Not only was Gen Con back this year, but it was bigger than ever with more than 70,000 unique visitors (and, in some cases, unique is certainly the word).
For the most part, attendees were here to play games—the tabletop kind, not ones involving video screens. Once again, I set out to find the treasures among the newest game releases. That meant rolling dice, drafting cards, moving little wooden meeples, and otherwise taking my turn playing as many games as possible during the four-day convention. I’m writing here about only the ones I recommend and would happily play again. (Note: Game companies provided review copies of some titles without obligation. The opinions and choices are my own.)
First, though, here’s one I didn’t play.
Disney’s Lorcana Trading Card Game (Ravensburger) was so much the center of attention at this year’s Gen Con, I’m surprised Dumbo wasn’t the show’s official mascot. A collectible card game (CCG in the vernacular of gamers) in the same vein as Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon, it sparked thousands of attendees to line up for hours just to get first dibs on the card packs and related swag. This led to some ugliness on the first day as those who waited for hours were overrun by those arriving late. Granted, some of the diehards were speculators looking to flip their Mickey and company cards into cash via eBay—highlighting the fact that herd mentality and selfish speculating isn’t limited to sports fans.
I hope some folks actually play and enjoy Lorcana, rather than just seeing it as an investment. Me, I’m not a CCG person—I prefer my games to be self-contained. Instead of building a deck to pit Ariel and Elsa against the forces of Captain Hook and Cruella de Vil, I opted for some more original offerings.
Let’s start with the party games—the kind with minimal rules that don’t need a ton of studying before starting to play.
In Everything Ever (Floodgate Games), two players each have a stack of three category cards—for instance, “Every Breakfast Cereal” or “Every Child Actor.” They must each reveal their first card and take turns naming items in the respective categories without repeating themselves. Can’t come up with something in 10 seconds? Quickly move on to the next category card in your hand and start that list. But be careful: Every card you replace, you keep, and the person who has the most cards at the end is the loser. Meanwhile, the cooperative 13 Words (Captain Games) puts 12 random words around a circle with one in the middle. Whoever’s turn it is has to mentally link the central word to one of the others, with the rest of the players guessing which was selected. It gets tougher and the connections become more strained as the choices dwindle.
Prefer trivia over word games? CDSK (Hachette Boardgames) offers a clever twist: How far your pawn can potentially move is determined by how tough a question you can correctly answer. Want to move eight squares? You’ll need to answer a Level 8 question. Confidence (or cockiness) can be a big factor in determining whether you win or lose.
A more abstract party game, Trash Talk (Friendly Skeleton) comes with pairs of seemingly random items—cocktail umbrellas, bows, plastic plants—and a stack of word cards. Three cards are shown and one player secretly matches one item to each card. The rest of the players then try to suss out the secret pairings and match the same objects to the same cards. A cool factor: You are encouraged to add pairs of items to the game box for future play (I’ve already added two seashells and a pair of poker chips).
For pure silliness, Dolphin Hat Games has become a go-to company. Last year, I lauded Gimme That!, a potato-counting game. This year, it’s 800 Pound Gorilla. Ape cards and a few coconuts and bananas are scattered on the table. A spinner is spun and the pointer indicates whether players must scramble to grab fruit or try to claim a large, medium, or small gorilla (their weights are indicated on the flip side of the cards). Adding to the chaos: Random cards may tell you, for instance, to scratch under your arms, dab, or shout “Boing! Boing!”
Memory games are a staple in the business, and you’d think there wouldn’t be many fresh ideas, but here’s a unique one: In Magic Rabbit (Alley Cat Games), rabbit cards numbered one through nine are scrambled and hidden under randomly ordered hat cards, also numbered one through nine. Without communicating, teammates take turns either moving a hat, moving a rabbit and a hat, or peeking at the rabbit under the hat to work together to put both the hats and rabbits in numerical order, all while a 2.5-minute timer is running. If you manage to solve it, there’s still game left in the box, with sealed envelopes that reveal additional challenges.
At its core, boop. (Smirk & Dagger Games) is a two-player, limited action game akin to Checkers or Othello. But the designers have layered on the cuteness. You and your opponent are charged with placing kittens on a soft bed, causing them to “boop” (push) neighboring kittens to the next space or off the board. Manage to get three kittens in a row and they become cats in your reserve, which can then be placed on the board. Figure out how to line up three cats and you’ve won.
Note how I subtly booped you from party games into strategy games.
Klondice (MindWare) won’t be a big stretch for anyone used to playing Yahtzee. But in this game, you and your opponents play on the same board, and while some goals (a straight, for instance) score points for the person who completes them, others take points away. By rolling and rerolling your dice in a cardboard mountain tower, you can plan and place your dice carefully to earn the big payouts. My only complaint is that the dice tower has to be disassembled to fit back into the box.
Twisty Tracks (Rio Grande Games), with its plastic trains and square tiles, looks like a children’s game. But there are surprising choices to be made here as you strategically place track tiles. Points are scored both by arriving at stations quickly and also by creating lengthy tracks, goals that are rarely compatible. Wandering Towers (Capstone Games) not only requires some clever choices but also a bit of memory. Your goal is to get your wizards around the board to a fortress. On a turn, players either move one of their wizards or one of the towers. The latter choice may mean covering up other players, which may slow them down in their quests and require them to keep track of who is under what. Its theme is playful, but there’s plenty of game for gamers here.
Looking for something a bit more intense? While I didn’t get to play many of the more time-consuming new titles, I did try some deeper ones I would happily plunge into again.
After Us (Pandasaurus Games) posits a world where simians have taken over, but the theme comes through more in the design and artwork than in the gameplay. It’s really a strong deck-building and resource management game decorated with orangutans, chimps, gorillas, and mandrills. You start with basic tamarin cards and arrange your hand in combinations that, when the cards are placed next to each other, create frames that maximize what goods you can collect or how many victory points you score. As you play, you can buy better cards and upgrade your deck. As your ape population expands, your options become greater as you race to 80 points.
Prefer your games set in the past rather than a dystopian future? Rebuilding Seattle (WizKids) takes the historical fire of 1889 and turns it into a sharp city-building game. You start with a minimal grid and add neighborhoods to create more options. But you’ll need to carefully balance your growing population with shopping, dining, and entertainment spots. And while adding landmarks can boost the value of your version of Seattle, building over trees could lose you points later. Also set at the end of the 19th century, the smartly designed 3 Ring Circus (Devir Games) pits rival touring circuses against each other. As you travel around the U.S., you gradually upgrade your entertainment offerings, build prestige, and, of course, make enough money to keep rolling along. And, yes, Indianapolis is included on the route.
For some, playing games is an excuse to imbibe with friends. If this is your preference, here’s the game for you. Drinking is a key element in Heroes of Barcadia (Rollacrit), a dungeon-crawling, monster-fighting novelty in which the game pieces are beer glasses. They start out filled, but as your character takes damage, you take drinks. The game may cause hardcore gamers to roll their eyes as much as they roll their dice, but it’s a blast for those who want some actual partying in their exploratory party.
Just like movies, games don’t have to be complex to be fun.
Lou Harry writes about board games for Midwest Film Journal, louharry.com, and others while also hosting Game Night Social every Tuesday night in The Garage food hall. Harry has reviewed the best games of Gen Con since 2009. Follow him @louharry.