With game manufacturers from around the world—from mass marketers like Mattel to obscure independents, including the guys who came up with the Unicorns and Urinals game (I’ll get to that in a minute)—the city’s largest convention each year is the place where great games of all kinds are launched. Sure, there are plenty of dragons and an abundance of dungeons, but the dealer hall at the 2019 edition of Gen Con also offered cool new trivia games, innovative kids games, nerve-racking dexterity games, and a game built around Kenny G (sorry, but I skipped that one).
Once again, outfitted with only a notebook, a water bottle, and a backpack, I ventured into the Dealer Hall on a quest to find a dozen or so games worthy of your attention. In four days of strategizing, dice-rolling, card-tossing, fact-recalling, blind bidding, and blatant bluffing, here are the treasures I uncovered.
Did I miss a favorite of yours? Please add it in the comments section.
Jaws (Ravensburger). You know the story. Shark attacks swimmer. Trio of dudes heads out to sea to attack the attacker. What’s surprising is the way this game by Prospero Hall (yes, board games now have credits) captures the tension and drama of the film without sacrificing playability. One player is the shark. The others take the roles of Brody, Hooper, and Quint (one player can play all if it’s only you and a pal). The trio tries to identify the shark’s location while the creature cruises from beach to beach devouring swimmers. The more swimmers gobbled, the less equipment the heroes get in the second half which, after the board is flipped over, takes place on Quint’s boat. Our game ended with Hooper and Brody dead but with Quint landing a final blow with a machete while clinging to the last floating piece of the ship’s bow. In all, an experience so much more satisfying than any of the cinematic Jaws sequels.
Pappy Winchester (Blue Orange). The title character has died. You and your fellow gamers are his heirs charged with divvying up his estate, one parcel of land at a time. What makes this a cut above most auction games is that the high bid gets distributed to your siblings, thus enriching them as you acquire more property. Meanwhile, you can go for achievements (most properties along the rail line, for instance) that bring bonuses as well as secret goals that can add to your end-game score. A big positive here is that all players stay engaged, with little down time while others make decisions.
The Table is Lava (R&R). Anyone remember Ricky Jay, the late magician known for his ability to throw playing cards with pinpoint accuracy? Well, if you have even a hint of Jay’s skill, this might be the game for you. Starter cards make up an island on your table where a few wooden meeples stand. Your task is to toss cards and knock your opponents off this card “island” while adding more of your meeples as dictated on the card you tossed. In the end, you get points for those still standing, less for those that have fallen, and none for the unfortunates knocked onto the lava table. Remember: Any good game collection needs a few that you and your on-time pals can play while waiting for your always-late friend to arrive.
Letter Jam (CGE). A cooperative word game best played with at least four people at the table, Letter Jam rewards players not just for spelling but for their powers of deduction. Each player is secretly given a row of letters that spell a word. In each round, one letter from each player is displayed so that only the other players can see it. Players try to make a word using the letters they can see, numbered discs to show the order and … you’re already lost, aren’t you? So were half the players at our table at first. But soon we were narrowing down the possibilities, deducing our letters, flipping up the next one, and working our way toward a team (almost) victory. The result: a near-constant line to purchase the game at Gen Con and sell-out status each day.
Point Salad (AEG). The inside joke of a title refers to games in which, at the end game, you get a certain amount for this, a certain amount of points for that, bonus points for something else, etc. Only after tabulating do you know who won. In this brisk card game, it’s an actual salad that you are creating in order to score those points. Cards represent vegetables, but their flipsides have scoring rules for the veggies you’ve collected. You might acquire lots of onion and cabbage, for instance, and then face the dilemma of whether or not it’s worth taking a scoring card that gives you loads of points for the former but takes away points for the latter. On the culinary card game front, this one deserves a spot on the shelf next to Sushi Go!
Watergate (Capstone Games). Yes, this is a game about the aftermath of the break-in, with one player as the Editor and the other as, yes, Tricky Dick. The task of the former is to link two informants to Nixon, while POTUS’s job is to delay and obfuscate in order to survive until the next election. There’s a lot of give and take as you play cards representing various Watergate personas in an effort to acquire or destroy evidence. Imagine the parental joy of overhearing one of your kids shout “I want to be Nixon this time!”
The Game of Wolf (Gray Matters Games). Frustrated with trivia games where the person with the most arcane knowledge in your group inevitably wins? In this fun party game, a category is announced and the player whose turn it is has the option of going “lone wolf” and competing against all the others to answer the most questions or enlisting another player who would be helpful on the given subject. Strategic recruitment could make you the winner without answering anything yourself.
Doctor Doctor (Indie Boards & Cards). Remember Operation? Well, here’s a lower-tech (and, I’d argue, more fun) tweezer surgery game. A card representing a rather terrified patient tops an irregularly stacked deck of cards that represent various body parts. Your job is to remove certain cards with the aforementioned tweezers before a timer runs out. Without the patient falling. Without taking out the wrong organs. Oh, and without toppling the stack of blood pressure cubes piled on top.
Dizzle (Stronghold). “Roll and writes” are an increasingly popular genre of game (think Yahtzee) and this one adds some clever twists. A set of dice is rolled and players take turns claiming one to fill spaces on their individual sheets according to certain placement rules. Set off one of your sheet’s bombs and it blows up a spot on your opponents’ boards. The rules are simple, but there’s a surprising amount of strategy helpful, particularly in the later phases of the game.
Horrified (Ravensburger). The classic Universal Studios horror icons—Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, etc.—team up against your team in this cooperative game that’s a bit different every time you play it. Players share knowledge and resources as they race around a village acquiring weapons, destroying coffins, saving (or sacrificing) villagers, and at first avoiding—then attacking—the creatures. A variety of challenges—and a system for increasing the difficulty—add to the fun. And bonus points for having Wilbur and Chick (Abbott and Costello) among the villagers.
Honga (Haba). Game manufacturer Haba is best known for games for young kids. Here’s a fun transitional one that adults can enjoy as well. It’s all about collecting resources and victory points using a unique disc system that allows a player to only collect resources or perform actions from certain areas of the board. But if you don’t appease the saber-tooth tiger in the middle, those resources get devoured. Interesting mechanics such as this can upgrade even the simplest game.
Crusader Kings (Free League/ Paradox Interactive). Just about every game above plays in about an hour or less. But some gamers like to immerse themselves deeper (me among them) and I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a few of those, although even four days of Gen Con doesn’t afford an opportunity to play too many of them. For this epic game, based on the popular video game, you start out with a king ruling a section of Europe. But in addition to protecting the land you’ve got and expanding your territory, you also have to be concerned with succession. Strategic marriages, establishing bloodlines, and forming (and breaking ) alliances are all part of the strategy. Just make sure to hydrate and take restroom breaks. Or you can just play an era or two, rather than all three.
Aeon’s End: The New Age (Action Phase). A Gen Con game haul would not be complete without at least one fantasy/sci-fi game in which big, bad creatures have to be defeated. This one is a co-op where players have to decide with each turn whether to build a strong deck of action cards or use those cards to attack each round’s enemy—a maggot-spewing monster, for instance. Wait too long, though, and those maggots evolve into tougher-to-beat minions. One of the neat things here is that many of the cards and game pieces stay in the box until you reach certain levels of play. Defeat this creature and there are greater challenges in store.
And, finally, a special shout-out to manufacturer Shenanigames, a newcomer to the field. Two of its titles, the spelling game Wordtini and the guess-the-word game Unicorns and Urinals, deserve attention not for great game play, but for their components. The former comes packaged in a plastic martini shaker. The latter includes a bright pink urinal cake (simulated).