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Best Games Of Gen Con 2021

Dream of being an interior designer? There's a game for that—and more.
Gen Con

Tabletop game enthusiasts tried out hundreds of new games over four days at Gen Con 2021.Photo by Tony Valainis

THEY CAME. THEY SAW. They rolled 20-sided dice.

And after four days of gaming and shopping and gaming and shopping, the Gen Con horde has now scattered to the winds, taking with them the latest acquisitions from the dealer hall.

When I say “they,” of course, I should be saying “we.” Because, as usual, I was among those who ventured (albeit COVID-cautiously this time) into the Indiana Convention Center. My mission: to try as many as I could of the hundreds of new games offered in an attempt to separate the playable from the passable from the pitchable.

Yes, some of the games I tried deal in dungeons, dragons, and superheroes. But Gen Con—and the tabletop gaming industry—goes way beyond that. Consider that the first batch of games on this year’s list of Lou’s Likes have to do with interior design, quilting, and touring bands.

Floor Plan from Deep Water Games.Photo courtesy Deep Water Games

First, for those hooked on HGTV, there’s Floor Plan (Deep Water Games). Here, would-be designers have to decide, with each roll of the dice, whether to add a room to their graph-paper design (using the dice as guide to dimensions) or add landscape and architectural features, all while meeting client demands. In Arch Ravels (XYZ Game Labs), a solid game for newcomers to action-selection games, you score points by completing craft projects by acquiring the proper materials at the yarn barn.

I wish the dry-erase boards and markers were upgraded a bit in On Tour (Board Game Tables), an otherwise fun, puzzly game in which each player starts with a map of the U.S. Dice are rolled and region cards revealed, leading competitors to assign numbers to cities. Roll a 3 and a 6 and you’ll place a 36 on a city and 63 on another, each corresponding to regions on the cards. The catch: Once the boards are filled, the win goes to the player who can create the longest contiguous tour route of escalating numbers.

Nature and outdoor games were big this year, perhaps spawned in part by recent breakthrough successes such as Wingspan, Trekking the National Parks, and Trails. In Cascadia (Flatout Games/AEG), on each turn, you collect a habitat tile as well as an animal token and add them to your expanding map. Each animal can only be played on the proper topography tile, though, and each beast also has a different scoring rule. Bears, for instance, only score if in pairs and not next to any other bears. Salmon increase in point value if they are on connected river tiles. You also score points if you have the most adjacent habitats of the same type.

Cascadia from Flatout Games/AEG.Photo courtesy Flatout Games/AEG

“Filler” is a term used by gamers to describe those games you can play when a) you and your friends are waiting for the rest of the crew to show up, b) there are two games being played on separate tables, one finishes earlier than the other and wants something to do, and c) you otherwise have 15 minutes or so to kill. For such situations, it’s great to have Abandon All Artichokes (Gamewright) in your game arsenal. This cutesy card game has a simple goal: Deal yourself a hand of five cards, none of which feature the titular veggie. Problem is, you start with nothing but 10 artichokes in your deck. So, on your turn you add one other veggie from a tableaux into your hand to give you actions to help you compost the unwanted produce.

A half-step up in complexity and a few big steps up in elegance, is Flourish (Starling Games). Here, a cardboard garden wall separates each pair of players. You are dealt a hand of cards and have to pick one to plant in your own garden and two to pass over those walls to your neighbors. Cards can show flowers and/or stone tiles, plus end-of-round scoring conditions (for instance, two points for every rose in your garden) as well as end-game scoring. The give-and-take continues for multiple rounds as you build your own while trying to avoid helping other players. If you are feeling a bit more magnanimous, there’s also a cooperation variation included in the rulebook. Reaching higher, 7Summits (Deep Water Games) sends hikers up mountains, pushing their luck and taking greater risk with every roll of the dice.

Flourish from Starling Games.Photo courtesy Starling Games.

Nature is a bit sillier in Kabuto Sumo (Board Game Tables), in which discs representing various insects are pushed onto a platform in an effort to knock off opponents’ discs already there. If you have skills honed by years playing those quarter-pushing machines at Chuck E. Cheese, you could be a contender with this one.

Of course, anyone who has played Yahtzee knows that some games don’t bother with a theme at all. In Ten (Alderac Entertainment Group), you flip cards with the goal of not exceeding, of course, 10. Numbered color cards add to your total while token cards deduct. It’s a push-your-luck game with a catch: If you quit and take the numbered cards, your opponents get the tokens pictured on the rest. And those can be used to bid on wild cards or buy discarded ones. The challenge is, by the end of the card stack, to have runs of cards in each color. Housed in a small-ish box, the game is perfect for rainy days of “OK, let’s play one more.”

Like the movie biz, the tabletop industry is also interested in reprints, sequels, and reboots. Galaxy Trucker (Czech Games), first released in 2007, is now back in a spruced up, cleaned up, and cartooned up edition. Here, the first part of the game is a frantic race against time to cobble together a spaceship and the rest is spent trying to keep it from falling apart on the job. The breakout hit from 2016, Terraforming Mars, also gets a makeover with Terraforming Mars: Ares Edition (Stronghold Games). The same rules apply as the original. You are still trying to make Mars habitable by strategically playing cards and managing resources to increase oxygen, water, and heat levels, but this version has been streamlined and there’s less of a learning curve for new players. Plus, the price point is lower. Camel Up: Off Season (Pretzel Games) is a lively sequel to 2014’s Camel Up. This time, you bid on goods but then have to be careful not to overburden your beasts while delivering those items to market.

As for spin-offs, Fast & Furious Highway Heist (Funko Games) proves a blast even to those of us who have never seen a film in the franchise (a glaring cinematic faux pas, I know). It’s a co-op game with three different heist scenarios where action selection and dice rolling determine your success in hijacking a truck, shooting down a helicopter, etc. while avoiding those dark vans out to thwart your plan.

Don’t worry if you missed Gen Con. You may not find every one of these games at your local Target or Barnes & Noble (although both of those chains have dramatically increased their board game inventory in recent years). You can find them easily online or in game stores throughout the city, including Family Time Games on the northwest side, Saltire Games in Lawrence, and Moonshot Games in Noblesville and on Mass Ave.

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