You’d think they’d run out of ideas. With about 5,000 tabletop games released each year, new ideas would seem in short supply. Yet here we are with another shelf full of terrific new titles hawked at Gen Con this year. Yes, I’ve played and recommend all of these. For the right players.
Let’s start with the most accessible—the ones you can break out at a friendly gathering and be playing in minutes.
Venn (The Op) bills itself as a game “where clues and art overlap.” Each of two teams designates a clue-giver whose job it is to rifle through a stack of surreal image cards to help their compatriots guess a secret word assigned to each of the Venn diagram’s discs. These cards can be played on each disc or in the overlapping area if the image hints at two of the words. There’s a cooperative mode as well but the fun, to me, is in the shouting, the wrong guesses, and the frustration on the part of both the giver and receiver as teams compete to be the first to guess all of the words.
For the more literal minded, Word Heist (Gamewright) is a spelling game with a clever twist. Here, each player is tasked with coming up with a word using a common array of letters, then putting a marker on some of the letters used. Placing more markers can earn you a higher score, but also increases the risk of other players guessing your word, so risk/reward is a big factor here.
If you want one that can fit in your jacket pocket, Scout (Oink Games) fits the bill. It pretends to be about a circus collecting entertainers but that layered-on theme really has nothing to do with game play. It’s little more than a deck of cards. When collected, you can use the value on either side, but once it’s in your hand, they can’t be rearranged. Sets and runs make for more powerful plays, timing of when to play what is important, and, admit it, you’re probably tired of Uno and could use something new.
When I think about kites, I don’t think frantic, but that’s the tone of Kites: Time to Fly (Floodgate Games). Six sand timers take over the middle of the table and there’s a deck of color-coded cards to get rid of. When you play one, however, you also have to flip a matching colored timer. The pace is quick and timers running out is how you lose the game. Since it’s a co-op, though, you can always blame your fellow players when the team fails.
Rather compete than cooperate? Try Gimme That! (Dolphin Hat Games). Each player is given a “spud sheet” with 100 potato spaces. The starting player gets a pencil and quickly writes progressive numbers on those spuds while the others take turns rolling the specialized dice. Some die faces are silly, making non-writing players high five, fist bump, or otherwise distract. But roll the “left” face and the players have to pass their sheets to the left, making the pencil-wielder work on their newly acquired sheet. Roll the pencil and it gets passed, sparking its new holder to get to work numbering. It’s from the makers of Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza, which should give you a hint of how silly—and fun—Gimme That! can be.
In the quick-to-learn-but-with-some-strategy category, a solid newcomer is Land vs. Sea (Good Games). In a two- or four-player game, each side takes turns adding to a tile in an effort to complete either a land mass or an enclosed sea area. Larger areas are more difficult to complete, but smaller areas score less. With three players, a cartographer adds an interesting wrinkle, earning points for trade routes on both land and sea.
I’ll admit that I almost bypassed Dungeon, Dice & Danger (Ravensburger), a title that seemed to scream “been there, done that” or, rather, “already killed the dragon, already grabbed the treasure.” But I’ve been compulsively surprised by this one, both in single-player and competitive mode. Each map depicts a labyrinthian dungeon with a number at each step. You roll dice, pair them up, and fill in a step with each sum as you progress in search of treasures and creatures. Hit a dice combo that isn’t a next-step on your path, you lose a life point (if playing singly) or points (if playing competitively). I actually want to play again right now, but I’m on deadline …
Whenever you think the little ones in your life are ready, there’s plenty of good new games that are likely to push Candyland and Chutes and Ladders to the back of the closet.
For earlier starters, GoPop! Presto (FoxMind) takes a plastic bubbly fidget popper and turns it into a lightly competitive race where only one finger on one hand can be used to get your bubble grid to match the pattern on a card. Bonus: If your kid gets bored with the game, the Bubblo squishy figure makes for a cute toy.
In Flotsam Float (Haba), players balance sea stuff onto a raft parked on an island. That might be tricky enough, but then they have to lift and move the raft and all it carries to another island. There, another item is added and so on until everything inevitably falls overboard. It’s recommended for ages 6 and above (but did I hear someone say “grown-up drinking game”?).
Of course, games with familiar titles from other media can be immediate attention-getters. In addition to the expected Marvel, DC, and Star Wars spin-offs, this year’s Gen Con included unexpected intellectual properties.
Alas, The Great British Baking Show Game fell a little flat for me and one based on the 1979 action flick The Warriors proved enjoyable and thematically solid but a bit too easy for a game focused on street-fighting survival. But I was fascinated by how the design team at the Prospero Hall game studio managed to turn the Alfred Hitchcock chestnut Rear Window (Funko Games) into a playable deduction game. Cool twist: There may or may not be a murderer—only the director knows for sure until the big reveal at the end.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: Light Years from Home Game (Funko Games) may be a few decades late to the market, but I’ll take it. Here, players bike around the board to collect items to assemble the device needed to phone home. Picking up the wandering alien or linking with your friends’ bikes help speed things along but also increase your risk. Of course, you can try to find a ramp and leap over those police cars …
While time didn’t allow for me to sample many of the epic games in release (there’s only so many three-hour slots in the day), I did manage to find and play some terrific longer games likely to appeal more to experienced gamers.
Court of Miracles (Lucky Duck Games) has an intriguing mix of worker placement and secret bidding as players try to fight and take control of areas to earn renown in 16th-century Paris. As a two-player game, it’s just fair. But it comes to life with four competitive players vying for control and cashing in on the moves of others. In Founders of Teotihuacan (Board & Dice), success is achieved by finding a balance between accumulating resources and strategically building a pre-Columbian city that includes a central pyramid. Making it challenging is the rule that you can only build in areas that can be seen by your architect token, who moves around your board. And there’s one-upmanship to the purchasing, which allows you to piggyback on the moves of others to maximize what you can buy.
Prefer a theme that resonates today? The Spill (Smirk & Dagger) features an oil derrick at its center. As the title makes clear, there’s been an accident and the cooperative job of the players is to mitigate the environmental damage. The derrick acts as a dice tower, with the dropped dice emerging in different quadrants to reveal spills. On your turn, you have to make tough choices to rescue the maximum number of sea creatures. The theme may be serious but that only increases the pleasure when successful (at least, I think so—I have yet to be successful. But I’ve come close.)
And some favorites from previous years have gotten expansions and new versions. The haphazardly fun Galaxy Trucker received a boost with Galaxy Trucker: Keep on Trucking. Lost Ruins of Arnak: Expedition Leaders (both from CGE Games) adds some strategic complexity to its base game. The Isle of Cats: Explore & Draw (City of Games) offers a dry-erase variation to its breakout original. And Smash Up: Disney Edition (The Op) lets players mix in characters from Frozen, Mulan, and others into previous sets of zombies, vampires, and many more.
Sometimes the game itself may not be great, but the components are outstanding. I got a kick out of the mailbox stamper used in The Great American Mail Race (which, now that I think about it, sounds a bit sexist if you just say it instead of reading it). And I was very impressed with the “dice” in BigFoot Roll & Smash, which are built-to-scale versions of the tires on the original monster truck—which made an appearance at the con.
Finally, a marketing shoutout to the folks at eBay who gave away, for free, 5,000 copies of their Gen Con exclusive game Ebay: Buy It Now.
Side note: I just checked. At the moment, four copies are available for sale on eBay.
Now, who wants to play a game?