are both grappled—with most of the crew of the first having transferred to the second, and the crew from the first transferring over to my prize—while my opponent took advantage of my immobility to rake his former ship. Once again, I successfully grapple—my prize to his remaining ship—and once again I fail multiple boarding attempts.
Eventually he changes tactics and successfully boards my ship. The last crew in my boarding party dies, and since my remaining crew was busy manning the cannons, he retakes his ship just before time runs out and he edges me out in points scored. Despite my loss, it was definitely the most exciting match of Wooden Ships and Iron Men I've ever played. Even moreso since I was able to see the effects of the balance changes I suggested to the scenario—I likely would have won if not for those changes. Unfortunately, due to scheduling I couldn't squeeze in any more games, so I was unable to advance to the semi-finals. I also missed the Fleet Action, which is a large multiplayer scenario my dad designs each year, but I did spend some of that time GM-ing for some inexperienced players, which is important too.
Thursday is all about B-17, a solitaire game that simulates bomb runs carried out by U.S. forces in Europe during WWII. As a solitaire game, the tournament is less about out-playing your opponent and is more about competing for a high score. Each player commands a B-17 with its standard 10 crew complement over 3 missions. To add the simulation aspect, players sit in groups of six, to simulate the standard size of B-17 squadrons, where the fate of one person could effect the others. For example, if I'm the tail in the 3rd mission, and thus targeted by an additional German fighter plane any time I'm attacked by a wave of fighters, and I get shot down, the player who is in position 5 is now the tail. People in squadrons pair off to roll for the German fighters attacks against each other, which helps keeps everyone honest as well—and frankly it's also quite fun to shoot your partner out of the sky.
The extra simulation built into the tournament doesn't end there though, as the GM and his assistants put in a ton of work to really put the B-17 tournament in a league of its own. The most obvious addition is the replica medals they award to those who suffer significant crew losses or whose crew display significant bravery in the course of their missions, just as those medals would have been awarded during the war. It doesn't stop there, of course. The B-17 base game only covers a small portion of the war, late enough that it is unlikely a plane will be shot down often, but early enough to ensure that enough damage will be sustained to keep things interesting.
The GMs have been modifying the base game, with the missions of all of the tournaments over the last 20 years progressing chronologically, to the point that we are well beyond what the base game could offer. These guys spend countless hours studying reports of various missions and adapting them to the game for us. This extra effort has attracted a devoted following, bringing a sense of community to the tournament I've never seen elsewhere. Rather than talk about their victories like they would in other games, players instead gather to swap war stories. It's the sort of closeness that you see people have when they've gone through hell together, even if in this case "hell" was rolling dice and looking at charts for 9 hours.
They hold an After Action Meeting on Friday night, detailing the overall success rate and casualities of the players, announcing scores, from worst to first, and more. There is even a prize table, stocked with B-17 related gifts provided from the GMs and community alike that each player is welcome to take from when their score is announced. One player went as far to build dice towers for everyone, while another made 2 trophies that are held by the winners for the year and returned the following WBC: one for the best squadron, and one for the worst squadron dubbed "The FUBAR Squadron." It is commitment by the GMs, and the community that commitment fosters, that allows a tournament for a solitaire game that's been out of print for over a decade to attract new players year after year.
So, how did I do? Well, my second mission was pretty boring—nice and safe, with little of note. My first and third though ... absolutely brutal—just how I prefer them! In mission one, after losing an engine due to a fire two zones before the target zone, I made the decision to drop out of formation and slow down, rather than jettisoning my bombs and/or aborting the mission. What followed were the most brutal two zones I've ever encountered. With half my crew dead or seriously wounded, including my tail gunner several times over, and no ammo left in my top turret, I lost 2 more engines while over the target zone. Then, before getting a chance to drop my bombs, I watched as my partner rolled box cars to score a flak hit against me and then snake eyes to score a "BIP," AKA "Burst In Plane," which is exactly as terrible as it sounds. The tail ripped off, sending my crew into an uncontrolled bailout, of which only two survived and—were captured immediately of course.
Mission 3 had a much more promising start. I managed to make it to the target, drop my bombs—30% accuracy, which is pretty much my all time high—and started making my way back. Two zones later an engine fire forced another bailout (this time over water, instead of Germany). One crew member was already dead, and another managed to kill himself while exiting the plane, but the other 8 bailed out successfully. Except they all died of drowning or exposure afterwards because somehow I couldn't roll above a 4 eight times in a row. I got a purple heart for that one. All in all, a great time.
On an additional humorous note, last year I was the lowest score on the best squadron. This year one of our players flew with my wife in last year's FUBAR squadron, and they ended up as best squadron this year. Congrats, but I think we're going to demand her back for next year!
I entered a heat of Ivanhoe at my wife's insistence. Ivanhoe is a simple card game about medieval knight tournament combat. We had picked up the game last year and have played it countless times since. I nearly won my match, and I recognize exactly what I did wrong, but I'm not sure I'll play it in tournament again. I like the game but not enough that I don't get my fill from how often we play it at home.
For open gaming, I managed to play a few games of Argent: The Consortium and Blood Bowl Team Manager, both games I got for my birthday but had only played once before. Had a great time with both, and they seemed to go over well with most of the players I taught them to. I also got a few games of BattleCON in—although the War and Fate sets didn't arrive in time for the convention—but more importantly got a chance to teach two new players. They both picked it up immediately and both enjoyed it. Looking forward to more matches soon. I also learned Quartermaster General, which I hadn't even heard of. A light, card-driven, area control / war game, that can seat 6 players and takes less than 2 hours to play definitely has a place in my collection.
It wouldn't be appropriate to end WBC without Enemy In Sight. While it has the same theme as Wooden Ships and Iron Men, Enemy In Sight is much simpler, both because it is a card game and because it isn't designed to be a highly detailed simulation of age of sail combat. I played in all three heats of it this year. I lost my first rather terribly. In the second heat, I ended up with two friends of mine at my table, which is never good as they know all my tricks. Towards the end of the second hand, I managed to capture three ships, and at the last possible moment I drew the card I needed to get them back to port, scoring enough points to secure the win.
I played in the third heat on Sunday morning, mostly for lack of anything else to do, but also for the chance to hopefully eliminate some competition before the finals. Once again, one of my friends was at my table. Again, I had a bit of luck and captured a few prizes towards the end of a hand but didn't manage to get them home for double points. As the hand was drawing to a close, one of the other players was wondering if he had any cards worth playing, as he certainly had no way to score any immediate points, and I pointed out that if he had a "Break The Line" card—there are only 4 in the deck—he could play it on me to reduce my score by 8 points. He did, so he used it. After tallying the points it seemed I had won again. Ten minutes afterwards I realized that I hadn't actually deducted those eight points. As it turned out, my friend outscored me by a single point, securing his place at the final.
The final of Enemy In Sight was quite possibly the strangest match I've every played. It ended up going six hands—I'm not sure I've ever seen a match go past three. I played conservatively early on, trying to avoid making myself a target, and in retrospect I think I was a bit too cautious. In the forth round I vaulted into first with a particularly effective "Fire Ship," but was still nine points away from victory. In the fifth hand, I eschewed a small definite point gain, sinking a small ship, for a larger possible point gain, capturing a much larger ship. No only did I fail to get that ship back to port—for double the points!—but another player ended up capturing it and scoring it instead.
Enemy In Sight ends at the end of a hand in which a player's cumulative score exceeds 100, and we entered the sixth round with five of the eight players with point values in the 90s, and another with 89 points. I have never seen a game that close! While during the fifth round I had great cards but rarely a good opportunity to play them, I suffered through the sixth round with mostly terrible cards and again failed to score any points. In the end I got sixth place, while my friend who had beaten me by one point in the earlier heat managed to take first. I've won the tournament before, so these days I'm honestly satisfied to make it to the finals, so my only complaint is getting home two hours later than expected.
WBC was really solid this year, both for me and for a lot of my friends as well. Collectively, I think my friends had their winningest year yet—although several of them just scarcely missed finishing a place or two higher their finals, which is often more frustrating than just losing badly. It wasn't a perfect year, of course, if such a thing exists. I missed a game design seminar I usually attend due to scheduling—or rather because I took too long to die in B-17. A few people I look forward to seeing at WBC each year weren't able to make it, and there were a few others that did attend whom I barely got a chance to see. I regret missing the Wooden Ships and Iron Men Fleet Action—as well as not playing in the tournament enough to advance this year—and I'm sure my dad will be sure to bring that up next time I beat him at Wooden Ships. All in all though, a great sendoff for WBC's last year in Lancaster. Next year it'll be held at the Seven Springs resort, relatively near Pittsburgh. I'm not excited about the longer drive, but I'm definitely looking forward to the a nicer venue.
Disclosure: I am friendly with a few of the people who help run the BPA and WBC. Given that I'm accustomed to putting my friendship with them aside when I face them at the game table, I do not feel that this article was influenced by those friendships.