October 4, 2023

Origins 2023 ~ My Spiritual Sojourn to Origins 2023

Walter Kunkle, 30 June 2023

“Bullshit,” the old man was telling the Dulles baggage attendant from United. “Seventy-five dollars for a checked bag. I’m not mad at you—I’m mad at the airline.” Though I was young, I felt myself becoming more like him every day: more crooked, sagging under the weight of life’s many indignities. But for a brief time, I would be leaving his world and crossing the threshold of childhood again—into the heady realm of strategy board games. I was on a flight to Columbus to attend Origins Game Fair—and write about it for Brant Guillory and the rest of the team at Armchair Dragoons. I love games, and, having worked with Brant before, I knew he was an editor that largely would let me write whatever I wanted, which was the real sell.

My plane touched down Wednesday morning. The Columbus Convention Center exuded a chilly and somewhat unwelcoming aura—its rippling bulk doubtlessly straddling various cursed Shawnee burial mounds. Opposite the main entrance, a flinty statue of a young and cut Arnold Schwarzenegger flexed defiantly at the nerds who had occupied his stomping grounds. Upon entry, I was directed to a distressingly long line of patrons awaiting their lanyards. “I’m media,” I told the orange-shirted wranglers, but there was no special line for types like me, and I reluctantly fell in with the rest of the proles.

I struck up a talk with the man behind me, a data scientist and second-year attendee by the name of Brian. Brian had long, sandy brown hair, and a shirt with the face of every Muppet on it. I was trying to find Sam Eagle for most of our conversation, but I did let him know that once I received my press badge I unfortunately could no longer associate with him. Once the press ribbon made its way into my hands, Brian dutifully—to his credit—averted his gaze from mine. I had important media things to do, such as keeping a tally in my notebook of every male ponytail I saw at the convention.

click pretty much any images to enlarge

I had a packed schedule, but I had to meet up with Brant, who I had never met in person. He was a shortish man in a tan baseball cap and a green Hawaiian shirt. The Hawaiian shirt, to my amazement, was weatherproof, presumably so that its wearer could party in any environment. I asked Brant about my duties at the Origins, and also about the festival’s mascot: a sexless, razor-toothed orange creature that was ubiquitous on all the branding. Brant explained that this was Crit, and that it had been the face of Origins for about seven years. As he continued, I interrupted him to ask if there were two T’s in “Crit.” No, he said, “it’s short for ‘critical hit.’” I figured, I told him, but I was curious if they stylized it at all. “They didn’t, no.”

o23 walt Crit

It was high time to head to my first event—a Civil War naval miniatures game by the name Ironclads! Walter Green and his team wanted a playtest of the new combat rules, and I figured this would be a great start to my time at Origins. I was one of six players, arranged in a circle around a spotless table of powder blue sea. It was a free for all, the designers explained—they wanted to see how much damage we did to each other. Damage and degrading armor were meticulously tracked on a large and very involved spreadsheet.

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I picked a Monitor turret ship as my vessel, christening her the Carolina Rogue. To my left sat an older man, his hat signifying that he was a Gulf War Veteran. He had named his ramming ironclad She Who Must Be Obeyed, which was a lengthier and much cooler name than mine. I instantly decided this man would be my enemy. Ironclads! uses a template-based movement system not unlike X-wing, and since I was an ace at X-wing, I figured it would be a trivial matter to sneak around the back of this this old-timer and light him up with my turrets. I misjudged the angle on my first attempt, and he raked me with his broadsides. In the following turn, I got behind him and we unloaded a brutal close-range salvo into each other. I dealt significantly more damage than I received, but he had blown up my front gun turret.

o23 walt Carolina Rogue
The Carolina Rogue


We continued our duel until the game’s end. The Carolina Rogue outshot her rival, but she could not sink her. In fact, despite numerous catastrophic magazine explosions and fires, none of the six vessels that started on the board had sunk after three hours of play. Every ship had wheelbarrows full of health points in different categories–hull, armor, crew, and flotation–and damage was usually spread out among these types. The critical hits that occasionally were pulled from the damage deck were incredibly swingy and did obscene amounts of damage; the “special” cards, by contrast, sometimes applied an inconvenient effect, but about half the time seemed to be no different than regular damage cards.

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The location in which you were shot was always highly specific and needed to be accounted for on your spreadsheet. Damage was determined largely by how close the two ships were to each other, modified by the defender’s armor value. Damage cards were drawn from seven or eight decks whose effects got gradually more severe the more advantage the attacker had. I pitied Walter, who had to reshuffle all of them. I had previously played Dawn of Iron: American Civil War at Sea, which was a pulpier and more lethal ironclad game, and which also played much quicker than Ironclads! While I feel that any game that contains a spreadsheet of any kind has no business with an exclamation point at the end of its name, the game’s similarity to X-wing worked to its benefit. If they could make it more decisive, I feel like Walter and the boys have the bones of something good.

The real event of the day that I was looking forward to was, undoubtably, Ogre. Steve Jackson, of Munchkin fame1, designed Ogre in 1977: a post-apocalyptic game about sentient tanks the size of stadiums that quickly achieved legendary status among greybeards and grognards, who hoarded the out-of-print metal miniatures. This particular playthrough of Ogre was a persistent megagame: the players would rotate out every two hours, but the board state would remain consistent.

I took command of a suite of dark green tanks in the central board. There was a fight raging on my right and another on my left. Directly across from me, a light green force of tanks was seemingly in mid-battle with me—their giant Ogre Mk. V was surrounded by a sea of my vehicles. The young guy across from me was named Rowan. He had a childlike face and thick brown hair that went down past his shoulders. I liked Rowan. He was smart—too smart for Ogre, which was a pretty simple d6-based game with a handful of special rules. An idea entered my head.

o23 walt Ogres Start
Two massive and distinctive Ogre Mk. V tanks—the mascots of the game


I had Rowan’s Ogre, to put it politely, by the short hairs. But I saw no reason for us to keep fighting each other. Light green and dark green had slaughtered each other for too long. I pitched an alliance to him—suggesting instead that we travel down the massive highway in a convoy, and crash into the ongoing battle between the red and white teams on the table to my right. Let’s test how mega this megagame can really get, I thought to myself. The instructor, Doug, told us we could get points for destroying the skyscrapers that littered the board. The Green Armada maneuvered ponderously toward the main highway, shelling any skyscrapers that were in range.

o23 walt Ogre Red and White
The Promised Land


Time and again our alliance was tested. Rowan’s giant Ogre had to run over two of my heavy tanks in order to proceed down the highway. “Do you want me to not move?” he asked me. “No,” I said, “They’re just tanks. Blow them up.” Our two Ogres now straddled the highway side-by-side. Red and white realized what was happening, but they could not abandon their petty war against one another to face down the world-ending threat of the Green Armada. Ogre was a delight—the rules were just simple enough to learn easily, but the vehicle types lent it further layers of complexity. I put my laser tower–which could shoot anything it could see on the massive game board—to good use, picking off other players’ howitzers and light vehicles.

o23 walt Ogre Together

Our time playing ended before we made contact with the right-board infidels. I was struck by a terrible thought: Would the next players to play dark and light green continue the war plan? Or would our alliance collapse? There was no way for me to know—my turn at the helm was over. I wrote on a sticky note: “MAINTAIN ALLIANCE WITH LIGHT GREEN AT ALL COSTS. THEY ARE OUR BROTHERS IN ARMS. DEATH TO THE RIGHT-HAND SIDE.” But that was it. I bade Rowan farewell and walked away.

I left the bloated convention hall to meet up with a friend who lived on a farm outside the city. My friend, his wife, and I sat on a pondside dock and talked about games and books until the sun went down, and I was driven back to my considerably less glamorous AirBnb in a rough part of downtown. My bedroom was the ideal male living space: furnished only with a bed, a small side table, and a trash can. As I drifted off to sleep, I heard a strident voice outside. “You have to treat everyone with a certain level of respect in there,” the voice said, “Otherwise you start beef between guys—and that’s bad for the whole yard.”

Day 2

I caught a light drizzle on my walk to the convention center. Everything in Columbus was much larger than it needed to be. Walking a mile felt like two miles. I passed by the Schwarzenegger statue again. The more I saw of Arnold, the less I liked him. He had become more vascular somehow. Grotesque, I wrote down in my journal. My loyalties lay with Crit now.

My ticket was at the expense of Armchair Dragoons, but with that came responsibilities. Chiefly, Brant wanted me to cover select vendors in the Show Hall. I flashed my press badge to get in early, and made my way over to the Enterprise Games booth. Don Pawley and his wife Lynn had started Enterprise in the mid-90s as a game retail outlet. They had a great selection of wargames and strategy games, including Votes for Women, which I kicked myself for not buying as both copies had been sold by the time I dropped by again. Business had been good for them this year; the COIN games were their bestsellers—no surprises there. I admired their collection of retro-style folio games and made a note to pick one up.

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Decision Games, whose booth I stopped by next, were manufacturers, not retailers. They went all in on folio games, as well as a line of smaller scenario battle games. The dedicated wargamer crowd was a small force at Origins, but they were a force, and Decision Games was one of a few places, other than the Armchair Dragoons play area, that catered exclusively to them. Despite its small size, the booth was crammed with folio games, almost like a library. I talked with Doc and Callie Cummins for a bit and caved on buying a folio game for a friend as a gift. I picked Acre: The Third Crusade Opens because it seemed simple enough for a novice wargamer to understand: making use of unit illustrations rather than military symbols. I opened it to take a look inside, and the retro feel and crisp tokens made an immediate impression on me. Should I buy another folio game? I thought. Later—there would be time for that later.

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I had more booths to hit: Leder Games and the Dietz Foundation. Leder Games were rockstars in the board game world—putting out the asymmetrical, Redwall-inspired Root in 2018, and the legacy game Oath soon after. Both had been masterpieces—the simplicity and charm of their little wooden components contrasted with mechanics that were complex and ran deep. A charismatic salesman walked me through the upcoming Root expansion, which added two new factions: crusading, treasure-hunting badgers, and a swarming mob of rats led by a Genghis Khan-type figure. Their new modular seafaring exploration game, Ahoy!, was also on debut, and it seemed like the company was definitely sticking close to its now-distinctive art style for this title as well.

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At the considerably quieter Dietz Foundation booth, I told Jim Dietz I was a writer working with Brant. “I’m so sorry,” Jim said. Dietz had worked with Sebastian Bae, a friend of mine, to design the critically acclaimed hex wargame Littoral Commander: Indo-Pacific. I was familiar with this title, so familiar, in fact, that I would be running it at Modern Day Marine in a few days’ time. Littoral Commander: Baltic was the next title in development for the series, though it hadn’t released yet, and featured revamped ground combat. I excused myself quicker than I would have liked from Jim’s booth—I was late for a miniature painting class.

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I got to the classroom about 10 minutes after I was supposed to be there. Specifically, the class taught the principles of painting non-metallic metal, which I had long been fascinated by as a painting trick and wanted to learn to use effectively. Back in the 1970s, miniatures paint manufacturers launched metallic paint filled with small metal particles to lend a shiny look to bayonets and rivets. Non-metallic metal eschews these paints: using matte paints and heavy contrast to replicate the reflective look of highly polished metal surfaces—the same way artists have been painting metal since the Renaissance.

o23 walt Painting Class

I shook hands with the bald, red-bearded instructor, Ryan Meigs, and selected a small gnoll pirate miniature as my test model.Ryan, who apparently goes by @uselesswizard online, was a perfect instructor for this sort of technique, and it was obvious that he had studied it for a good while. I felt a thrill when my first belt buckle came out wonderfully. The small class size felt intimate, even scholastic—like we were students at the feet of a great master.

Ryan’s work was a helpful reference when painting the metal on my own model

Class let out, and I shuffled dejectedly back down to the showfloor, where the burden of my actual job awaited me. My next stop was Black Oak Workshop, a dice manufacturer. I didn’t normally go for dice, and I’ve never understood the people who buy set after set of them. The only dice I owned came from a bar of soap a friend had gotten me two years ago. That being said, the themed advent calendars that Black Oak was peddling did catch my eye. I saw a really neat d2 that I was asked not to take a picture of, as it was technically an exclusive for people who bought the calendars. I complied, grudgingly, and deleted it from my camera roll.

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Green Ronin of Mutants and Masterminds fame was my next stop. “I think I talked to one of you already,” the owner Chris Pranas told me2. There was indeed a second Armchair Dragoons writer prowling around: Patrick Rice, a nice guy, but someone who I didn’t really see much of. I made a mental note to text Patrick and tell him in no uncertain terms to stay off my turf. I asked Chris which of the two of us he had liked more. He dodged the answer in a diplomatic way. I noticed the core rulebook for their Fantasy Age game was illustrated by British artist Wayne Reynolds, who famously is also the house artist for Paizo’s D&D competitor: Pathfinder. Reynolds is most famous for his “put a million belts and pieces of cloth on every goddamn character” style, which has never been my favorite, though it does make his work instantly identifiable.

Chris and I talked about the economics of printing D&D 5th Edition supplements, which Green Ronin had carved out a niche in. In 2006 there were so many of these types of supplement books available for the d20 system that the market completely crashed, and a lot of publishing houses got leaner or went out of business. I asked him if he saw a parallel to now, at a time when everyone and their Uber driver was putting out supplements for D&D once again. He was adamant that Kickstarter and crowdfunding would make all the difference for publishers this time around, and that unlike in ’06, supplements were printed in limited, exclusive runs and often never saw store shelves. I caved to this exclusivity pitch and bought a supplement called The Lost Citadel, chiefly because the cover art strongly evoked Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series.

Finally, I stopped by Black Labrador’s booth, where I talked at length with game designer and alternate history author Daniel Lessin. A passionate student of the American Revolutionary period, the bespectacled Lessin was unflinching in his enthusiasm. His new territory control deck builder, Loyalty or Liberty, looked interesting. But when I saw that his two alternate history novels were also for sale in his booth, the tectonic plates of my attention irreversibly shifted. I asked him whether he preferred game design or writing. “Game design” was his answer—he didn’t like negotiating with his editor. I felt a kinship with him in that moment. I too, had an editor; one who was probably looking to cut this article down for purposes of length.3

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His passion for the Revolutionary War began in fifth grade when a teacher, Sandra Cohen, changed his life by nurturing his desire to explore the Loyalist side. Daniel’s round face lit up as he talked about various Loyalist figures of the time, most of whom he had an encyclopedic knowledge of. Daniel had a halting way of speaking that further endeared him to me. I mentioned Banastre Tarleton, one of the only Loyalists I knew, who tangled with Nathanael Green in South Carolina. “I don’t like Banastre Tarleton,” he told me. “He was a really cruel man. He had a wicked heart.”

It had come time for me to head to my appointment in the UNPUB room, where designers were matched with playtesters for their yet-to-be-published games. Readers, it was here that I got to test one of the best games of the whole show: a racing game in the vein of Mario Kart called Reckless Overdrive. Designers Shawn and Maryann Calligan lured me over to their table. A wiry and fidgety man with a barely detectable Canadian accent, Shawn came off like a sainted madman from bygone centuries—unaware that the Board Game Gods were working through him.

The game’s hilarious art—also drawn by Shawn—set the tone for a riotous time. I played as a fat Porco Rosso in an airplane, utilizing my ludicrous special move to soar above the track and dodge other players’ attacks. I stuck around for a second game, eager to pick another character off the over 20-man roster. This time, I played as an ATV-driving grim reaper who got more powerful as other peoples’ carts crashed. I would have stuck with the game for a third round, but I lacked the social confidence to pull this move off.

Shawn’s great stylistic illustrations put this game miles ahead of everything in UNPUB

To regular Armchair Dragoons readers: if this reads like an advertisement for Reckless Overdrive, then allow me to congratulate you—it appears years of squinting at tiny hexes and cardboard unit markers has not completely destroyed your frontal lobe. The fact is, Reckless Overdrive rules. It’s styled as a racing game, but it is, at its core, a gambling game. You wager your speed against the durability of your car, and other players’ items and actions can throw a massive wrench in your gameplan. Both playing it safe and going all-out seemed to be viable strategies from the two games I played. I know it’s not a wargame, and I know it doesn’t cover the hellish German retreat from the Eastern Front. I’m sorry for that, I truly am. Buy it when it comes out—I know I will.

o23 walt Overdrive Alien

I played another game during my stint in UNPUB, though I will not mention it here—not because I didn’t care for it (though it certainly had some kinks to work out)—but because I was rather burned out after the dopamine high of Reckless Overdrive, and I don’t think I gave this game my fair attention. Stopping by the convention hall to pick up my bag, I saw my friend Rowan from the Ogre game the day before playing Mantic’s Kings of War. I went over to say hello, and enquired about KoW, which I had never played. I mentioned my experience playing Warhammer Fantasy, which did not earn me points with Rowan’s opponent.

Kings of War,” he said, “Is nothing like Warhammer Fantasy.” I mentioned to him that it looked exactly the same and had all the same factions. “But it doesn’t play the same,” he insisted as I walked away. His defense of Kings of War, which I had written off mentally as a Warhammer knockoff for years, gave me pause as I left. Is Kings of War actually based? Do I need to take the KoWpill? Questions such as these followed me out of the convention center and stayed with me on my way home.

Day 3

Because I wanted to wait until you were emotionally prepared, I did not mention the Face that stood outside the registration desk, though I was subjected to it on the first day. The Face is a twenty-foot high LED sculpture in the rough shape of a human head. When I first saw it, I felt confronted by a technology I had no way of understanding. I suppressed an evolutionary urge to run away from this psychic weapon of a hell yet to come. The visage projected on the Face is an ever-shifting tableau—definitely human—but distressingly childlike or old at times, changing every five seconds or so.

At the back of the structure, a black curtain stretched taller than any human height, concealing an entrance into the “neck” of the Face itself. I did not pull aside that curtain. I knew that if I did, and if I stepped inside the Face, I would not return, and it would wear me in five-second intervals for the next thousand years; my LED lips stretched tight in a rictus grin.

o23 walt Face Curtain
Not today, old friend


In a prominent ad near the show’s entrance for something called Hero Realms Deckbuilding Game, a knight on horseback soyfaced at passing conventiongoers. I rolled up to the play area for my next appointment: a game of Warhammer 40,000 with exclusively titan models. For those who are unaware, titans are foot-high models that have for years been unattainable luxuries for Warhammer 40,000 players, except for nutjobs who were willing to pay $750 to field one. As such, many who love the game have never seen a titan, much less played with one. I got to play a game with three titans on each team, and it ruled.

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I won’t write much on the strategic depth of this game because there was none. Instead, six men of varying ages became boys again over a span of two hours. My laser bedecked Warhound Titan, which I named Purple Rain, ate an entire round of shooting and stayed alive. I Naruto-ran the colossal vehicle into an enemy titan, completely whiffing every one of my attacks. Then my opponent kicked my titan into a massive row of fuel containers. My vehicle exploded in a cataclysmic fireball, taking out both the enemy that had kicked me as well as one of my teammates who was on low health.

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The last booth I needed to hit was the massive one owned by Modiphius, who published the Dune: Adventures in the Imperium roleplaying game last year. I liked Dune a lot and heard the system was really solid—I had bought a copy of the core rules for my brother last Christmas. Almost everything in the Modiphius booth was a tie-in with some other IP. The Fallout and Skyrim 32mm miniatures games occupied prominent positions in the booth. I didn’t want to bother the busy attendants with an interview—people were swarming the booth as it was.

The sculpts for the miniature games looked good painted up, though I was going off the images on the box front, as they had no painted models in the booth. The prices seemed expensive for how few models you were actually buying. I noticed many books from the Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed of RPG at a table marked “clearance.” What would Arnold think? I asked myself4. I shook my head as I walked away.

Because I had work waiting for me at home, I needed to sit down and start collecting my thoughts for this beast of an article. I ensconced myself in a burger joint across from the convention center and labored away for a few hours. A text came from Brant, asking if I wanted to demo the sci-fi miniatures wargame Polyversal later that afternoon. I committed—my writing had hit a wall after two hours, and I was tired of staring at the jacked-up exterior of the Columbus Convention Center.

o23 walt Red Orktober
The awesome Hunt for Red Orktober 40K table


The interior was chilly, as I’d mentioned before, but parts of it were inexplicably colder than others. These cold zones would shift over time, and you never knew when you’d run into one. I had worn shorts the first day—a mistake I wouldn’t repeat again. Deep beneath the earth, in abandoned and orange-carpeted tunnels, there were probably pockets of the Columbus Convention Center without breathable oxygen. A Templar with transition glasses sticking out of the eyeslits of his helmet walked by me, nine hundred years late for his holy war. Was that a male ponytail I spied bundled up beneath his silver helm? I added a tallymark.

Polyversal turned out to be a one-on-one demo game with Ivan Jukovic, a youngish guy about my age with a particular way of doing things. I wanted to help him set up the terrain. “No, no,” he insisted, he wouldn’t want anyone demoing to lift a finger. Polyversal is a 6mm miniatures game with a heavy focus on command and control mechanics. Your command structure is represented by detailed hexagonal panels representing the various units comprising your force, with the commander in the center. The game is miniatures-agnostic, meaning minis from any line can be used to play. The coolest part: an online points generator, which means that you can theoretically stat an army from any sci-fi setting and make legal units for them. Ivan informed me he was currently in the process of doing this with the Bugs from Starship Troopers. “That’s tight,” I said, and I meant it.

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I played as the United Nations against the lower-tech but more numerous Americans. I wondered how things had gotten this bad. Ivan took it easy on me, at times insisting that he reroll dice results that were too good. I argued against this, but he would have none of it. This lent the game a sort of awkward social dynamic; it felt like I was a guest in someone’s house. I lit up buildings with my plasma firepower to deny cover to his units, particularly his airborne gunship. My massive battlemech had taken some pretty annoying chip damage to its morale throughout the game, but the Americans had done no physical harm to it that couldn’t be repaired. My superheavy tank, by contrast, had its targeting system destroyed early on and was pretty much useless for the rest of the conflict.

o23 walt Polyversal Outflank
UN Infantry outflank US forces, pinning them under heavy fire


Polyversal had some problems in its execution. For one, units moved incredibly fast for a game of this small a scale—my infantry transports could book it up to 21” across the board with just a basic move action. There were no restrictions for embarking or disembarking, meaning that my transports could pick up infantry mid-move, disembark them up to 21” away, and then those infantry could also do a full move. Light units like buggies were prohibitively hard to hit with any kind of conventional weaponry, even when they were just sitting out in the open. By contrast, it was very easy to hit large tanks and walkers. Though they had high armor values, successful attack would often deal out stress tokens to them, which would degrade their effectiveness and eventually cause the unit to run away.

o23 walt Polyversal Fight
My Ares-class mech in a shootout with US infantry fighting vehicles


The game uses a combined-dice mechanic which gets somewhat clunky, though I’m not good at quick head math. Finding out exactly how much damage you do to what you’re shooting at is pretty unintuitive, especially when doubles of any kind are rolled. Each differently-shaped building had its own separate statistics, I noticed, a level of detail that, frankly, needlessly complicated the game. The high mobility across the units in Polyversal meant that, of the nine possible orders that could be issued, the best one in almost every situation was the simple Move & Shoot order, which I found myself spamming for most of my playthrough to great effect. There was an Assault order, although from what I observed, every unit was better at shooting than it was at melee. Neither Ivan nor I made use of it.

At 4:00, I called my Polyversal game early to help Brant shoot a video of the Command Post Exercise at the Armchair Dragoons booth. Patrick, the other writer, was there as well, and after around thirty minutes Brant told us we could go about our business. I was slated to cover the Origins Awards at 8:00, a task I was desperately looking to get out of. “I don’t want to go to the Origins Awards either,” Patrick said. Since one of us had to be there, we rolled off on a twelve-sided die. My 8 beat out Patrick’s 6, and I hooted in celebration.

Now that I was off the hook, I sat down for a lovely talk with Tory Brown, the designer of the smash hit Votes for Women. She was enthusiastic and approachable, and I could have talked to her for a couple of hours if I didn’t have a 5:00 commitment to play Kings of War. I would have loved a more formal interview with her, but I hadn’t actually played her game yet (I’m sorry, Tory). We talked about mysteries, wargaming political change, and collective action. She flitted between topics easily; I’m a very mercurial interviewer. She left me feeling full of hope. You’re wonderful, Tory, I thought, I have to go play a game about orcs now.

The play area with all the Mantic games was run by Ohio War Kings. “I’m here to play Kings of War,” I told Michael Carter, an older man sporting a kilt and a wispy white beard. Michael was the one who had been playing Rowan yesterday when I callously dissed the game. He was gracious—mentioning nothing of our exchange last night. He beckoned me to select a force. The Vampire Counts player in me was drawn to the Undead, but I remembered my traumatic experiences playing Vampires at low points in Warhammer Fantasy. Orcs were a safer bet: big numbers, hard-hitting—very forgiving of mistakes. I went with them.

Kings of War does play differently than Warhammer Fantasy, for better or for worse. Units do not degrade in model count over time—their morale degrades as they take wounds. There’s no rallying after a unit has fled—they basically are deleted from the board. In perhaps the biggest change, charge distances are guaranteed rather than randomly rolled. I hated this—my infantry could make their 10” charges with 100% reliability—my cavalry could make an eye-watering guaranteed charge move of up to 16”.

“But Walter,” you may ask, “why is guaranteed charge distance bad in a rank and flank miniatures game?” The answer: it turns the game into even more of a Mexican standoff, where neither army wants to be the first to enter the charge range of its opponent. And because these charge distances are a known and explicit value, there’s nothing to incentivize you to move within “no-no range”—except of course if you’re being shot at. Functionally, this means armies like Ogres with high movement will pretty much always be able to get the first charge on an adversary, since their threat range is higher. To compound this, your models don’t get to fight if it’s not your turn, meaning that charging units can delete whoever they make contact with and not take any damage at all.

o23 walt Kings Deployment
My starting Orc deployment against the elite Ogre force


As luck would have it, my opponent was playing Ogres, perhaps the only army in the game that was punchier than mine in melee, and one whose charges outranged mine. I had a generous amount of infantry with which to eat any mistakes: 60 spread across three large blocks, more than seemingly any other faction could field. I deployed my orcs in a loaded right flank setup. My boar cavalry shot across the field and charged a unit of Ogres on an opposing hill, dealing a lot of wounds to them. My knack for positioning my units poorly came to bite me in the ass when a unit of Ogres got off a flank charge into one of my infantry blocks, wiping the 20-man unit outright.

o23 walt Kings Turnaround

About this point in the game, though, I realized something. I was having fun. There was a grizzled Warhammer Fantasy campaigner inside me—a pivoting, free-reforming bastard exiled to Elba for many years—who was ready to mix it up once again. This guy came into my house, I realized, and I’m going to beat the absolute shit out of him. I set up a devastating flank charge on his berserkers, wiping them out. My cavalry up north massacred the Ogres on the hilltop, then pivoted to face down his poorly-positioned hero in the rear line.

o23 walt Kings Face Off

I reformed my hammer unit to face his gunners and eat a frontal charge from them through hindering terrain. Our two anvils met, bouncing off one another, despite a flank charge from my war-drummers. The board looked very favorable for me, despite the enemy infantry closing in on my left flank—my gut told me my anvil would hold for at least one more enemy turn. The pivot rules were much more generous than Warhammer Fantasy would ever have allowed, and I used this to my advantage to set up very tricky choices for my opponent. Unfortunately, the Ogre commander bested me with the ultimate tactical manuever: leaving the game early because he had another commitment.

I was riding an emotional high that was hard to dispel. As I walked home that night, the fireflies began to come out. I remembered my time in college—strung out on energy drinks and loitering in the Carolina heat under the awning of the Firefly Games store, waiting for the tables to open up. My friend Tyler and I would play Warhammer Fantasy late into the evening whenever we could. We were noisy, brash; two Ogre Mk. V tanks driving down the road together. Why did a city without fireflies name a store after them? Why didn’t I realize how beautiful it all was until I had left it all behind? The fireflies were there—I couldn’t see them back then. Kings of War brought me back to that time; it dropped me off under that awning, just for a little while.

Day 4

I had been up late since I got home last night. Overnight, you see, the backwater and quiet country known as Russia had descended into a civil war. I was in the right place: as luck would have it, most attendees at this boardgame convention were experts on Russia. A goateed man in plaid shorts and a tweed flat cap was explaining how doomed the Putin regime was to a passively interested man across the table from him. He couldn’t stop explaining it, in fact.5

I had a 10:00 appointment at the Armchair Dragoons booth. Jeff Sudgen from On Target Simulations was running us through a CPX Bootcamp, focusing on recon and counter-reconnaissance. The CPX simulations run daily at the booth looked weighty and intimidating—crisp maps projected on a flatscreen monitor and dotted with over a hundred military units. I had figured we would be playing a small intro scenario, but this was a misapprehension. The actual format of the lecture was a seminar, comparable in quality to any you’d find being taught in the War College space upstairs. I found it all interesting, but I had to duck out after an hour and get lunch before the next two events I was signed up for decimated my schedule.

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I swaggered into the National Security Decision Making Game (NSDMG) hosted by Merle Robinson. I could have written an entire article on this game alone. These games are mass roleplaying/scenario exercises, similar to crisis simulations. This particular module was a four-hour game with light sci-fi elements focused on melting ice caps unearthing diseases and traces of human civilization in Antarctica. It was set in 2040, or thereabouts. Each of the thirty or so players were given public-facing player cards basically stating their role, but these cards had a back face that listed their victory conditions and objectives, powers, resources, and inside knowledge. The backs of these cards were to be kept secret at all times, the instructors stressed.

Inexplicably, I was given two cards to choose from—everyone else had only received one—with one American and one Chinese role. The American role, Progressives, told me in a matter-of-fact sort of way that my secret goal was to establish a one world government, ruled by elites. This was so unserious and stupid that it immediately made me question the character of the whole exercise—not a good sign considering we were only five minutes in. My other choice of role, the Hong Kong Entrepreneur, had a secret goal to become the world’s richest man. I went with the Chinese team, doubting that a one world government was in the cards.

o23 walt NSDMG Choice
The two genders


My Hong Kong Entrepreneur role had no powers, resources, or knowledge listed on the back of it. I was told by the rapporteur for the Chinese side that these didn’t need to be listed as they were basically obvious. I met some of my Chinese colleagues: the Banker, the Reformer, the Migrant Worker, and the Shanghai Entrepreneur. I looked at the Prosecutor with a wary eye—sure that he was going to get in my way at some point or another. I supported the Reformer in becoming Interior Minister, and in return she made me Foreign Minister. Everything seemed to be coming up Hong Kong Entrepreneur.

o23 walt NSDMG Rank Up

At this point, the game was actually proceeding in somewhat of an organic and fun fashion. This is pretty neat, I thought, watching little cliques and communities form within our own cell. I hobnobbed with the Banker, who was also the General Secretary. He’d played in these NSDM games at least eight times. I’m glad you’re at the helm, I told him. The instructors kept interrupting us to explain various rules minutiae.

This was not, as it turned out, as freeform a game as I thought it was. Every time we had gotten back to our discussions, the Chinese rapporteur would come by to explain how many votes were needed to become such-and-such position, or drop in to tell us apropos of nothing that China had a manned lunar base with a staff of 40 that it had been maintaining for ten years. An hour into the exercise, we were told that small, primitive, two-story structures had been found under the melting Antarctic ice. They casually mentioned that in the 20 years since 2023, the seas had risen 9 feet globally, a number which lay “within projections.”

I hitched up my pants and headed to the American side of the table, ready to wheel and deal in my capacity as Foreign Minister. The Secretary of State wanted to meet with me. Apparently the President, a Tea Party nutjob, wanted closer cooperation with China. Fine by me, as long as we also signed off on a lucrative trade deal. We shook on it. It was here that I noticed another problem with this game. The Americans had a screen where “news” was being projected into their meeting area. But China’s meeting space was secluded behind a literal curtain, which meant we didn’t have access to the global news feed like the Americans did.

o23 walt NSDMG Marxist Leninist
Two of my comrades: the Migrant Worker (left) and the Marxist-Leninist (right)


I whipped up a trade agreement over the next hour, getting all five members of Politburo to sign off on it. The Secretary of State assured me the President was onboard. A global pandemic broke out. The State Security player told me, “Hey, keep this under your hat, but we have a vaccine for this pandemic.” This was great news. What wasn’t great news was that American ships were headed straight for Taiwan. I demanded a meeting with the American President. To my surprise, I got it. I went Police Story on his ass, making it clear this was an unambiguous act of war. “Do you want to put your balls in the microwave over Taiwan?” I asked. He looked shocked.

State Security met with me again. He had made up the Taiwan thing, or at the very least greatly exaggerated the scale of it. I asked him why he would do that. “To spread propaganda,” he said. I informed Politburo, who had been stuck in their meeting for an hour due to the protestations of the Migrant Worker, that we had a vaccine for the pandemic. “What pandemic?” the General Secretary asked. State Security informed me that the vaccine was also something he made up.

The Americans trashed my trade agreement, much to the chagrin of the apologetic Secretary of State. An election occurred. I put my hat in the ring for Idealogue, but the Marxist-Leninist beat me out after the Shanghai Entrepreneur and the Third-Worldist double-crossed me. The Third-Worldist became the new General Secretary. Over in America, the Liberal candidate lost the presidential election after every left-leaning US role double-crossed him to vote for the Tea Party incumbent.

I was feeling glum. I had been playing for three or so hours and accomplished nothing of note. It was clear my Foreign Minister role had isolated me from the rest of the Chinese players, who were making their own plays while I wasn’t there. The Marxist-Leninist sidled up to me, calmly explaining that he was going to sign off on the Prosecutor’s end game victory condition to arrest me for being too Western, unless I closed on a major trade deal before the game ended—within the next ten minutes. I asked him why he was telling this to me, a lowly Hong Kong Entrepreneur. He said he wanted me to talk to the Chinese rapporteur to have my victory condition changed, so that I could not get arrested. “My victory condition is to help as many Chinese get their victory conditions as possible.” I told him he wasn’t supposed to be telling people that. That was never made clear to him, he said.

In case you hadn’t picked it up, I did not particularly care for the Chinese rapporteur, and from what I gathered, the feeling was mutual. He did not entertain my line of inquiry. My victory condition couldn’t be changed, he said. It didn’t matter. In the end, they arrested the Migrant Worker instead of me, for reasons I am not sure of. The Marxist-Leninist was declared the winner at the end of the game, though several others were recognized for their efforts. The players who did the best from the point of view of the organizers generally fit a pattern: they negotiated in bad faith, they were decisive, and they did not ask many questions or cooperate at all with the restrictions laid down by the game masters.

To its credit, the game matched the absurdity of governance very well. But this is where my praises for the NSDMG end. I am a very cynical man. But even I thought the cynicism and bad-faith double-dealing encouraged by the game might be detrimental to both governments in the real world. The American president ran his government like it was Russia, facing no internal opposition of any kind. The instructors talked at great length, inhibiting player interaction. They spent most of the debrief talking about how the buildings on Antarctica, which no one during our playthrough had cared to investigate, were actually built by a four-foot tall subrace of humans from Indonesia that died off after amassing Inca-levels of technology 100,000 years ago.

So ends the absurdist tale of The Hong Kong Entrepreneur and the Four Foot Tall Men. The game was poorly thought out, and the rules were poorly explained and enforced. I could perhaps forgive all of this, but above all, the whole thing was done very lazily. Its organizers gave off a smug air, confident that their game had perfectly distilled geopolitics, economics, and history into a tight system. The best way to win, as my friend the Marxist-Leninist showed me, was by ignoring the game’s ponderous rules. At least I didn’t go to jail.

o23 walt NSDMG Marxist Leninist 2
My comrade: the Marxist-Leninist, to whom I owe my freedom


My final appointment was the cosplay contest. It was higher energy than I was ready for. Luckily, as the judges deliberated, a sweaty comedian was brought out to do nerd comedy and bring the vibe down. This man had won awards at festivals with normal-sounding names like Whisky Bear and Savage Henry. He bombed here, in front of probably the most-forgiving audience imaginable. I generally believe nerds ought to stick to what they’re good at: designing board games and controlling the entire world economy. Midway through his set, my phone informed me that Russia’s protracted and bloody civil war had come to a close.

The comic left the stage, incapable of going beyond his prepared material in the face of longer-than-expected judging deliberations. I couldn’t blame him for this—by the end of his routine, the crowd was giving him nothing. I would have bounced, too. The winners were announced: a man named Caesar in an intricate samurai costume made of Magic: the Gathering cards had won first place. My description is doing him a disservice—his costume was quite cool and he was probably my favorite of all the ones up there.

o23 walt Cosplay Top 3

In the restroom, I noticed the urinals were all from a brand called “Splash Hog.” It was time for me to go.


I enjoyed my time at Origins. I played a lot of good games and a few bad ones. I could have done with a bit more Napoleonic stuff there. I encountered a wide array of new characters: Arnold and the Face—Crit, the Marxist-Leninist, and of course, Splash Hog. I didn’t get invited to a cocktail mixer, but there’s always next year. As I write that last sentence, I realized that I very well might not be able to come back next year, depending on my schedule. Origins 2023 could very well be just another interstitial phase of my life, one that I would look back on someday with great fondness. Was I blind to the fireflies that were all around me, as I had been all those years ago? Would this experience one day mean much more to me than it did now?

On my second day at Origins, I ran into Doug, who had run the Ogre megagame. I asked him how the alliance between dark and light green had fared after Rowan and I walked away from the table. Like an oracle, he gave me a cryptic answer that could have been read either way. I choose to believe that those two AI-controlled super tanks kept rolling down that highway together. They were still the best of friends: leveling skyscrapers and grinding lesser tanks under their treads. They never got old—never slowed down. When they reached the end of that long table, a divine wind carried them into the sky—to unconquered realms.





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In the Wargame HQ at Origins Fair
Tactics and planning fill the air
With counters and maps
And dice rolls with taps
Victory in battle is quite rare!


  1. ed note: honestly, this might’ve been Walter’s most painful observation for us old folks, who remember Steve from the decades before Munchkin
  2. ed note: {faceplam}
  3. ed note: it’s the internet; we’re not paying for dead tree distribution!
  4. ed note: Modiphius’ license on Conan expired, so they’re ending the line
  5. ed note: this was a cause of insomnia among several of the Dragoons

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