July 22, 2024

Origins 2024! The Shaman Ascends

Walter Kunkle, 22 June 2024

I flew United, a peasant’s airline, to Origins this year. Brant and the Armchair Dragoons crew had invited me back after my needlessly detailed coverage of last year’s event. As I touched down in Columbus, a mischievous yellow Spirit plane seemed to wink at me from the tarmac. I took this as an auspicious sign. The last article had spilled out of me like blood from a wounded animal, or passengers from an unreasonably hot United Airlines flight. Would I find it the same this time?

O24 Shaman pirate borg

An Origins attendant directed me to the back of a 20 minute line, but he called me “boss,” which softened the blow. The horrendous Face was there again this year, its position indicating that it was somehow supervising the check-in process and shuffling of human souls. Its visage always shifted—children with unfortunate hairlines—adults in need of moisturizer. I’ve lived a sinful life, and I will see the Face again when I die. I grabbed my badge and the tickets and got the hell out of there.

I met up with Brant at the booth. He told me this year the Dragoons had a photographer running around, and gave me her phone number. There was a shorter list of vendors that they wanted me to cover this year, and I was the only writer in attendance, which meant I wouldn’t really have to coordinate with anyone. This suited me just fine. “We also don’t need you to cover the Origins Awards this year,” Brant told me. “Thank Christ,” I said.

Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge that some people this time around gave me free swag or discounts for having a media badge. I’m not against people doing this at all, but whenever someone does something nice for me like this, I feel obligated to be transparent about it.

I sat down for my first event, a demo of the WWI dogfighting game Wings of Glory. All I really knew about this system was that it used to be called Wings of War, and that the rules for it had been licensed as the basis for X-wing. I played so much X-wing in college that I temporarily lost the use of my legs, so I knew this game would be up my alley. The organizer, Jim, split us into two groups: British and German. The British airmen were escorting a pair of French Caudron bombers across the board to the opposite table edge. It was the Germans’ job to knock the two bombers out of the sky.

O24 Shaman german planes start wog1
The German air wing in their starting positions


O24 Shaman allied planes start wog1
The Allied bombers and their escort


I picked the German team, drawn to the individuality of their Albatross planes. My fighter had a black pyramid with an Eye painted on its side, which I was drawn to. I began imagining the personality of the sort of man that flew “The Eye.” An Austrian dandy, I decided, driven by the simple ambition to retire from the war and marry his cousin.

O24 Shaman the eye wog1
“No one escapes The EYE!”


Wings of Glory plays slightly differently from X-wing, though the core of the game is the same. Unlike X-wing, you plot your plane’s moves three at a time instead of one at a time, increasing the “bigbrain factor” of the game. It also means, if you misplay and put yourself in a bad position, you can’t correct for it as easily, as you still have to go through the remainder of your plotted moves before you get to plan a new turn. You get to shoot after each one of these movement steps, which breaks up the movement of the turn.

O24 Shaman germans tight turn wog1
German pilots executing highly synchronized aerial maneuvers


Shooting happens automatically. It’s arc-based, like X-Wing, and any planes that can shoot do shoot. No dice are rolled, instead, your planes hand out little damage cards to each other like valentines. The damage on these can vary a lot, and some have special effects. Finally, Wings of Glory lets you change your plane’s altitude with special moves. It’s harder to ascend a level than it is to dive down a level, especially for the German planes. If you’re one altitude level removed from an opponent, it’s more difficult to shoot them. If you’re two or more altitude levels removed from an opponent, shooting between the two of you becomes impossible. I loved this simple little rule—it let me sacrifice the strategic positioning of my plane for temporary survivability, which I felt was a very human instinct in an all-out dogfight.

O24 Shaman damage cards wog1
I got very lucky with the damage cards I received this game


As far as furballs I’ve been in, this was a nail-biter. We had six German aces facing off against six British fighter pilots and the two French bombers, which meant we were outgunned. The British had to play stupidly for us to have a chance. Fortunately, every British fighter pilot proved unhelpful to their bomber wing over the course of the fight. The escort abandoned the bomber wing to diddle around the back half of the board, chasing a daring German pilot who split off. The rest of the Germans were lightning focused, flying in close formation with one another and darting in to score daring hits on the cumbersome bombers.

O24 Shaman bombers all alone wog1
The bombers creep closer to the edge, the Germans on their tail


The ineptitude of the British escort did not go unremarked upon by the two bomber pilots. “If only we had some help over here,” one of them said, lamenting the fact that there were three Germans on his tail, his plane was one fire, and his rear gun was jammed. One of our pilots got distracted and went off chasing British fighters, but this proved decisive. Both bombers inched over the line, one of them on a precarious 1 HP. Because damage cards were dealt face down, you could tell roughly how beat up an enemy was, but not the exact amount of health they had.

The Germans lost, even though I felt we played better. The Eye, at the very least, survived. I had a blast playing this one but had no time to ruminate on the game. I was overdue in the RPG hall to play a horror game called Kult.

I didn’t know a lot about Kult, and I didn’t need to. The blurb for the game on the Origins website promised:

“Physical/emotional abuse, assault, murder, sexual themes, mental illness, substance abuse, animal abuse, suicide, child abuse, and abuse of a corpse.

Hell. Yes. Reading the trigger warnings for Kult was like scrolling over a Criterion movie poster.

“Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino, Liotta, Pesci.”

Unfortunately, as I sat down at my table, I noticed the cutesy character sheets for the Fallout RPG laid out everywhere. I asked the GM what had happened to the violent, white-knuckle horror RPG I signed up for. He said the guy who was coming to run Kult couldn’t make it. They were going to run the Fallout RPG instead.

The character sheet in front of me read “Old Tallman,” which I took as a personal attack, as I was turning thirty this year. The grinning Vault Boy lay at the center of my character sheet, mocking me with his stupid, market-friendly thumbs up. I came here to feel shock and revulsion, to grasp onto something raw and insane in a sea of Funko-Pop crap—not to describe shooting imaginary raiders with my pipe gun.

O24 Shaman boffers
Whose dream, exactly?


I jumped ship to a nearby horror game that was calling out for participants. This probably wouldn’t scratch the itch, but it was at least better than Fallout. The game was called Candela Obscura. Candela Obscura is a decent game, unless you’ve already played Monster of the Week, in which case some questions may come to mind, questions like: “why did they make Candela Obscura?”

The player characters are part of a “circle” of monster/ghost hunters, like in a lot of these types of RPGs. The book has an elaborate setting that aimed at Victorian and 1920s noir fans. At the same time, the GM many times had to explain the shallowness of the system as it being “better for one-shots.” But if Candela Obscura is better for one-shots than campaigns, why buy the hardback campaign book filled with extravagant art and setting details?

O24 Shaman table toppers board
The awesome setups from Table Toppers are a fixture every year


Candela Obscura is a game at war with itself. It’s obsessed with its own sumptuous aesthetics, yet it’s a strictly “theater of the mind” game where these aesthetics are put to no use. It styles itself as roleplay-heavy, but character classes are very one-note. If you’re not proficient in a skill, you roll two d6 for that skill and take the lower of the two. This punishing rule discourages players from roleplay and silos them into the things that their character sheet says they’re good at, providing no avenues for experimentation.

The only thing that saved this game was our GM, who was very good and went 100% on all the character voices. By the two-hour mark, the game system had worn out its welcome. We had seen all the depth there was to it. But our GM kept us hooked with a climactic showdown against an evil, child-stealing scarecrow.

I went to visit two friends of mine—a husband and wife—outside of town. I bought a Crit doll for their newborn son, wondering what sort of weird, psychosocial bond the young lad might form with it. To my disappointment, it was cheaply made, with fur that came off whenever you ran your hand over it, probably launching thousands of microplastics into the air. I hope my friends aren’t expecting grandchildren.

O24 Shaman crit doll
He is kind of cute though


Later that night, they dropped me off at my Airbnb. This was not only the cheapest Airbnb listing in Columbus, I’m pretty sure it was the cheapest place in Columbus. The landlord, David, was reading a book on the porch swing when I walked up. David was an early-sixties man with reddish hair and a kindly face. He was running what was essentially a slum, but I knew that going in because I had stayed here last year.

“The wifi password? It’s ‘I love my guests.’ All one word.”

“Cool,” I said. I went upstairs to my tiny room and locked the door.


Day 2

It was frigid that night. My bed only had a sheet, no blankets. I slept poorly. I heard movement in the hall at 2:00 AM. The doorknob rattled. Someone was trying to get in.

David? The scarecrow?

The sound stopped. I couldn’t bear the cold anymore, and after thirty minutes I went downstairs and stole a bunch of fitted sheets from a linen closet. As I walked back upstairs, I noticed there was a trash bag hung on the outside handle of my door. Inside was a thick yellow blanket. I rejoiced.

He did love his guests.

I woke up the next morning and set off for the convention center. I was going to play another flying game, Warlord Games’ Blood Red Skies. I tactically showed up late to a brutal 8:00 AM start time for the game demo—with four events, Thursday would be a test of endurance for me.

As it turned out, the start time was so brutal that I was the only one who showed up to play. The facilitator was nice, and he and I waited a little while to make sure no one else would show up. Just as I was gearing up to play a one-on-one game against the facilitator, a man who looked shockingly like Jeff Goldblum arrived. He, as it turned out, would be my opponent.

Blood Red Skies is a squadron-based dogfight game set in World War II. The central gimmick of the game is that it does away with altitude, instead approximating it and other factors into a state-based system of advantage-neutrality-disadvantage. Any plane on the board has to exist in one of these three states at any one time, represented by ticking the aircraft forward, center, or backward along its adjustable base.

O24 Shaman blood red skies bases
A plane at disadvantage (left) and a plane at advantage (right)


The facilitator stressed that this game was “arcade-style” rather than simulation style, which I was fine with. Planes in your squadron have a pooled health mechanic—once every plane in your wing has taken damage, they all turn around and retreat, and you lose the match. Planes can get shot out of the sky, but only if they’re disadvantaged. I liked this, and it seemed to represent how valuable these machines actually were to the people that flew them.

Blood Red Skies uses six-sided dice, but only sixes matter. Any time you’re rolling, you’re fishing for sixes. I wondered why the dice had numbers on any of their other faces at all. The facilitator moved things pretty slowly. I could tell that both me and my opponent were impatient to get to the real meat of the game: controlling multiple planes.

O24 Shaman blood red skies face off
I square up against my opponent


I had to unlearn X-Wing and Wings of Glory to play Blood Red Skies. Movement isn’t simultaneous in this game—you get to make your move after seeing where some of the other enemy planes have gone. This meant it played more like Malifaux or Warcry than any of the flying games I was used to, and I ought to have wrapped my head around that sooner. Trying to set clever traps for your opponent through hairpin turns, like in Wings of Glory, wouldn’t work in this game, because your opponent’s movement is done in reaction to you.

We threw extra planes on the board—one more for each of us. Even at two planes each, the system was beginning to feel a bit cumbersome. You can only shoot at someone if you have a higher level of advantage over them. Planes at the same level can’t shoot each other, the facilitator explained. We had a bunch of cloud banks on the field that reset your advantage to neutral whenever your plane touched them. Your plane’s advantage got ticked down a level automatically whenever an enemy ended a move in your back arc.

O24 Shaman blood red skies pass
A close shave


The facilitator explained a lot of rules to us, but many of these had to do with the competitive scene, which neither me nor Jeff cared about. It felt like we could never shoot because the advantages never really lined up. I looked up the rules online for this game as I wrote this. Apparently, each fighter can actually shoot twice per turn instead of once: once before doing its move, and once by forfeiting its pilot action after it moves. We had only been playing where you had to forfeit a pilot action to shoot. The cheat sheet we were actually using made pretty explicit reference to this too (after finding an image online) but we played the wrong way regardless.

O24 Shaman blood red skies chase
None of the planes involved in this interaction could shoot each other


At the end of the game, I had scored zero hits on Jeff, and he had scored one on me. Hardly an auspicious start to the day. I realize now that a few rules cock-ups, the most major of which being the shooting one, had prevented both of us from really getting into the game. I hastily excused myself from the table.

Airbnb had contacted me during Blood Red Skies to tell me that an investigation of theirs revealed that my host had violated some kind of safety protocol, and that it was urgent that I check out as soon as possible and find other housing arrangements. I wondered what crime or violation David was being accused of. Giving a blanket to a poor man in need? Cameras in the bathroom? Airbnb could not tell me. They were willing to refund my stay, but they insisted I check out as soon as possible.

O24 Shaman goodbye
Do you spot a camera in this picture?


At that point, the need for some level of personal safety locked horns with my irrepressible desire to save money. I felt more loyalty to David, an honest to God slumlord, than to Airbnb, which had almost definitely taken my money while this safety investigation into the house was still pending. I was staying with David, I decided. He had given me the blanket, which generated an enormous amount of goodwill on my end. And any other place in town would now be double the price.

Airbnb stressed they could no longer protect me if I did not check out immediately. I asked them why they couldn’t have “protected me” by delisting this place before I arrived in town. To my surprise, this hard line of questioning seemed to work. They were conciliatory, offering to not only refund me, but comp me a hotel for my remaining stay, up to $325 per night.

My loyalty to David could not trump that kind of money being thrown at me. I caught an Uber back to my Airbnb and the company offered to comp that too. Damn, my man David must have done something really fucked up, I thought to myself. But I never learned what it was.

There were four rooms upstairs. Two were empty, the beds unmade. The tenants must have gotten the same offer from Airbnb to leave—there were people in there this morning when I left. The third was mine. The fourth door was locked. I packed up and left a note for David.

O24 Shaman betrayal
Let it be said: he loved his guests


I hope there was a camera in that bathroom. I wanted it to capture me as I washed my hands, like Pilate, before heading down to my Uber.

My new room was in one of the three hotels above the convention center. It was the most expensive one they had, they told me. Not my problem—Airbnb was footing the bill. My prospects had risen from pauper to prince in a single morning.

O24 Shaman hello
It was an upgrade


I went and got lunch. On the sidewalk outside Brassica, a woman with an Origins badge and blood gushing from her forehead walked by me. I asked if she was alright. “I fell,” she said, “I fell,” hurriedly taking off like she had some place to be.

I strolled down to one of the ballrooms to play Risk Strike from Avalon Hill. The game takes the classic game Risk and distills it into a card game that plays in about twenty minutes. I really liked this game.

O24 Shaman risk strike rules
The rules of the game


Say what you want about Risk, dunk on it, defend it—but it has a defined tempo, more so than a lot of other games. It’s a game of pulses; the power players are slime molds expanding across a petri dish. They reach their limits, and then they recede, and usually they expand again. It’s almost like a dance. But there are unlucky players who don’t get to participate in the dance—spoilers—who have to hole up in Mexico with the last of their forces.

O24 Shaman risk strike map
A map determines who you can and can’t attack


This game didn’t capture that magical tempo exactly, but it got close. Risk Strike abstracts the map with cards. You have to take two continents to win, and you do that by having a set number of cards for that continent—ranging from eight to conquer Asia to three to conquer Australia. In a game with five players, this was a good design choice—it usually shook out that each player would secure one continent, meaning anyone was in contention to snag the game-winning point.

O24 Shaman risk strike layout
I built up a nice bit of territory throughout the game


The game improved on traditional Risk by adding in tactics cards that could do all sorts of tricks. Weaker players could at least stockpile these cards and strike tactically at another opponent’s territories. Weak players were always “in” the game this way, and weren’t just a speedbump for strong players, like they might be in traditional Risk. I observed one game and played one game, which was enough to get the hang of it. I didn’t win, but I came close. The game left me pleasantly surprised.

O24 Shaman risk strike tactics
My starting hand of tactics cards


I dropped by a painting class hosted by Ryan Meigs, who had taught me last year. I will take every opportunity I can to shill for Ryan’s Origins classes—they’re great for someone at the intermediate level who wants to up their game. I hope more people find out about them. Leather painting is something I had never really given much thought to, but I feel much more confident in my ability to make it stand out the next time I’m painting up a statement piece.

O24 Shaman golden age of leather
It would be hot as hell wearing this


I hadn’t gotten Wings of Glory out of my head since playing it the day before. My experience with Blood Red Skies only sharpened my appetite for juicy, World War I plane combat. I made an appointment for a second game. I saw some familiar faces there.

O24 Shaman wog2 sheet
My cool plane


The mission set up for this one was about the same. I flew a sick purple plane this time around. There was only one Allied bomber this time, but it had gotten bigger. One of the guys at the table, Glen, volunteered to fly the sole Allied fighter plane against four Germans. I could tell Glen was going to be a menace in the air. The GM, who had been playing all day, told the table that Glen shot down five planes in his last game, and about twenty over the course of the show. We played a kill-count scenario—whichever player shot down the most planes this game would get some sort of prize.

O24 Shaman wog2 ace
Glen’s fighter plane, the Allied ace


I was right to be fearful of Glen as an ace. Early on in the match, he dealt me a “boom card,” destroying my fragile plane instantly and knocking it out of the sky. I was allowed a respawn, but I had fed him a kill, and a death token on my sheet would take away from my future points. The other Germans stuck together, but it felt like I was by myself. “That’s Hermann Goering’s plane,” the GM said enthusiastically, pointing at the white German plane on the left flank. Too late to switch teams now, I thought. Orange flames trailed from the bomber as it descended perilously in altitude.

O24 Shaman wog2 smoke
The bomber’s engine catches fire as the Germans harass it


The slow-moving bomber was easy to tail, and had a blind spot where its fuselage blocked its rear-facing guns. If I could predict a few moves ahead, I could park there and dish out free hits. The ace, however, stood in my way. In an incredible stroke of luck, I shot him down with a lucky boom card. I had tagged him back for shooting me down, but he was still ahead on points. He had been a part of every Allied kill. It came down to the wire, but due to some fancy flying and a final, decisive salvo on the now-respawned bomber, I knocked out three planes to his two—making me the number one and him the number two player in the match.

O24 Shaman wog2 shot down
The ace tumbles from the sky


“You flew really well,” he told me. And, in addition to the Ares fun bucks that I had been given as a prize, Glen handed me a plane of my own, shiny and new in its box. “That’s Eddie Rickenbacker’s Spad,” he told me. “He was the top American ace in World War I.” I shook his hand. I had gotten free miniatures and swag from friends before. But I have never really been a prize-winner, in any contest. And for it to come from Glen, a player who I rightfully feared and respected, well, it was a very good feeling!

My second day of Origins was the culmination of a spiritual vision quest—something I had planted the seeds for last year, and finally completed today. I woke up freezing in a tenement and fell asleep in a luxury hotel room overlooking Columbus. I went through a personal trial, betraying David, and in doing so I left an old and familiar dwelling place behind—unable to ever return. I took tutelage from a wise man—the bearded and knowledgeable Ryan Meigs. At the end of my spirit journey, I triumphed over a fearsome opponent, and received a totemic fighter plane with powerful associations to the Columbus area—Eddie Rickenbacker is buried here.

O24 Shaman wog2 prize
Grand Culmination


“The shaman has ascended,” I wrote in my journal. Who knew what tomorrow would bring?


Day 3

One of the games Brant has asked me to sign up for Twilight 2000. I had no idea what that was. Now, as I sit in my hotel room and write, I can tell you confidently that it was the best game of the whole show. I ran down to the RPG hall after putting a dent in the continental breakfast. The game table for Twilight 2000 was actually two tables, connected by a corroding metal bridge. Roman Nitze, a short, fatherly type with a lot of energy, GM’d for a group of nine or ten players. I was late to arrive—character sheets with US military ranks printed on them were strewn everywhere. The table was covered in little green army men, a toy tank, and three toy cars.

O24 Shaman t2k bridge
The rough set up for the game


Twilight 2000 is a military, alternate history RPG cooked up in the 80s. Roman explained that it was the distant future, the year 1997. The Cold War had gone hot. We were NATO troops a long way from home, in the reaches of southwestern Poland. Our assignment was threefold: scope out a bridge over a large ravine, determine its suitability for bridging operations, and, above all, prevent the Soviets from destroying it to hinder the NATO advance. We had no fire support, no combat air patrols, and no hope of medevac, except by road if we secured the bridge.

O24 Shaman t2k tow master sheet
An example character sheet from the game


In order to explain how this went down, I’m going to have to provide a little primer on named characters that proved important to the story. Our group comprised an armored commander in a tank as well as a squadron of MPs. Two Polish scouts also tagged along, as well as two or three Engineers.

There were fourteen characters, but here are the ones that I will reference by name:

Tank Commander, played by “the Prospector” (more on him later). The guy in charge of this whole outfit.
SFC Leo Kaspar, MP Commander. Very chill OOC.
“TOW Master, MP heavy weapons specialist, played by me. Steppe conqueror physiognomy.
Anderson, MP driver, also played by me for convenience. Compassionate man. Smokes weed in the staff car. Never reprimanded.
“Gloss,” Combat Engineer
Grenade Launcher guy, Combat Engineer
Chambers, MP, friends with Gloss.
Irina, Polish-American scout from Chicago. Runner-up Olympic gymnast, her dreams spoiled by war.
Wojtek, Polish scout, Irina’s lover.

O24 Shaman t2k tow master
TOW Master sitting atop the vehicle housing both of my characters


There were a few other Engineer characters as well, but for the most part I don’t remember their names. The tank also had a gunner and a driver in it, played by a father-daughter team. I liked their dynamic. The two Poles drove a four-door sedan. From what we could see, there was an acre or so of low scrub on the other side of the bridge, as well as some sort of pillbox dead center, and a knoll off to the back right. We did not recognize this knoll immediately as a hull-down Soviet tank.

O24 Shaman t2k subaru
the “Polish tank”


Our own tank was hull-down, next to our two MP vehicles and the Polish Tactical Subaru. After some discussion, we agree to send our scouts out first. As the Poles push their little car across the table, I’m grinning ear to ear. It’s just a ruleset to play stupid games with your toy army men, but already this kicks Candela Obscura’s ass.

O24 Shaman t2k starting layout
Our arrangement of vehicles at the start


Arriving at the bridge, the Poles notice a wood and steel blockade fitted with anti-personnel mine. Leo, the engineers and a bunch of MPs roll up in their jeep to evaluate it. Peering across the ravine, one of the engineers spots what looks like a .50 cal in the brush opposite us.

O24 Shaman t2k bridge other side
The other side of the bridge


TOW Master hangs back, not wanting to risk the incredibly valuable one-shot weapon attached to his vehicle. My thermals on the missile indicate the brush is crawling with Russians. I radio this in. The engineers rig up explosives to detonate the mined barricade so the bridge can be traversed safely.

O24 Shaman t2k bridge inspection
The Engineers inspect the barricade


The engineer with the grenade launcher is a little annoying. It would be funny if he gets killed, or at least winged, I think. I establish in my head canon that TOW Master has a grudge against this character, and that even the forgiving Anderson might be brought to exasperation by him. As I’m fleshing this out, the engineers, now backing up in their jeep, detonate the charges. All hell breaks loose.

O24 Shaman t2k bridge fire
The barricade after the explosion


An artillery shell lands on our side of the table. The camouflaged Soviet tank opens fire on our tank. The explosion from the bridge sends debris everywhere. One half of the barricade is still somewhat intact, but on fire. The other half is matchsticks. The jeep and the sedan stop backing up and gun it toward the bridge as not one, but three .50 caliber machine guns open fire on our position from the other side of the ravine.

O24 Shaman t2k mortar impact
A mortar shell lands as the vehicles turn around

Irina and Wojtek want to drive over the flaming barricade and speed across the bridge. Valhalla awaits them, I’m sure of it. The Poles crit fail their driving roll. The jokes are all true. In the smoke, the Subaru goes up the raised side strut of the bridge as far as it can, then begins to fall. Irina and Wojtek luckily roll high enough to tumble out before their vehicle, lit up by machine gun fire, tumbles into the ravine.

O24 Shaman t2k good bye subaru
The sedan goes over the bridge


Gloss drives the Jeep forward to try and disembark near the protective ridge at the edge of the ravine. He also crit fails his driving roll and the jeep hits a large piece of steel debris from the barricade. It goes airborne, flipping upside down. Gloss is crushed to death instantly. Chambers is trapped in the passenger side seat, while Leo, Grenade Launcher, and the rest of the engineers and MPs are ingloriously sprinkled all around the vehicle with minor injuries.

O24 Shaman t2k overturned car
It was around this time that I realized a lot of us were going to die


TOW Master has one purpose—one job. From the reserve jeep, I aim the guided missile at the tank some 1700 yards away. I fire. It’s jammed. Shit.

Another artillery shell lands, closer this time. They’re zeroing in on the tank. There has to be a mortar somewhere, but we can’t see it. The Prospector is playing our tank commander. He looks and talks exactly like an old-timey claim jumper. He’s frustrated that our tank can’t hit anything, but it doesn’t affect me. I fire my TOW missile after a lucky roll to fix its bad wiring. It zips toward the tank, but will take time to arrive there. Things look very bad for us currently.

O24 Shaman t2k missile target
I fire at the camouflaged tank, barely visible across the ridgeline


Grenade launcher guy has fired three grenades across the ravine and into the brush with the .50 cals. On the third grenade, they triangulate his position. Three anti-vehicle rounds rip his right arm apart as he pops up to shoot. The Poles run across the bridge, braving enemy fire. Reaching the other side, Wojtek throws a grenade, but fumbles it and drops it at their feet. Irina flips out of the way to safety; Wojtek, miraculously, is merely concussed and knocked out for two rounds.

Chambers makes his way out of the crushed vehicle. The grenade launcher engineer has bled out. It’s just Leo and Chambers at the ravine edge now, with the Poles far up across the bridge. TOW Master tells Anderson to floor it—we’re getting Leo, our CO, to safety. The armed jeep containing my two characters zooms forward. My TOW missile impacts the enemy tank’s berm, blowing it to smithereens.

O24 Shaman t2k tow missile
My missile zips toward the tank’s position


Irina reaches the brush. There are something like 10 Russian soldiers in there. Over the next couple of turns she kills two of them with her knife, takes an AK off one of them, and mercilessly guns down another five. This woman’s agility stat lets her do bonkers moves in combat. The table erupts in cheers. Anderson pulls up the jeep to evacuate Leo and Chambers. TOW Master sits atop it, firing his machine gun across the ravine. “Get in the fucking car,” he yells down to his CO. Just then, a RPG sails across the crevasse, hitting the vehicle directly in the drivers side window. Anderson is killed instantaneously—TOW Master, half in, half out of the gunnery hatch, is bisected and bursts into flames, screaming as he depresses the trigger on his machine gun and fires straight into mouth of hell.

O24 Shaman t2k tow master dies
[garbled screams]

My death was so glorious the GM catapulted me to another life immediately—putting me in control of Chambers. One of the engineers tries and fails to disarm an 80 lb. anti-tank mine left over on the bridge. It vaporizes him. Realizing there are only 30 minutes left in the scenario, the driver and gunner drive the tank forward.

Our tank finally blows up the enemy tank after shooting at it for the whole game. The Prospector says: “Drive across this bridge, dadgum it,” instantly cementing my initial impression of him. The game ended with Chambers and the survivors jumping onto the advancing tank as it trundled across the bridge.

Roman was an incredible GM—ditching initiative in favor of resolving things sector by sector, like cuts in a movie. So much of what I liked about the game wasn’t the system, which was fine, but DM discretion and experience. In spite of there being fourteen player characters, each one felt important and had a role to play in the battle. I recommend picking up a ticket for anything Roman does in the future.

O24 Shaman minis dragon
A stunning undead dragon from Beldolor Miniatures, who easily had the best mini selection and design of the whole show


I was overdue to stalk the show floor and talk to some of the vendors. Origins has scenes that can only be described as Lynchian. “Your limp’s coming back,” a woman in red said to a shirtless, overweight man. A fellow in a game booth featuring a prominent cartoon T-rex in a top hat was loudly calling out that he was looking for demo players. I averted my eyes, repulsed by the aesthetic, and the fact that this exact same situation had happened to me outside this exact same booth last year.

I stopped by the Mantic booth, a new addition this year. There were tons of starter armies for Kings of War and Firefight available for purchase. Blake, who worked the booth, told me about Armada, which I had been itching to play but might not have time for this year. I didn’t know the system was a take on Warlord’s Black Seas. Readers of last year’s article might remember me coming around on Kings of War. Blake promised demos of their games at the Mantic booth next year—sales from the show were already validating the company’s decision to show up.

O24 Shaman armada
Mantic’s Armada


Next up was Catalyst, who publish a lot of games, but to be fair, they are mostly known for Battletech. In case you haven’t been on /tg/ in the past fifteen years, Battletech is a hex-based, miniature mech wargame that has slowly nursed a devoted fanbase to astronomical size. There were a million people at the Catalyst booth, and half of these people worked for Catalyst. I had a bit of trouble finding people who could actually talk to me—most of the employees there were busy running constant Battletech demos.

O24 Shaman seasons of something or other
A board game about fairies from Catalyst whose name escapes me


I eventually talked to Mike, their board game director, who had a cowboy sort of vibe. We talked a bit about their new game, Seasons of Arcadia, but we both felt the shadow of Battletech looming over the conversation. I felt bad—I had pulled aside the one guy who didn’t really work on Battletech. He told me the game had over 1000 years of lore, and had been in production under different companies since the 1980s—about as long as Warhammer had. I had never really been drawn to mech games, but I peppered him with questions about whether infantry spam was viable in Battletech. The little jump pack troops I saw in their blisters looked so cute at such a small scale. I just wanted to paint up 25 bases of them and have them hop around the board.

As I stood up to leave, I began to feel sleepy. Was my calzone too big? “No,” I said out loud. A double shot of espresso, the writer’s best friend, agreed with me. The shaman was undeterred.

My next stop was the Warlord Games booth. I spoke to Jon Russell, thanking him for donating some miniatures to a paint class I run in DC every few months. Jon was very cool. There are certain interviews where the subject naturally and calmly takes command. Jon was one of these types of people. We talked about the age range for historical miniatures games. “Why is that it people usually come to like and appreciate these games as they get older?” I asked. He couldn’t put a point on it. We talked about his history at the company: working his way up from part-time staff to the North America rep. I made a commitment to check out Bolt Action while I was there, which I had been meaning to play for a long time. At the end of it, I bought some Napoleonic British regulars. Jon gave me a 15% discount, which he didn’t have to do.

This year’s convention had a new fixture, a curtained booth near the back of the show floor that said “Adults only, 18+.” A man and woman stood outside like armed guards. “What’s with the pervert booth?” I asked the gentleman. My choice of nomenclature made him a bit defensive. “Why friend,” he said, “this is no pervert booth.

O24 Shaman cmon man
C’mon, man


The pervert booth was run by a company called Cosplay Deviants. I went in for you, readers, because I wagered many of you saw it, but few of you went into it. The inside had a small rack of pinup material from cosplayers, showing nothing racier than a little shoulder or leg. A lot of the space was wasted in here; they were probably paying an arm and a leg for a booth this size. A nice woman named Gemini invited me to a “dub that hentai” event that evening. It seemed like good fodder for the article, but I didn’t know how much of it I could endure, especially sober.

I sat with Kevin Bertram of Fort Circle Games, who designed Shores of Tripoli—a game I really liked. Kevin has a face that reminds me of my brother’s. We were both DC guys, and he’s always had a good story to share with me. He had been demoing his latest game, The Halls of Montezuma, which covered the Mexican-American War. He told me his second printing of Votes for Women was high in demand. I should have bought it last year. He didn’t like crowds, he told me. I didn’t really either, but I had sworn a devil’s oath to the Dragoons.

Next on my list was VR Soft games. Puzzlingly, their booth contained no VR games. Designer Jason Williams, an older man with glasses and a warm voice told me that games themselves create a “kind of virtual reality.” His game, Swords and Sails, looked very reminiscent of Diplomacy, but set in medieval Europe. Jason talked me through the game. The ideas were interesting, but I had a hunch without playing the demo that this game might have a few issues to work out. He told me the game usually only comprises one year, or four turns, before one faction reaches the victory threshold of 100 cities. I wasn’t sure if this was very realistic. Combat in the game is very lethal, and players’ diplomatic freedom is restricted. His latest expansion for the game added mercenaries. “A writer is sort of like a mercenary,” he said. If you get paid, yes.

O24 Shaman swords and sails full
The full map for Swords and Sails


Origins is exhilarating, but isolating. “I like your shirt,” an elf told me. “Thanks, I like your whole deal,” I said. She was already gone. I was getting lonely on the show floor by myself. I wanted a friend. I called the number for the photographer to bother her. A Hispanic guy answered. “No English, sorry.” I’d sort it out tomorrow. I retired to my hotel room to write.


Day 4

Kings of War opened the day, once again hosted by Michael of Ohio War Kings. I was excited. I had stayed away from the undead last time, but not this time. I went for the Empire of Dust army—Egyptian-themed skeletons. An undead army can break, but they can never waver, Michael tells me. Hell yeah. My opponent showed up, not ready, perhaps, for the intensity I was about to bring to this ostensibly casual game.

O24 Shaman empire of dust
My chosen army for Kings of War


The man across from me had a cowboy hat on and a lot of pins all over his lanyard. These pins said things like “I paused my game to be here,” and “Gamers don’t die, they respawn.” But one of us would be dying this game. I would make sure of it. I always get way too invested in rank and flank games, especially ones so reminiscent of Warhammer Fantasy. That’s me on that skeleton horse. That’s me wearing the High Priest drip. Do NOT come to the lava wastes. Me and my fifty skeleton friends are high on bath salts and we’re going to kill you.

O24 Shaman literally me


My opponent was playing Northern Alliance. They looked like the Norse analogue. He had deployed badly, blocking his rear units from moving and shooting (good!) but he had fliers and some mean looking ice monsters (bad!). My battleline consisted of some skeleton spearmen, skeleton archers, skeleton cavalry, some intimidating chariots, and, finally, some giant stone constructs with crossbows.

O24 Shaman starting layout
The two armies face off


Dark glory awaited me. I deployed in a corner because I wanted him to come to me while I shot at him. My cavalry ascended the hill, ready to flank charge whatever unlucky unit moved in to pick a fight with my spearmen. The volcano on their right would protect the horsemen from a charge from the fliers, who couldn’t see them. Shooting rarely breaks a unit in Kings of War, but it softens them up before they can receive a charge. My archers plink a fair amount of wounds off his berserkers. Maybe they should have worn more clothes. After I positioned myself for what I was sure was going to be a stomp, he took his turn.

O24 Shaman northern alliance
My enemy’s army


My opponent was newer to this type of game than I was. I licked my lips as he placed unit after unit of his in a bad position. But Michael, the facilitator, had the edge on both of us—he was a master of Kings of War and played at the tournament level regularly. “Pivot those golems back,” Michael told him, “you’re exposing your flank.” Damn you, Michael, I thought. As I prosecuted my war plan against my opponent, Michael got in my way—like a tireless defense attorney. He coached my opponent through an ambitious double charge that caught me off guard and wiped out my cavalry on the hill. One of my most expensive units was gone. There were two nasty, hard-hitting enemy units in my right flank, one of whom were the dangerous fliers I had tried so painstakingly to avoid. Was I cooked?

O24 Shaman kow the trap
Things suddenly look bad for the skeletons


My turn rolled around again. I might be able to beat my opponent, but there was no way I’d be able to beat Michael. But you know who could? Michael. I swallowed my pride. “Michael,” I asked, “what would you do if you were in my situation?” He began counseling me. Michael went from a thorn in my side to an avenging archangel, pointing out all the holes in my opponent’s position. My archers shot into the berserkers, and then I cast a magic spell on Michael’s advisement that let them flank charge the unit they shot on the same turn.

O24 Shaman kow the flank


Now that Michael was helping me, it was my opponent’s turn to get butthurt. My archers were skeletons, which meant they were terrible—almost always hitting on sixes. I shot at his berserkers and rolled two sixes. My opponent made me re-roll a (in my opinion) fair six, claiming it was cocked. The rerolled six turned into a three. The last vestiges of my mercy and sportsmanship ran through my fingers like desert sand.

My spearmen counter-charged his unit of dire wolves at the base of the hill, while the chariots closed the door, hitting them in the flank. I moved my bow constructs further up to protect my chariots’ flank. The chariots were my best unit, and enemy shooting had torn them up last turn. If they routed, there would be no coming back for me. The berserkers and direwolves fled the field.

O24 Shaman kow respawn from this
The situation is salvaged by the end of turn, but the battle is still anyone’s game


On his turn, Michael advised my opponent to charge my chariots with his flying cavalry. At the same time, his golems flank charged my archers. My stomach lurched. The chariots were in bad shape, but I knew my undead could regain a small amount of health in close combat—something other races couldn’t do. This would be pivotal. My opponent rolls his attacks. I watch him pick up a cocked die that’s favorable for him. “That’s cocked, actually,” I tell him. “You have to reroll it.” I imagine the High Priest approves of my pitiless display. The golems whiffed and failed to rout the archers.

The chariotsss, the voice of the High Priest hissed in my head. They had taken a lot of wounds in close combat. It comes time for a morale check.

The chariots hold.

O24 Shaman kow chariots charged
We’re so back



My heart was pounding. The battle had swung my way, decisively, on a pivotal turn. My opponent stood up, saying he had to leave before my next turn started. Damn it. This had happened to me last year, too. But the plans of the tomb-dwellers are measured in centuries. The High Priest will return to the Ohio War Kings table next year.

O24 Shaman kow priest
That six was NOT cocked


Taking a victory lap around the show floor, I ran into Brant and his daughter McKenna at Carolina Game Tables. I was supposed to interview this booth anyway, Brant reminded me. Clint Black, the proprietor, was nervous about being interviewed. I was still new to this, and I had never really reflected on the effect I might have on people—constantly writing things they said down in my little notebook. As it turned out he was from North Carolina, and I was from South Carolina, which meant we had a fair amount to talk about. If you ever have to talk to someone from the Carolinas, make sure to mention that Charlotte is getting too big.

O24 Shaman dark lord
Brant, relishing his power over me


Carolina Game Tables makes mahogany gaming tables that double as normal, respectable tables. Clint is a third-generation furniture maker by profession, and he was debuting an imposing throne chair at this year’s Origins. The chair ruled. It might be the most comfortable thing I’ve ever sat in, to be honest. As I left, he gave me a free set of leather coasters. These were nice, but I misplaced them somewhere around the Warlords booth.

I met with the photographer. Her name was Corinne. Corinne had a western Canadian accent, short white hair, and a big smile. She mentioned I was as tall as her son. “How tall is he?” I asked, and then realized that this was a stupid question. She was intrigued to see my interview process, and I liked having a partner.

The two of us made our way to TT Combat’s booth. The attendant had flipped his nametag around and written “SKY” in sharpie on it. I approved of moves like this. I also liked his Pit Viper sunglasses. He asked what magazine I was writing for. I told him it wasn’t a magazine, just a small website frequented by two or three people a year. Dropfleet Commander was his favorite of the four IPs that TT Combat had. He also was a fan of Rumbleslam, a sort of Blood Bowl-meets-pro wrestling game. After looking at the blisters they had, I also took a liking to Rumbleslam. I love vampires, and their vampire wrestling tag team had a lot of great sculpts in it.

My last interview was with Academy Games. Corinne insisted I interview Uwe Eckert. “He’s the guy you want to talk to,” she told me. She was perplexed by my notetaking, which she thought was too sparse, but she was sweet. The final day of the show, when I met up with her again, she gave me a water bottle and some goldfish.

O24 Shaman ben hurt
The Ben Hur-inspired Roman chariot racing game, which I didn’t get to play this year


Uwe Eckert is a force of nature. A lot of the time, when I’m writing, it becomes kind of rote describing the guys at Origins because they all look the same. Old men, bald or balding, in dark-colored clothing. Uwe broke all the show conventions. He was older than me, but he stood tall, possessed of a towering charisma. His Academy Games shirt was a bright IKEA blue.

We talked for what felt like forty-five minutes. I’m sure it was shorter. He went in depth on his company’s Stellaris board game. Uwe knew everything about the video game Stellaris. Not one iota of seemingly miniscule detail in the source material escaped him. Every IP would be lucky to have someone like Uwe helming their transition to a board game, someone who clearly had so much love and investment in the original work. He beamed when he showed me his own board game: Grand Plan: New York, where players built up New York City from the 1600s to the modern day.

With interviews done, I headed to my last appointment for the whole show. I was playing a large Napoleonic line battle—Austerlitz: Assault on the Pratzen Heights—a bespoke system run by Dr. Steve Fratt. The board looked intimidating. Hundreds of standees for Napoleonic infantry were everywhere. I picked the Russian and Austrian side, which I shared with a teammate, who I put in command of the right flank. I took the left. The attacking French were split between three players—Lefty, Middleman, and Righty. Their aim was to assault our hilltop position and take it decisively by the end of the match. This meant I would mostly be fending off the tag team of Lefty and Middleman.

O24 Shaman austerlitz start
My half of the battle


I had a small unit of dragoon cavalry, some shitty Russian and Austrian line infantry and two massive blocks of Austrian reserve troops on a high hilltop overlooking the battlefield. I also commanded our three center 12 lb. gun batteries. My teammate on the right commanded our elite units, some more 12 lb. gun batteries shoring up the right flank, and the lion’s share of our light and heavy cavalry. The battle began. Our guns boomed in defiance as the godless French began their advance.

O24 Shaman aust pratze
The small Austrian force garrisoning Pratze


Austerlitz, or whatever this system was called, used a dice degradation system similar to the Operational Wargame System. The best of my infantry—the Austrians in reserve, rolled d10s, while the elite Russian foot guards controlled by my teammate rolled d12s. Napoleon’s elite foot guard, the best soldiers within a 200-mile radius of the battle, rolled d20s, but they were on the right flank and weren’t my problem. You had to assign an officer in order for your units to do anything productive, and you had to cycle new officers in and out to give your units new orders. I liked this system, and once I got the hang of it I was maximizing the use of my officers every turn.

O24 Shaman emperors
The Austrian and Russian Emperors surveil the battlefield from a hilltop forest


The first turn began. Lefty did not move his troops at all. I said nothing, keeping my troops on the left flank—the weakest spot in my line—at the ready for when he decided to move. Middleman, however, knew that his team had to take the hilltop to win. The French columns moved up, assaulting the lightly-garrisoned town of Pratze and charging the 12 lb. guns. Middleman fully committed to the assault, leaving almost no troops in the center in reserve. Righty also assaulted, but he sent his weaker columns forward first and kept the Guard in reserve.

O24 Shaman aust french charge
The French charge up the hill


Middleman’s assault devastated my center, punching a huge hole through it that I now needed to fill. The French received a unique bonus for attacking in columns, reflecting their documented historical tactics. The town of Pratze had fallen, and I had abandoned the guns, though I had thankfully suffered minimal casualties. My troops were in retreat up the hill, and I needed to send officers quickly to rally them.

O24 Shaman french push
The hole in my lines, centered around Pratze


It was at this point that Lefty could have really devastated my left flank too, spreading me very thin indeed. But instead, spooked by my tiny detachment of cavalry, he changed to square formation with half his units and advanced slowly up the board instead of charging me, allowing me another turn of reprieve. Our stronger right flank had repelled the assault, and our heavy cavalry snuck into the back line in a devastating attack, destroying an entire French column.

My teammate seemed uneasy about the hole in the center. I would handle it, I told him. I needed to rally, and I needed to push Middleman off the chunk of hill he had taken. My fleeing columns rallied, and I smelled gunpowder. I ordered a charge back down the hill. I brought the Austrian reserves in from the high top. This was a risky maneuver—I could have lost my reserves—but it worked. The French center receded like a wave, except for the stubborn defenders of Pratze, who were now surrounded by Austrians. Our line had reformed around Pratze, a problem to deal with later.

O24 Shaman aust reserves push in
The Austrian reserves push the French back down the hill


Good news for our center was bad news for our right. The French cavalry engaged our own on the fringes. We came out alright, but our horses were spent and needed to rest. Napoleon’s Guards came into the fight. These elite troops could chew through anything we threw at them—they demonstrated this by brutally repelling an unwise cavalry charge.

Lefty had finally decided, too late, that he would like to be in the fight. The game was close to time, however. By this point, the squares on his far left flank were moving so slow that they had created a gap in his line. My dragoons rushed in to hammer the flank he had exposed. On the left, my entire flank began a chain of charges, attempting to pin his units before they could charge me. Lefty was upset. He argued with the GM for a long time that his square should be able to walk into the path of the cavalry charge. The two men got heated, but the GM pulled rank.

O24 Shaman counter charges
The left flank finally gets hairy


It didn’t matter. None of my charges on the left resulted in anything decisive. The lines had become all mixed up—lots of columns had moved past one another. The game ended there. I felt the French wouldn’t retake the heights, but to be honest. I left wishing this one had gone on a lot longer. The system, from what I was told, was based off of Command and Colors: Napoleonics. I only wished they had included rules for dismounted dragoon shooting to make them feel special, but I understand why, at this grand scale, such actions wouldn’t really affect the battle at all.



The last day of the show, I hung out around the Dragoons booth and tried to write. This was a futile exercise, but I enjoyed the company as things wound down. A lot of people struck up conversation with me. You’re the writer, they would say, and they would shake my hand and ask me my thoughts on this or that. Brant’s daughter showed me her new lightsaber. Corinne and her family came around—we talked about aikido. I was taller than her son, a fact which I felt the need to write down.

I ran into Rowan, who I had played Ogre with last year. He had just finished his associate’s degree in computer science. A woman was with him—a girlfriend, perhaps. Was he a bit taller? This made me smile. I snagged a copy of Votes for Women for $50—a steal. It’d give me something to talk about with Tory next time I saw her. I realized I was becoming a part of the Origins ecosystem. Faces I recognized from last year would smile at me, and I’d smile back. I had started to collect a little family in the middle of all this noise.

When I checked in for my return flight, the woman at the United desk noticed my Origins badge. She must have had some familiarity with the show. “Did you win?” she asked me. This question threw me, but only momentarily. “Yes,” I told her, and I smiled a little bit. I walked the jetway in preparation to ascend one last time, a boy in a man’s disguise.




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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

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