Photo by Alex Chambers
Each summer, for more than a decade, I’ve logged miles in the Gen Con dealer hall in search of the latest and possibly greatest in board games. (See last year’s picks here.) This year, though, the largest gathering of dice tossers, card swappers, and meeple movers has migrated from downtown Indy to online, leaving the 60,000 or so folks like me without our annual gaming exhaust-a-thon.But since this is a world built on imagination—whether you are pretending to be a Monopoly real estate tycoon or a Magic: The Gathering mage—what do you say we pretend Gen Con happened anyway? After all, with or without the convention, literally thousands of games are released each year. And 2020 is no exception.Besides, you’re home and that game collection of yours could use some refreshing.So here we are at Imaginary Gen Con. Where to start?Perhaps with the familiar.
Like movies, game designers aim to please established fans. And so breakout crowd-pleasers of the past decade or two, including Ticket to Ride, Catan, and Dominion, have spawned not just fans but also a seemingly endless series of spin-offs and expansions (this year’s crop includes Ticket to Ride: Amsterdam, Catan: Legend of the Conquerors, and Dominion: Menagerie). Did you groove on the recent hit Gloomhaven? Well, now there’s Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion. Tickled by Exploding Kittens? Now you’ve got Barking Kittens. And if you picked up the DC or Golden Girls edition of the FunkoVerse Strategy Game, you can now have Batman and Blanche compete against Doc Brown and other Back to the Future characters.
While cosplayers in Middle Earth-wear earn more attention, Gen Con also provides plenty of fun for word nerds. Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings is the co-creator of Half Truth, one of a recent crop of trivia games where you don’t have to have the most arcane knowledge to win. Here, a category is announced (i.e. states with no national parks) and six options are given but only three are correct. The challenge comes not just from guessing, but deciding how much to push your luck. You’ll score big if you guess all three; however, if you miss one, you don’t get any points. Speed is of the essence playing Crossed Words from Indie Boards & Cards. Here, categories are assigned to each column and row of a nine-square grid. Your job is to quickly come up with things that match each intersection (say, Places in the USA and Biblical Names). Don’t be too obvious, though, because if your answer matches that of another player, neither of you scores.
Movie-focused games have gotten an upgrade in recent years, providing much savvier game play that the formulaic roll-the-dice-and-move-around-the-board cheapies of yesteryear. While the release date of her next feature film is up in the air (in an invisible plane, of course), you can make due with Wonder Woman: Challenge of the Amazons, a cooperative game from Ravensburger where the players defend their island against an array of foes. Evil Dead 2 from Jasco Games puts players in that notorious cabin in the woods in search of pages to the Necronomicon that will vanquish the evil forces. But while the game is cooperative at first, players can turn to the dark side, where they actively work against the group to aid the baddies.
It’s not just movies that provide tie-ins. Jungle Cruise, a Disney World ride, has been turned into a fun tabletop game from Ravensburger in which boats set out on the perilous title journey and attempt to safely get passengers and cargo to the end point. Surprisingly, when I played, I found myself making some very un-Disney-like decisions, such as kicking passengers off my boat in favor of more valuable goods. And in what may be the strangest bit of intellectual-property-turned-tabletop-game this year, the aforementioned Funko Games is hoping to generate some heat with Funkoverse’s Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts Card Game.
Not every game has such an obvious marketing hook, though. And part of the fun at Gen Con is discovering not just new games but also new ways of playing. Thinkfun’s Mystic Market, for instance, has a buy-low/sell-high structure familiar to anyone who has played a stock market game (or the actual stock market). But here, prices are determined by a gravitationally shifting row of colorful powder-filled jars. A personal favorite, North Star Games’ The Taverns of Tiefenthal, tests your decision-making by trying to please as many of your bar’s customers as you can while managing your inventory and expanding your operation. Aldarac’s Santa Monica offers a unique approach to real estate games in which both beach and beachfront property are of value—and fortunes can change with the placement of VIPs and tourists. The same publisher offers Mariposas, with players migrating butterflies to far-flung locations while ensuring future generations make it back home. And for originality, it’s hard to beat Hues and Cues from Usaopoly (aka The Op), featuring more color shades on the board than the paint department at Lowes, and players use one- or two-word clues to get others to accurately guess a particular shade. Think it’s easy? What word would you use to get someone to guess this color?
Gen Con traditionally offers plenty for young padawans, as well. This year may have found them vying for success against their elders at Cupcake Academy, a cup-stacking brain-bender of a game. Or Fish Club, a Connect Four variant with irregularly shaped fish and an uneven surface making for unexpected trajectories. Both are from Blue Orange Games.
Of course, no actual Gen Con means no mega-boost to the local economy. So if any of these titles spark you to purchase, consider buying them from your friendly local game store, such as Family Time Games, The Game Preserve, and Saltire Games.
See you next year at Gen Con 2021. I hope.