I had a fantastic time at PGC Con 2023, which is a small, 2-day trick-taking game convention hosted by Portland Game Collective in the Milwaukie suburb of Portland. It’s probably no surprise to many that I’ve been thoroughly enjoying this so-called renaissance of trick-taking games, so I was really excited to attend PGC Con and surround myself with a bunch of wonderful people and wonderful card games.
The first PGC Con was in 2022 and had approximately 40 attendees, and this year (2023), there were about 70+ in attendance downstairs at the Milwaukie Community Club. Everyone brought games to share and play, plus there was a white elephant gift exchange you could participate in, where I was lucky enough to score a copy of Haggis, and not have it stolen from me. I was stoked about that and all of the games I played at PGC Con, so I wanted to some gaming highlights from my trip.
• My friend Derek recently told me about his enjoyable first experience playing The Barracks Emperors, which is a new hybrid area influence, trick-taking game set during the Roman Crisis of the Third Century, from GMT Games and Time of Crisis designers Wray Ferrell and Brad Johnson. Knowing the copy I ordered from a retailer wouldn’t arrive in time for PGC Con, I reached out to GMT Games and they graciously sent me a review copy of it so that I could bring it with me to Portland.
In The Barracks Emperors, 1-4 players compete to gain emperor cards on the board by surrounding them with influence cards. Each player has a faction icon, or multiple in lower player count games, and that indicates where you can place cards on the board. Once an emperor card is surrounded by four cards, it resolves as a trick with the color/suit of the emperor card being the trump color/suit. The emperor cards are either red (military), yellow (populace), or blue (senate). The card that wins the trick is the highest trump card, and if no trump cards are present, then the highest value card of any suit wins. However, any cards of the same value cancel each other out first. The player that wins the trick keeps the emperor card. At the end of the game, you gain 1 point for each emperor card you have, plus 3 bonus points for each set of all three types (red/blue/yellow) of emperor cards you have.
Ready for some spice? There are 3 suits of influence cards that correspond to the emperor cards, and each suit has 14 cards with values 1-8. The influence cards all have special abilities and they vary from suit to suit. They’re all really good too. For example, there’s a Mob card that allows you to flip another influence card adjacent to the emperor card face down. There are some cards that allow you to place modifier tokens on other cards to boost their value. I can’t tell you how many times I looked through my hand of cards and I could not decide which card to play because they were all juicy abilities.
My first game with 4 players
Ready for some more spice? There are also 0-value barbarian cards in the game, with 4 starting in play on the board. On your turn, instead of playing an influence card, you can either play a barbarian card onto the board, or you can discard one to move a barbarian on the board diagonally. If you move a barbarian card onto an influence card, perhaps one of your opponent’s cards, that card is now covered and contributing a value of 0 to the trick. Between the influence card abilities and what you can do with barbarian cards, you have a ton of interesting choices in The Barracks Emperors.
After you play a card on your turn, you’ll resolve any surrounded emperors, and then you draw a card from the card market row. The card market is populated such that the lower the value on the card you played for your turn, the more choices you’ll have when choosing a new card to add to your hand. Whereas if you play the highest value cards (7 or 8), your only option is the leftmost card. It’s not always best to have high cards in this game. It’s usually more important to have the right suits in your hand to play to the emperors you care most about, but the abilities are typically stronger on the higher card, so it’s a trade-off.
My 2v2 game
While in Portland, I managed to play The Barracks Emperors three times, and in all cases, we opted to play the 2-round version (instead of 3) in about 90 minutes. The first game was a 4-player game with all new players including myself. I really dug it, but we were definitely still familiarizing ourselves with the possibilities and with all of the different special abilities on the influence cards. Then I played a 2-player game where we both had a game under our belts, and I liked it even more. It had a lot of chess-like moments. Then I played the 2v2 variant where you have a partner and keep one shared scoring pile. I loved that as well.
The Barracks Emperors is my jam. I really dig it. It’s not heavy on the trick-taking front, but the way it integrates trick-taking with area influence feels really unique. Also, every decision is tough and thinky because on most of the board spaces, when you place an influence card in an eligible space for your faction for one emperor, that card is also usually adjacent to another emperor, so you may be helping or hurting your opponent. You really need to carefully scan the board and think through the impacts of each card placement, otherwise your opponents my score some easy emperors. I think in every game someone would play a card not realizing the impact of the card placement, kind of like when you give a clue in Codenames, then when your team starts discussing, you realize your clue is more relevant to another word on the board that you missed.
• Another hit for me at PGC Con (and in life in general) is Raymond Gallardo‘s Le Plateau. Le Plateau is an awesome game that fuses trick-taking with an abstract strategy game, and has bidding with shifting partnerships. I’m really hooked on this one and I find myself thirsty to play it all of the time lately.
After getting your hand of cards in a game of Le Plateau, there’s a bidding phase where players make bids on connections they think they can make on the board, with the most basic being a bridge connection touching two sides of the board. You can bid to complete your objective solo, which is very risky, but rewarding if you’re successful. But more often, you’ll choose a duo objective, where you’ll call out a specific King or high card you don’t have, and whichever other player has the card you called out becomes your partner for the round, and the other players will be playing against you.
Le Plateau is a must-follow, must-trump game, meaning if you can’t follow the led suit, you must play a trump card if you have one, otherwise you can play any card. Whichever player wins the trick will place one of their colored markers on the corresponding trick number space on the board, and also any spaces matching cards played to the trick. On the board, there are spaces for face cards of every suit, as well as low and high trump cards. Thus, if you bid that you can make a connection, you’ll be working to strategically win tricks to cover spaces on the board to help your team connect to as many sides as you bid, while the opposing team tries to stop you. If you finish the round and successfully made the connection you bid on, then you and any of your partners score positive points based on your bid value, and your opponents score negative points based on your bid value. Of course if your opponents prevent you from making the connection you bid, then they score positive points and you and any of your partners score negative points.
My tiny Le Plateau
You play Le Plateau with a 78-card French Tarot deck with cards from the 4 normal suits, plus there’s a 5th suit of trump cards (1-22). There’s a print-and-play version, but you can also get a nice wooden board from Brown Castle Games. After being intrigued by Le Plateau at BGG.Spring, I bought the travel size version from Brown Castle Games, and after playing the normal size version at PGC Con, I had to order that too.
• I got in a few fun and memorable games of Touchdown Heroes, which I brought with me and was eager to try. Touchdown Heroes is an American football-themed trick-taking game for 2 teams of 2 players, designed by Kuro and published by Manifest Destiny. In the game, you’re trying to score touchdowns and field goals by winning tricks that move the football further down the field. When your team is on offense, you can call a running play to make it a must-follow trick, or a passing play to make it a may-follow trick. In either case, when you play off suit, you trigger the special ability on the card you played. Some of the cards allow you to block and intercept, and there’s one that even prevents all card abilities. Each player also has their own special ability as well. I really enjoy team games and I had a great time playing both of my games of Touchdown Heroes.
• Savage Bowl, by URiO and Burekeke Games, is another sports-themed trick-taking game I played and really enjoyed in spite of getting crushed. In Savage Bowl, 4-5 players compete to score the most victory points, but you must win exactly 2 tricks each round to score any points. The first 5 tricks are interesting in this game because similar to Schadenfreude, the player who plays the 2nd highest card of the led suit wins the trick. However, whoever plays the highest card of the led suit secretly discards a card from their hand and they sit out of the next trick. Thematically, you were playing rough so the referee is temporarily benching you. This is really interesting because that can be really helpful in a game where you only score if you win exactly 2 tricks, but on the other hand, you do also need to win tricks too. I’m looking forward to playing this one more and hopefully not getting completely whooped next time.
See my sad (green) score marker way at the bottom of the VP track?
• I played a few games of Trick-taking in Black and White from Tsutomu Dejima and Decoct Design, and discovered it’s more challenging strategically than the cute little bear butt cards would make it seem. All of the cards are dual-suited, and it’s a must-follow trick-taking game where every player can always follow, since all of the cards have both suits. Your goal is to win an equal number of black and white tricks, but it’s so much harder than it seems, especially when you play with sharks (gamers, not actual sharks) like I did.
Aren’t these bear butts adorable?
• Robotrick hit the table a lot and everyone (including myself) really dug it. Robotrick is a super clever 3-player trick-taking game from Domi and The Game Gallery Works, where players play against a robot named Droco (AI deck) and you need to balance the amount of tricks you win because if you win too many, you’ll score negative points. Also, whenever Droco wins tricks, the card you played will be negative points as well. This game is fantastic and fun to play. Big thanks to Ken Shoda for giving me a copy of this awesome game at BGG.Spring!
First game played in Portland w/ Jonah who was kind enough to pick us up from the airport
• I loved Charlie Bink‘s 2016 release Pups, which sadly is almost impossible to find at this point. Here’s hoping for a reprint of this puppylicious trick-taking game with a unique bidding system.
• Inside Job is a super cool semi-cooperative, hidden roles trick-taking game from Tanner Simmons and KOSMOS, which has been a big hit with everyone I’ve played it with. Picture The Crew, but with a hidden traitor.
I promise, you can trust me.
• While I primarily played newer games at PGC Con, I also played Mike Fitzgerald‘s Diamonds for the first time, which has been around since 2016 from Stronghold Games. I know, I’m late to the party, but I enjoyed it a lot.
• On our last night at our Airbnb, we squeezed in a 3-player game of Bug Council of Backyardia, which is an interesting trick-taking, mancala hybrid game with a fun, cute theme, from designers Patrick Engro and Kyle Hanley, and Engro Games.
We didn’t want the weekend to end…
• Besides all of the awesome trick-takers I played which I’ve mentioned above (and others left out of this post), I also played a few climbing/shedding games such as Taiki Shinzawa‘s new 2023 release Planet etuC, which is a game for 2-3 players where you want to get rid of all of the cards in your hand first by beating rank and/or suit combinations.
• I played a single 3v3 round of Bacon from Sean Ross and Allplay. I don’t have any photos and I cannot recall why we didn’t play a full game, but what I did play, I thought was awesome. I loved the interaction and dynamics of having 3 players on each team.
• One of my favorite highlights of PGC Con 2023 was finally getting to play the first two games published by Portland Game Collective. In fact, the first thing I did when I arrived at the convention was buy myself a copy of Bridge City Poker and Five Three Five. Well, technically, I had my partner Matt buy them for me. Throughout the weekend I managed to play both and I can’t wait to play them more. Of course, I played them out of order, but it was at least cool to play them both for the first time in Portland.
Five Three Five is clever climbing/shedding game for 2-6 players, designed by Kenichi Kabuki, where you can play a higher ranked meld, or you can add cards to the central meld, which gives you lots of interesting choices as you try to shed your hand.
In Lee Gianou‘s Bridge City Poker, you’re also trying to get rid of your hand of cards first, but you play with a number of special ability cards mixed into the deck that give players cool, rule-breaking powers to strategize around. There are so many different special ability cards and we had fun experimenting by mixing in different ones each round.
• Even though the weekend was mostly about trick-taking games, a few of us ventured out with some other types of games as well. I played a great 5-player game of Dual Gauge, from Amabel Holland and Hollandspiele, with the Denmark map, which was a first for me. I really dig how each map changes up the core system and that you can play a shared incentive stock market, route-building game in 2 hours or less. With the Denmark map, you lose a significant amount of stock value at the end of the game if you haven’t built enough stations on the board.
This is what it looks like when Jordan takes over your company…
• While we’re talking about Hollandspiele games, I brought my copy of Cole Wehrle‘s An Infamous Traffic, which I had been dying to play ever since I scored it at the Strategicon virtual flea market in September 2022. It’s a fascinating design filled with brutal player interaction that I love, and our learning game has me itching to play it more.
• Some of us also played a couple of games of Blood on the Clocktower which was an absolute blast! My evil team managed to win the 2nd game. I was so nervous the entire time, but thrilled about our victory.
All-in-all, I had an incredible time in Portland and I’m already hype for PGC Con 2024!
My PGC Con 2023 haul
Learning Haggis at the airport