The Games of Gen Con, 2016: Part One

GEN CON, August 4-7 at the Indiana Convention Center
by David C. Obenour & Adam Talicska
Midwestern modesty makes it hard to acknowledge, but there’s no denying that Gen Con is one of the largest gaming events in the world. And while nerd culture going mainstream has derailed other conventions into watered-down celebrations of all things pop culture, Gen Con has remained dedicated. That’s not to say there aren’t things to do that aren’t gaming related (including a full section of the guide book somewhat humorously titled SPouse Activities or “SPA”) but if gaming’s what you’ll want, well then gaming’s what you’ll get! And since you’ve asked so nicely for gaming here is our first batch of highlights from 2016.
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Sagrada (Floodgate Games)
Dave: Sagrada is a great example of masterfully matching a game’s components with its theme. In this puzzle-styled game, players fill the panes of a stained glass grid with different beautifully colored translucent dice. The grid patterns are limited by varying levels of difficulty that determine where dice can be placed and how many resources the player has available at the game’s start. Dice can’t border other dice of the same color or same number and certain patterns score bonus points at the end of the game. It’s a little like a Sudoku, but arguably way more fun. The Kickstarter comes in September.
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Mechana Rising (Dimension Games)
Dave: If you look back through all of the gaming conventions we’ve covered, you can tell I’m not much of a collectible card game guy. It seems most walk-throughs start off with, “You know Magic, right?” and then they go into how they’ve supposedly perfected one of the best selling games of the last two decades (which I’m not that big of a fan of either). All of which makes it pretty surprising that I really enjoyed Mechana Rising! A starter set providing four factions gives you a number of different ways to play this sci-fi battle. Only the human and mutant decks were available to try at Gen Con, but the interesting mechanics of humans starting out heavily equipped while the mutant slowly added their mutations worked well in the game and thematically. Also of note is the heavily stylized work of illustrator Dashiell Kirk who did an amazing job with the oversized playing cards.
Adam: I will second Dave’s comments about the art.  It was really refreshing to see such a different style of artwork in a game.  Too many times games fall into the same high fantasy, hard sci-fi, or european resource-management art styles.
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Let Them Eat Cake (Osprey Games)
Dave: Having been introduced to Osprey Games just this year with the great fantasy miniature ruleset of Frostgrave and then releasing Kris and my favorite game of Origins with Escape From the Aliens in Outerspace, this English publisher seems to be able to do no wrong in my book. Unfortunately I didn’t get to play Let Them Eat Cake, but Adam did so I’ll let him take this one.
Adam: Let Them Eat Cake is a really fun multiplayer game in which each player is a member of the Revolutionary Committee.  Gameplay consists of electing your fellow players to positions of authority, forming alliances to gather power, all the while deciding on how best to betray said alliances and send your opponents pawns to the guillotine in order to amass the greatest amount of cake!  Through a simple system of colored cards to represent votes it allows what appears to be a fun, silly game about the Revolution to become surprisingly political.  As Dave said, Osprey continues to be a game developer produces high quality games that deserve greater recognition.
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Karuba (HABA)
Dave: A nominee for this year’s Spiele des Jahres, Karuba is a smart and accessible tile-placement game from all ages designer HABA. In it, players lay path tiles on the grid of a jungle island to lead their explorers from their beached ships to the hidden temples. Tiles are drawn by a caller and each player arranges the same tile on their individual map or uses it to move their explorer along the trail. The concept is similar to what Days of Wonder went for with Relic Runners but streamlined. This is the sort of easy to explain and highly replayable game that should sell as well at Target as your FLGS.
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The Great Dinosaur Rush (APE Games)
Dave: A fun and unique concept sure can go a long way in making a board game. And what’s more fun then getting to play as the truly ruthless paleontologists of the Great Dinosaur Rush of the mid to late 1800’s? Playing as the too ridiculous to be made up historical figures of the era, players collect different dinosaur bones (leg, head, rib, exotic and more) to assemble in whatever fashion gets them the most notoriety. Steal bones from each other, sabotage work sites and influence public opinion, learning sure can be fun when you don’t realize you’re doing it!
Adam: I loved the aspect of making up your own ridiculous assemblage of dino bones into the most shocking configurations.  Behold!  The Seven-Necked Frumposaur!
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Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle (USAopoly)
Dave: Hogwarts Battle was another undeniably hot game at Gen Con, selling out within the first hour of each day. It’s hard to tell whether this response is the doing to a wildly popular series made even more popular with a recent book release or if the game itself is to credit. As playtests were hard to come by and most copies seemed to be sold before anyone would have had a chance to get one anyway, it seems to be the former but that doesn’t discount the latter. A 2-4 player cooperative deck-building game, players take on the role of Harry, Hermoine, Ron and Neville as they defend Hogwarts against you-know-who. Licensed products are sometimes a red flag, but USAopoly has been on a roll these last few years so it will be interesting to find out more.
Adam: I am a little concerned about the replay value of the game due to the idea that every game takes place during a specific year of Harry’s education at Hogwarts. Before each game you open up a specific pack of cards corresponding to that year and add them to your collection.  Unfortunately we were unable to get a look at the cards, but I am hoping that a simple mechanic of marking the cards with the years that they come from would allow players to sort them out and play any specific year.
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Eschaton (Archon Games)
Dave: Archon, formerly Travesty Games, makes some beautifully evil looking games. We first encountered them at last year’s Gen Con with Deathfear and though I’d surprise past me by saying it, they’ve topped themselves with Eschaton. In this deck-building meet dudes on a map game, players take on the role of a cult leader fighting for the dark one’s admiration in the dying days of civilization. Zealots march across the map, slaughter each other and then rise up with renewed fervor. An ever-building deck of cultists, monsters and spells dictate turns like a game of Dominion where you get to orchestrate the destruction implied from the flavor text. Selling out of the limited number of handmade copies made available ahead of the Kickstarter’s completion, Eschaton was my game of the convention. You should go back this right now.
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Meow (Asmadi Games)
Dave: Asmadi may have perfected the light-hearted in between games game with We Didn’t Playtest This at All. It’s fast-paced, silly, but also surprisingly engaging. These quick type of games seem to be their market and Meow plays to that. For this particular card game, you draw from a deck of cards that are mostly illustrations of cats that say Meow, but some that aren’t cats that say Not Meow. Either way, after you draw a card, you say “Meow” and play continues. That is unless someone accuses you of having a Not Meow card. At that point you show all of your cards – if any are Not Meows, you’re out, but if none are Not Meows, they’re out. That’s all there is to it! It’s definitely fun for a little bit and that’s all it’s really meant to be.
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You Gotta be Kitten Me! (Stone Blade Entertainment)
Dave: Continuing the theme of light-hearted and fast-paced card games about cats – enter, Stone Blade Entertainment’s You Gotta Be Kitten Me! I’m not as familiar with their back-catalogue of games but this definitely occupies shelf-space next to Meow. Slightly more complicated, each card has an illustration of some cute animal(s) wearing or not wearing different colored hats, glasses and/or bow ties. On your turn you say an ever-increasing number of accessories or a color. Example “five bowties”, then “seven red”, and “eight hats.” Whenever a player doesn’t believe the number, they exclaim, “You gotta be kitten me!” and cards are revealed to show whether they were right or not. Hands are then redealt with whoever was wrong drawing one less card. Whoever last has cards in their hand wins. Not a bad little game, but emphasis is on little game.
Adam: A different take on the bluffing game Liars Dice,You Gotta Be Kitten Me! is pretty easy to pick up and play, but not very deep in the strategy department.  The cutesy black and white pictures of puppies and kittens bedecked in bowler hats or glasses can definitely bring the “d’awwwwwww,” factor though.
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Ice Cool (Brain Games)
Dave: This may win Gen Con for most outside of the box board game. An award that’s made a little confusing as Ice Cool comes in a box that’s filled with other boxes that make up the playing board. Does that make this more of an inside of the box game? Nevermind, let’s just talk about it already! You’re a rascally penguin that’s trying to skip out of class (Ice Cool, High School – get it?) and scarf down some fish. To do this you’ll flick your penguin from room to room, all of while avoiding the hall monitor. It’s similar to the poison rules for croquet but on a tabletop! Lots of people were talking about this game and they were right to be.
Adam: So many times at the con I observed people playing this game and invariably a stranger would stop and ask questions about it.  It has such a unique look with it’s multiple box rooms it really catches your attention.
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Sea Fall (Plaid Hat Games)
Dave: Sea Fall wins the gamer rage award as copies of the highly-sought after Legacy game were snatched up by VIGs on Wednesday before the exhibitor hall even opened to joe schmoe attendees. I even heard a few slighted vendors grumbling about how they denied sales in favor of those lucky VIGs. Marketing strategy and the fairness of this will probably be hotly debated on forums, but as for the game itself all I can say is that Sea Fall does look awesome. Designed by Rob Daviau of the popular Risk and Pandemic adaptations, this is his first wholly self-designed game for the multiple play sessions Legacy format. I didn’t get in a playtest as those lists filled up each morning in a matter of minutes, but I did lean over shoulders and tables and drooled heavily. (sorry)
Adam: I too like many missed out on a playtest of this game.  Having encountered strong word of mouth about it, I was disappointed that there was not nearly enough copies to meet even a fraction of the fervent demand.  I was really intrigued by the system of discovering and developing of islands and how choices in each game can influence how following games are played.  Hopefully Plaid Hat is hard at work churning out more copies to get in the hands of these rabid fans.
We’ll be back next week with part two of our Gen Con review, featuring Scythe, Grimslingers, Rattlebones, Dragoon, Unfair, GKR: Heavy Hitters, Adventureland, Saloon Tycoon, Vikings on Board, Trash Art, Save the Cupcake!, and Ticket to Ride: Rails and Sails.