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GMT Games: Partying Down at GMT Weekend West, 4/2009

posted Aug 15, 2012, 11:24 PM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted: April 27, 2009

So there I was, sitting at Mike Lam’s Down in Flames table, when it hit me: Going to GMT Games Weekend West is just like going to Las Vegas. Minus the showgirls, of course. And the gambling — and the corresponding despair that hits when you’re tapped out. And the 50-cent shrimp cocktail and the buffet gluttony (although some of us skipped lunch on Saturday because we knew there would be plenty of complimentary pizza at 5 pm).

But as I sat there, waiting for my turn in a DiF dogfight, pondering the surfeit of attack cards in my hand and hoping to Heaven that no one would would get on my six before I could play them, I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was Friday or Saturday (or perhaps even some other day of the week). I had been sitting at a table for hours, playing a game and mostly heedless of the need for food and sleep. I had no idea of the time of day, although the sun streaming in through the half-open GMT Games warehouse door suggested that it was probably afternoon. I certainly had no idea of what was happening in the outside world. All of the boundaries that normally dictate my life at home were suspended. And I was perfectly fine with all of that. Just, please, Lord, don’t let anyone get more than a quick burst on my flight leader before I can play these sweet, juicy attack cards on some poor fool on the other side....

Now, you could use that comment to psychoanalyze me to a fare-thee-well. But I think it’s a tribute to Gene Billingsley’s hospitality and the atmosphere that he’s fostered at the GMT Weekends in Hanford. After all, I’ve been to game conventions where I’ve been perfectly happy to go home at the first opportunity. But I’ve never felt that way at a GMT Weekend West event, ever. It’s a small, relatively intimate gathering — 63 people registered for the event just passed, and judging from the name badges that were not picked up, 50 or so showed up. Most of us who come once come back, and so just about everyone knows everyone else, and gets along. It’s very easy to lose yourself in the gaming, knowing that you’re among friends, that everything you need is close by — the Sequoia Inn and the Hanford Mall are within a couple of miles of the warehouse — and if there’s a problem, Gene and his people will do what they can to help you out. Las Vegas may have cocktail waitresses in skimpy costumes, but for the GMT Weekends, GMT’s office staff pulls overtime and they are the model of courtesy and grace. You won’t find better customer service anywhere else in the game industry.

There were no tournaments this time, or other such planned events, except for a couple of tutorials for Fields of Fire run by Gene, who (much to his credit) is determined to straighten out the problems with the rules as they were published and maximize the value of a game that could and should turn into a popular series of games. So it was pretty much an open gaming

Mark Kaczmarek and Greg Ticer have a go at Pursuit of Glory.


Sometimes you will see the latest and hottest GMT game dominate the event, as Maneouvre did last April, when almost everyone gave it a try once and there were not enough copies to go around. This time, I saw a lot of activity in games that GMT published over the past year — Pursuit of Glory, Kutuzov, Clash of Monarchs, a couple of games of Unhappy King Charles going at the same time, Successors. A game of Barbarossa: Kiev to Rostov was set up at the back of the back room and took a couple of days to finish. But there were also plenty of go-arounds in older games, like Paths of Glory, Here I Stand, Sword of Rome and Saratoga.

There were also glimpses of the future to be had, and for me that has become one of the most interesting aspects of GMT Weekend. Dan Holte brought a test copy of his WWII ETO-scale design Supreme Commander, and he had no shortage of interested parties. Chad and Kai Jensen brought test copies of Metropolis (a Euro-style game that plays like a cross between a Euro and SimCity) and Fighting Formations, which seems to be Chad’s answer to

everyone who complained that there are no vehicles in Combat Commander. There was also a test copy of the Kadesh scenario from Chariots of Fire sitting out, but unfortunately, I didn’t get the opportunity to do more with it except take a crappy picture with my iPhone.

And as always, Mike Lam ran his Down in Flames Aces Campaign from take-off to landing, occupying an entire row of tables and a wall of the warehouse. For those who are not familiar with

The Down in Flames Aces Campaign area. As usual, DiF honcho Mike Lam is a blur of motion.

the spectacle, Mike adds some flavorful roleplaying elements to DiF; he keeps elaborate records of each game played so that you can create individual pilots whose exploits will carry over from game to game. He tracks the number of kills those pilots rack up over the course of the weekend on rolls of butcher paper taped to the wall. Five kills makes your pilot an ace, and you get a commemorative t-shirt and a randomly-determined special ability that you can use in subsequent games. Take it from me: It’s addictive. Ten years ago, I came to GMT Weekend for the first time, never having played DiF; Mike and the other seasoned players taught me the game, and now, I often have to pull myself away and remind myself that there are other games to be experienced in the course of the weekend.

In fact, I played nothing but DiF on Thursday evening, after I pulled into town. It had been a long day of travel after a night short on sleep, and it seemed best to stick to something familiar. But Gene and his family had a go at Metropolis at

the next table, and it looked interesting enough so that I made it a point to sit through a demo with Kai Jensen the next morning. Euros are one of my few blind spots as a gamer; I rarely muster up any enthusiasm for them. But I found Metropolis to be a lot of fun, perhaps because it really does feel like Chad designed it after having spent hours glued to SimCity. Basically, you take turns placing different types of buildings in a
grid that simulates a city; victory is determined by the

Kai Jensen demos Metropolis.

prestige and monetary value of the neighborhoods that your buildings occupy. But those values can change over the course of the game, and also placement of new buildings can influence the value of older buildings. I’m sure that there are other Euro games that fit that description, but Metropolis has a concreteness that draws me in, and I like the rebalancing mechanisms that make it challenge for a front-runner to stay in front. I’m not absolutely sure that it fits well with GMT’s product mix, especially in a time in which economic conditions seem to dictate caution about what you publish. But someone ought to publish it, because it’s a good design that keeps you interested all the way through.

After Gene’s Saturday Fields of Fire tutorial, I spent most of the rest of Saturday with the Jensens, who drew me and Phil Bradley into Through the Ages, a Civilization-type game originally published in Europe and translated into English by FRED Distribution (yes, you can play non-GMT games at GMT Weekend). Chad schooled us all with authority, but it was worth the six hours it took to play. I’d like to have another go at it, if only to correct the mistakes I made in the early game out of inexperience.

After that and a break to partake of the traditional Saturday night pizza, there was still time enough for Chad to explain Fighting Formations to me and Chris Janiec and start us off on a game. In the end, Chris and I both agreed that there are some clever mechanical ideas in how it handles command and control, but it still feels like a work in progress. Perhaps the greatest virtue of the Combat Commander games is their smooth flow and relative simplicity; no matter how long an individual go-around actually lasts, it moves quickly and you feel like you get a lot of game for the effort that you put into it. At this point in its development, Fighting Formations moves slowly and feels like it requires more steps than it ought. This is not to say that Fighting Formations ought to be the same game as Combat Commander, but if the former can capture more of the latter’s strengths, it will be a very special piece of work.

Saturday began, however, with another GMT Weekend tradition — Gene’s “The State of GMT Games” talk, in which he holds forth on the company’s current and future prospects with a degree of candor that would be unthinkable for most other CEOs. Whether you find that sort of information interesting or not

See What The Boys in the Back Room Will Have: Playing any but the smallest scenarios of a Barbarossa series game is a big undertaking at a con. Dr. Jim Jones (not pictured here) told me that the Soviets did not fare as well as they did historically, which must have been discouraging.

(and I do), it’s a tribute to the congenial relationship that Gene creates with his loyal customers that he can get away with this sort of thing. I will probably comment in later posts on the business of game publishing on some of what he said this time around. But aside from the fact that GMT’s new Ventrilo server is opening up new opportunities for players to connect with each other and design/development teams to keep in touch, the upshot seems to be that GMT is weathering the current recession because it doesn’t need to borrow money to fund current operations, but if a lot of customers pull back on their P500 pre-orders because of concerns about their personal finances that could create problems down the road.

I, however, ended my weekend on a positive note, flying a few last DiF missions in the wee hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning. One of my brand-new Soviet pilots (he scored his first kill on Friday night, in his first mission) knocked down three Nazi 

A test copy of the Kadesh scenario from Chariots of Fire, which will be the next volume of the Great Battles of History series. The counters are sorted but not set up; I don’t think the actual deployments of the Egyptians and Hittites looked like that.

bombers in a single mission, making him an ace. In Mike’s DiF campaign, Soviet aces are few and far between; Russian planes are so inferior to the Luftwaffe fighters on the Eastern Front in 1943 that the pilots get shot down too often.

It was like having a big run at the craps table right before you plane is supposed to leave from McCarron, and being sensible enough to walk away while you’re way ahead.