Writing the How to Win at Gen Con feature in the August Indianapolis Monthly only kicked up my anticipation of what I’d find at this year’s gathering of gamers.
Of course, there are only so many games you can play in three days (yes, I know the convention is four days, but I had to get to the Indiana State Fair one day, didn’t I?). So while this Best of the Fest list may not be exhaustive, compiling it was exhaustingly based on actual experience with the games. As with movies, the best marketing can’t turn a dud into a treasure.
My top 10 from this year’s Gen Con:
Ancestree (Calliope Games)
There are only so many times you can explore dungeons, trade goods in the Mediterranean or battle zombies. So it’s refreshing when a game designer comes up with an original theme. For this one, players try to create the most impressive family tree. Family members can connect by marriage or birth, with the most points scored for dynasties that extend for multiple generations. I give it progressive points for allowing same-sex marriages. Original and easy to learn.
Beasts of Balance (Sensible Object)
I’m usually resistant to tabletop games that require apps, screen, or other electronic crossovers. But I’ll make an exception for this beautifully designed balance game where the creatures and other objects you put on a platform become part of a virtual world on your phone. Topple the tower and you’ll have to rebuild before an onscreen volcano erupts and destroys the world you created. More activity than game, but addictive.
Boom, Bang, Gold (Haba)
Okay with your kids playing with dynamite? Here, red tubes are tossed into a mine—actually the bottom of the box equipped with a surface that has a light bounce to it—causing tokens to bounce. Players snatch revealed gold and other objects while being slowed down by bats, rats, and more. Knuckle-bumping action silliness.
Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger (Z-Man Games)
For a certain generation, Choose Your Own Adventure books were all the rage. The gimmick—as well as the look of those paperbacks—has been recreated in what promises to be a series of multi-chapter adventures. The game elements involve collecting clues while trying to keep your danger level down and building up your psychic abilities. Complete each chapter and you open the next. Choose unwisely, though, and you may find “the soil fills your lungs, and the word wavers and goes gray before finally turning black.” Retro and replayable.
GoodCritters (Arcane Wonders)
Your gang just committed a robbery and the boss has a stack of money to dole out. Meanwhile, you secretly decide if the boss should be overthrown or supported. Other options include robbing one of your brethren, protecting your stashed cash, or trying to skim more money off the take. Best with five or more thick-skinned players. For schemers, backstabbers, and trash-talkers.
The Island of Doctor Lucky (Cheapass Games)
Bored with Clue? Consider the latest game involving the titular doc who, contrary to his name, always ends up dead. In this streamlined follow-up to Kill Doctor Lucky, he’s wandering around an island and your task is to get alone with him in order to bump him off. The trick is to make sure the other plays can’t see you commit the act. Good, nasty fun.
Santa’s Workshop (Rio Grande)
Not all elves are involved in dungeon-crawling adventure. In this one, each player represents a set of North Pole residents trying to please their jolly boss by producing the best toys before the sleigh’s departure time. Things get surprisingly competitive in this worker placement game, though, as you attempt to gather the required tools and correct materials. Fun detail: Bonus points are awarded if use linen, wood and metal—but you can sometimes resort to plastic if you want to go cheap and quick. Thematic silliness with enough depth for competition.
Tags (Heidelbar Games)
Along one axis, letters. Along the other, categories. At each intersection, there’s an oversized marble. When the timer flips, your task is to quickly come up with words to fit each letter/category combo, removing its designated marble when you do. The next player then tries to come up with ones you missed. Points vary depending on the color of the ball and whether or not you cleared a category. Fast and fun word game.
Ticket to Ride: New York (Days of Wonder)
A railroad route-building game that has crossed over from the hobby gamer market into the mainstream, Ticket to Ride has sold over 6 million copies. But with its big board and hour-ish playing time, it may not fit into your lunch break. Solution: Ticket to Ride: New York, in which the predecessor’s trains have been replaced with taxis, the routes reduced to the streets between New York landmarks, and the playtime cut down to 15 minutes. Quick and easy … but with strategy.
878 Vikings: Invasion of England (Academy Games)
I loved Risk as a kid. But inevitably one foolish player would try to protect Asia, get knocked out of the game, and have two hours to kill while the rest finished. Academy Games’ lineup—which include 1775, Underground Railroad, and this newbie—address that any other Risk-y problems with gusto, creating history-based scenarios with terrific ebb and flow. In 878 Vikings, one side assumes the roles of English factions trying to protect their homelands from Viking clans attacking from the sea. Accessible war game with a bit of history.
And, beyond my ten favorites, a few other superlatives.
Most attention-getting for non-gamers:
Tudor Deluxe Electric Football (Tudor Games)
Before video games, there was Electric Football, with its buzzing metallic playing field and randomly running players. That more-fun-to-remember-than-to-play creation has gotten a spiffy upgrade with that includes stadium surroundings, customizable teams (this year’s newcomers include an Army/Navy option) and multiple field sizes. I still wouldn’t trust the players to go where I want them to, though.
Most unexpected game:
Wacky Races: The Board Game (CMON)
If the alliterative names Penelope Pitstop, Peter Perfect, and Dick Dastardly ring bells, that probably means you were a kid in 1968 when the 11-episode series ran on Saturday morning TV. If not, think of it as ‘Cannonball Run” for the junior set (If you have to ask about “Cannonball Run” … oh, never mind). This one previewed at Gen Con and is not yet released. Runner up for dredging of the past: The Brady Bunch Party Game. In it, the Brady siblings try to outwit Alice, the maid. This one was boosted at Gen Con by an in-booth appearance from Robbie Rist, aka Cousin Oliver from the original series.
Double Play Dodgeball (Party People Games)
While a 30-second timer runs, all players shout out items fitting a category card (i.e. Name Multimillionaire Athletes, for example). Duplicate someone else’s answer—or be the last to name a required number of them—and you are out of the round. In other words, it’s a table of people yelling while everyone tries to hear and a judge attempts to keep track of what’s being said. (Credit, though, to the writers of the rules who included the following: “Decks don’t include a 30-second timer because … cellphones have 30-second timers, cellphones that don’t have free apps for timers, and worst case scenario: The judge can count to 30.”)
The Mind (Pandasaurus Games)
How well can you intuit what your friends are thinking? Here’s a mind-bending—yet simple—cooperative game. Each player holds cards, each with a different number, that have to be played in numeric order. The catch? You can’t say anything or even indicate what number you have. This mean most of the game consists of silently guessing from how the person across the table is staring at you whether she’s trying to get you to play your card because she has a high one or if she’s holding out because she isn’t confident that her card is lower … even though it is … maybe.
Weird Things Humans Search For (Big Potato Games)
Last year, Big Potato Games came out with the fun deduction game Chameleon. The year before that, it was a good pair of trivia games, Mr. Lister and Linkee, that I still play. This year, though, the company didn’t even seem to be trying. In the brightly packaged Weird Things Humans Search For, the first few words of a web search phrase are read and players have to guess the most popular completion terms. That’s it. You can do the same thing at www.googlefeud.com without dropping $19.99.