Thursday, September 25, 2014

Amberden Affair LIVE, by Mike & Kelsey Domeny and Drake Philyaw

Pop Quiz: What's the "Edwardian Era"? 

a) NSA slang for the second half of 2013

b) the 1900's - 1910's in England

c) something something Twilight 

Look after the jump for the answer! Before you do, let me warn you - it involves Barons, butlers... and murder!

The answer, of course, is b) the 1900's -1910's in England. That's the stage for Amberden Affair, a nifty game that asks one miscreant in a group of honest butlers murder his (or her!) way to the top. Amberden Affair was a finalist in the 2013 Tabletop Deathmatch season, and for good reason - the game puts a neat spin on the investigative murder mystery trope. 

Think of Clue and all it's various permutations, or Mansions of Madness, Elder Sign, and other games of investigation. Players take the role of fantastic people using innate powers, superior intellect, or brute strength to solve mysteries that have stumped others. In Amberden Affair, you're a butler (probably) whose only superpower is the ability to serve a really good bloody mary. 

This man is TERRIFYING
In Amberden Affair, players take the role of the waitstaff in an Edwardian-era mansion during a dinner party. The object is to score as many points as possible by taking orders from the head butler and completing those orders with the guests - The Baron, The General, and The Governor's Wife.  

One of the butlers - maybe you! - is the "Miscreant", and is trying to poison the guests. That player looks just like everyone else, and can even take and fill regular orders like all the other butlers. There's really no way to know who the Miscreant is, but if you pay close attention to who's serving whom, and keep your ears open, you may be able to figure it out.

At Gen Con 2014 I was lucky enough to participate in a LIVE game of Amberden Affair. The Two Penny Games crew ran a Kickstarter campaign solely for their event at Gen Con. Each of us who joined in received a copy of the game, a beautiful champagne glass, and a chance to play real-life Amberden Affair with the other backers. 

My friends and I spent a few hours Friday evening in tailored tux jackets, carrying trays and serving the fine guests at the Governor's mansion. It was an amazing experience, one that I'll share with you through Q&A with the other players at our event:

Doug Levandowski - Game designer and successful kickstarter-er of Gothic Doctor
Peter Vaughan - Game designer and lead genius at The League of Gamemakers
Michelle Ho - Actress and writer for The Nerds' Table
John Staton - Engineer, writer for The Nerds' Table, my personal giant
Me - You'll hear from me too! 

Also included, a special set of questions for Cody Lewis, who tagged along to watch and was lucky enough to be don a dinner coat and play the Baron for the evening. 

These questions are meant to spotlight the Amberden Affair LIVE event, and may not paint the full picture of the game as you'd play it at your table. We'll have a full review of the board game up shortly, but in the meantime, enjoy this report of the live event!

1) Why did you sign up to be a part of the AAL event? 


I knew I was going to be swamped with pitching the game and demoing it, and I wanted to make sure I had at least two hours where I was committed to do something just for fun. Besides, helping out another AdMagic buddy never hurts! 

I signed up for The Amberden Affair LIVE because it was a one-of-a-kind event at Gen Con, and a game made by a company I really love, Two Penny Games.

Knowing a little bit about the game from "Tabletop Deathmatch", I wanted to see how much of that translated into a "Live Event". But then again what would constitute as a "Live Event"? The most I know was that this was going to be a room, in a hotel that would be a semblance of the actual boardgame.

Getting our instructions before the event
JR made me.

Okay, that's only part of the truth.  The whole truth is that this was going to be my first Gen Con and I wanted to start it off with something special.  Looking at the Kickstarter for AAL and seeing Kelsey's interaction with JR on Back It convinced me that she and the others from Two Penny Games weren't just trying to make a quick buck, but were really quite passionate about their game and about creating a unique experience for everyone involved.

Plus, once I found out I would win a prize from JR if I pushed AAL over their Kickstarter goal, then that was just a bonus.

I'm a sucker for exclusive events, and I had such a good time interviewing Kelsey on Back It! that I had to be in on the party. Who doesn't want to dress up and be a murdering butler? This was a no-brainer. Plus, I thought I'd be far enough away from DFW that people wouldn't automatically assume I was the Miscreant (I was incorrect). 

2) What did you expect, and how did the event compare to your expectations? 

I'm not sure what I expected. I think it was what I expected - but just a little more of everything good! The ambiance was better than I expected and the costumes were less involved - but just the jacket and bowtie did a great job of getting us into character, I think!

I expected a fun, engaging experience and it delivered! I particularly enjoyed meeting new friends along the way. I seriously could have played all night!

Knowing a little bit about the game from "Tabletop Deathmatch", I wanted to see how much of that translated into a "Live Event". But then again what would constitute as a "Live Event"? The most I know was that this was going to be a room, in a hotel that would be a semblance of the actual board game.

I wasn't entirely certain what to expect, quite frankly.  The pessimist side of me expected a dingy room with one decoration and a small platter of gas station snacks!  Whatever the optimist side of me expected was definitely met or exceeded by the real deal.

I expected the pageantry to be exceptional, and it was. The room was gorgeous - perfectly decorated, really - and the costumes and props were exquisite. I expected all that! What I didn't expect was to have an open bar! The first time I had to deliver a bloody mary to the Baron, I actually ordered one and handed him a drink. My mistake, but he didn't complain! 

Doug is obviously the
3) What was your favorite part about AAL? 


The immersion into the game. That's usually my favorite part about gaming, when you really feel like you're part of the story of the game. And this provided that in spades. Oh, and the open bar.

Since I mentioned new friends, I'll say superb food and drink. I think the open bar improved my deduction skills, although that could be the 3rd glass of wine talking. Oh, and the deaths! The live deaths were fantastic!

Everything. From the enthusiasm of the creative time and their desire to really bring their own roles to life... to the other players' desire to try their hand at being a miscreant. Or watching how each player processes information and tries to analyze what they have seen... there is just so much information going on and you don't really know what is going on without paying attention and even then. What's not to like?

Other than getting to be the Miscreant, I'd have to say seeing the love, care and passion that the creators (Kelsey, Mike, Drake) put into it really moved and inspired me.  There's something very special about getting to be a part of the creation of something that is so loved, so yearned for... you could just see it on their faces.  It was like the event was a tiny baby animal that they had spent all their time and energy and money on rehabilitating and were watching it take its first steps.

As with most of the wonderful things I get to do in this hobby, my favorite part of Amberden Affair LIVE was the people I was with. John & Michelle were already dear friends of mine, but I'd only met Doug, Peter, and the Domenys through our interviews and Facebook conversations. Getting to know them (and in Doug's case, spend another 6 hours drinking and playing games) was the best part of the night - even better than the ridiculously good hors d'oeuvre served during the event. 

4) Had you played Amberden Affair before? If so, did it affect how you played during the live event? If not, do you think it would have helped you? 

I hadn't, but I'm sure it would have. The rules were pretty straightforward so that wasn't an issue. However, some of the strategy might have come out a little more if I'd played it a handful of times beforehand.

This happened a lot
I had played Amberden Affair once before - at Gen Con 2013, one year prior! I met Kelsey Domeny and was instantly charmed. Later, she and Mike would help me form a blog about game design and publishing, The League of Gamemakers. 

Absolutely not. This was my first time playing "Amberden Affair" in any capacity. I think in hindsight, the only thing it could have helped is knowing gameplay. What one does with cards in hand and moving their player piece around on the board is far different than being able to see them actually walking and seeing them look at cards and swap / investigate cards if necessary.

In some ways, I feel that one gleans more information from other players in the "Live Event" than whilst playing a board game... but that is just me.

I hadn't played it before, but I'm sure it would have helped, at least in terms of strategy-formalizing.

I'd never played AAL, and hadn't even read the rules. I tried to pick the game up on the fly, but I ended up spending a lot of time frozen thinking about how to best play. I think this detracted from the experience for some of the other players (but I really hope it didn't!), and it certainly didn't help me, as I finished in like one millionth place at the end of the game. 

5) How was playing the game "Live" different from playing board games the "normal" way? 

It felt less like a game and more like an experience. And that's just about the highest praise I can give a game. 

Playing LIVE was so fantastic, I may be spoiled now for regular plays. I plan to host some games of The Amberden Affair and I hope to play them LIVE in my home as well.

As mentioned in 3) and 4) you don't really know how much information is coming from all sides of the room until you become a "live" piece of the action. A lot of the player interaction, coordination, analysis... even though gameplay is the same... thought processes may not be. 

Oh man, there was so much more to try to pay attention to.  Trying to watch what other players are doing while actually walking around the room myself, trying to remember where I had seen certain items before and who might have moved them... it was a whole additional layer of complexity added onto the game, but it made it that much more fun.

Ok, so there are a lot of answers to this question. First, there's a kinetic element that's perfectly immersive. Moving around, in costume, speaking with an accent and picking up and delivering real orders - that's about as cool an experience as you can have playing a game. Really, it's what Gen Con is all about. 

Second, it's important in Amberden Affair to keep track of what other players are doing. If you're all sitting over a table playing together, it's pretty easy to keep track of what everybody else does. But when you have to literally turn your back on the Miscreant while you search through orders you're going to miss things. Those missed things are a lot harder to compensate for, and I almost went into analysis paralysis trying to mentally record everybody's movements so I could figure out who was up to what. 

Third, the banter between players is really cool. At the end of each round we got a chance to spread rumors and look each other up and down. That measured pause in game play really built some anticipation each round and made it even more interesting and fun.  

6) What's your strategy for victory next year?

Spending my first two turns just collecting orders. I mean...shut up, Doug. Stop giving it away!

Accuse JR! Just kidding! Despite rumors to the contrary, he was quite an upstanding member of the party. I'll be ready next Gen Con to join in again and catch any impostors

One thought that came to mind whilst being a footman / butler was the desire to move poisons around so as to keep a better eye of whom is retrieving them. But then there is the risk of rumors flying that you are the miscreant... which could be to ones advantage b/c if you know who the real miscreant is whilst all the compatriots believe it is you... more points to you.

Then again... there is no harm in fulfilling as many orders as possible and just guess who the miscreant is at the end for more points... that is entirely possible too.

I wonder what the rules are for moving items around, like the poisons, if you aren't the Miscreant.  That is, could I work to try and disrupt the Miscreant by taking the poisons and giving them to the wrong target?  If that's allowable I think that will be my strategy.  The Miscreant Miscreant!

Play the board game before the event so I'm squared up on the general strategy. Watch the other players more closely from the get-go. Find a way to rig the draw so I can be the Miscreant at least once... I didn't get to play as the murderer a single time! Still, it was amazing experience and I'll be back next year for sure. 


Cody Lewis attended the event as our guest, just to watch and hang out. He ended up role-playing as the Baron and served a delicious mix of salty attitude and sweet disapproval. My favorite interaction: I served Cody a third (or fourth, or fifth) bloody mary, and when he thanked me (rudely, of course) I offered him a quick fist bump. He looked at me, simultaneously confused and disgusted, and simply said "You're fired". I nearly wet my pants laughing at that. 

Here's Cody's impressions of Amberden Affair LIVE:

1) What was your favorite part about being the Baron?

My favorite part of being the blusterous Baron boiled down to being able to dress up, even if it was just an over sized suit jacket. As soon as I put it on it became much easier to fall into character and rag on the help as they bustled about the room. It should also be said that as the Baron or any other NPC, you get a huge spike of excitement upon seeing that you have been poisoned. Personally, I tried to shuffle the cards as they were given to me to guess at who the impostor was. It allowed me to participate more in the game even if my suspicions would end up dying with me. 

2) Did you feel a real disdain for the "help" during the game? Do you think your sudden rise in rank was fate repaying you for years of good works? 

The Baron that I embodied during the Amberden Affair was blusterous, a bit confused and always looking forward to his next drink or slice of cake. I wanted the help to grimace at my actions on the outside, but laugh on the inside. Playing the typical rich old jerk was tons of fun, especially when you reveal to the players that you have been poisoned by smearing chocolate cake all over your face as you collapse to the floor. 

Oh most certainly not. I wanted to be the type of person that back-stabbed, blackmailed and bigoted my way to the Barony. I was not a good person. Though, it would be interesting to play again and just be the nicest, most respectful Baron there ever was... I wonder if it would make the impostor feel bad for ultimately killing me? Probably not.

3) What was the best actual drink somebody served you during the game?

I am quite fond of bloody marys and luckily enough that was one of the items that the Baron received. However, one is enough, three was simply murder.


Gen Con is an amazing convention. In my eyes, it's the pinnacle of gaming, the place we all return to every year to celebrate our wonderful hobby. Amberden Affair LIVE was one of the absolute best parts of my trip this year, and I'm really grateful to Kelsey, Mike, and Drake for putting it all together. 

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. 

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