When I first started going to Gen Con, Wizards of the Coast owned the world. Magic: the Gathering was at the peak of the frenzy. They put their mark on the convention floor with a castle 20 feet high made out of the finest fiberglass-encrusted foam. Acres of tables housed a legion of demonstrators. Kids lined up to play simplified magic with starter decks against tired-looking yet enthusiastic young adults who had traded their time for a plane ticket and a hotel room. It was the biggest thing ever.
The next year, Wizkids stepped into the limelight. Mageknight was an unstoppable force that was destined (so it was said) to change the face of gaming forever. It was the biggest thing ever.
Then, Upper Deck decided to spread it's wings on the back of Yu-gi-oh. They had a massive, 2 story, largely empty booth. They had no idea what they were doing. But they had a tiger by the tail and they were going to spend the money to prove it. It was the biggest thing ever.
This year? We played games. A lot of games.
The Next E3? Not yet certainly.
There was no "biggest thing ever." As I walked around with folks, demoing this, laughing at that, the most often heard refrain was "There's no big story this year." Hallelujah, gamers win. While there may not have been a "big thing", nearly every major game company, and a lot of little ones, had solid stuff. While not all of it suits my tastes (see below) it's inarguable that the industry remains strong, innovative and motivated.
In many ways, it felt like a transitional year. There was much talk about Gen Con's announced expansion next year, and the increased presence of the mainstream video game companies. Some of this was in evidence already: Blizzard had a substantial presence with World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade. The various Dungeons and Dragons games were well represented. Pirates of the Burning Sea was even running demos. A separate events track ran dedicated to videogaming: a 30-40 person LAN was running tournaments all weekend long, and you could purchase an add-on badge that gave you access to a video game lounge with all the latest arcade and console games, even some old ones. Stand up Space Invaders anyone?
But there remain huge gaps in the e-Love. Most of the biggies were absent: no Microsoft, no Sony, no Nintendo or EA or Take2. This year it was no surprise, but if it's the same next year, than there will be no doubt that Gen Con remains a niche convention, only served by the crossover RPG game titles.
Beyond the video game issues, there was another interesting phenomenon: more, smaller booths. While the square footage dedicated to booths was perhaps a little larger there was no wasted space. Many of the major vendors (Mayfair, Fantasy Flight, Chessex, Privateer) seemed to have smaller footprints but no less stuff, no fewer demo areas. If anything, there seemed to be a higher concentration of good, quality products, and useful, entertaining demos. In past years, the floor has been crammed with, well, crap: Endless rows of poorly written and produced D20 role playing supplements; ridiculous "I made this game in the basement and rented a 10 by 10 so I could get rich" experiments.
I left feeling like I'd missed hundreds of opportunities to try new things. For every game I went back to the room raving about, my friends had two more that I hadn't even heard of yet. My modus operandi at Gen Con tends to the long-but-intensive treatment. I'll spend an hour or four feasting on a game I really like if it means I can chat up the designer, and thus I will miss 10 other games I might have tasted.
Rabbit's "Year of Minis" plot foiled.
My goal every year is to play new stuff. I don't have a local game store, so my trip to Gen Con is my demo-and-shopping expedition. My intent this year was to make this my "Year of Minis." I love painting and playing with minis, but have given up on Games Workshop for the most part (due both to lack of players and high prices). I wanted to come away with a tactical miniatures game I could paint and own both sides of. I ended up not buying a single thing.
Warmachine and Hordes from Privateer Press are nearly identical, Warmachine being steampunk based and with a multi-year history, Hordes being both brand new and more classic magical/fantasy themed. While I love many of the sculpts, I found the game play to be a little too straightforward and boring.
Rackham makes several games: Confrontation, Hybrid, Cadwallon, and Ragnarok, all sharing similar figures and rules. I'm always intrigued, and just like last year, I came away thinking their stuff was beautiful, phenomenally expensive, rules heavy, and tweaky.
Warlord is the system from Reaper, a maker of great minis. I spent some time reading rules, asking questions, pondering options, but it was at this point that I decided that what I really want is a generic ruleset for using all the minis I already have, on top of letting me buy cool new ones. There's nothing wrong with Warlord, per se, it was just the tipping point of my quest.
Rezolution from Aberrant Games was the only new (to me) minis system that really caught my eye. It's a combination scifi/dystopia/anime game that has really unique sculpts, and a combat system that's both simple and interesting. There's nothing truly unique or innovative in it, it just gets things right, and includes just enough interesting objective-based ideas that you can imagine lots of scenarios more involved than "go kill them badguys." I played some with the quick start rules and came this close to buying their starter kit. The only thing that kept my credit card in-pocket was that the one set of sculpts that interested me most (the "Dravani", a kind of vampire alien thingy) was out of stock. I'll keep watching this one.
The strange alure of the abstract.
So, having completely failed on the "Year of Minis," I resigned myself to checking out all of the german-style boardgames and other non-collectible entrants into the field. What I ended up buying most of was abstract games -- a genre I have previously had almost no interest in.
My most interesting discovery has been around forever, I've just always avoided it. Self-described hippie game company Looney Labs has produced a set of game pieces called IceHouse for 20 years. They're just little stackable plastic pyramids in different colors. I've seen them forever taking up little back-wall booths at conventions, inevitably staffed by freaky looking hippies in lab coats. I never once felt the urge to go talk to them. The games being played with these little pyramids always seemed so abstract and complex as to not be fun, and frankly, the whole thing reeked of "hey I made this in my basement."
This year, however, they changed how they marketed the game. They boiled down the product into a single, 9 dollar stack of pyramids and one very simple game (Treehouse). It's extremely easy to teach and demos wonderfully. I actually stopped to play this year, and half an hour later, after a great series of demos and some intelligent conversation with Kristin Looney, I bought one of every single thing they had on offer. 6 tubes of different colored pyramids, some special dice, some cards, a 5x5 handmade plastic board, and a book of a dozen really, really good games you can play with it all. I encourage anyone with even a passing interest in games to at least spend 20 minutes on their website.
Ingenious, another abstract game, is a Reiner Knizia game published by Fantasy Flight. It was an instant hit with my demo-team, and I bought it after one play. It's deceptively simple - just grab and place tiles. No fancy rules: easier to pick up and play than Scrabble. But it's both challenging as a puzzle and socially interesting as a "screw your neighbor" experience. The bits are well made and highly fondleable.
Also from Reiner (easily the industry's most famous and prolific designer) at the Fantasy Flight booth was Blue Moon City, the followup to a card game I bought for the art yet despise as a game, Blue Moon. It's exactly the kind of game Reiner is most criticized for: math with graphics. Where Ingenious is abstract and proud of it, Blue Moon City tries to wedge a theme into what is a fairly predictable collection of somewhat interesting game mechanics. Well, interesting for someone, just not for me.
Fantasy Flight also had a slew of big, heavily promoted games on the shelf this year: the World of Warcraft game (very long, very slow, very boring, very expensive), Warrior Knights (ditto), Fury of Dracula (a reworked reprint of an old search-and-destroy classic), but none of them particularly great. They had expansions out for the wonderful but very niche-oriented Arkham Horror, which I would have bought in a heartbeat if my copy of Arkham hadn't sat on a shelf for a year due to lack of interested counter-parties.
But the game I was most excited to see from Fantasy Flight wasn't even available for sale: Marvel Heroes. I did get a chance to get a round in at what was a perpetually-crowded single demo they had running, and I can't wait to buy it. The game features solid art and bits, and a great story-driven mechanic that has each player being both hero and villain. I wish I had experienced more of the game, but I could tell just from my brief time at the table that it was going to be a hit with my gaming group.
Mayfair, the company best known for the endlessly expanding Settlers of Catan franchise, had its usual list of new games to complement whatever the latest version of Settlers is (I think maybe it was Settlers of Brooklyn: Bagel Domination), but to be honest, there wasn't a single game there that attracted enough attention for me to sit down and demo it. They did have a lot going on, I just missed most of it. My friends got sucked into a game of Bison, and declared it a horrible waste of a precious Gen Con hour. This perhaps spoiled my enthusiasm.
Rio Grande is always worth checking out. This year's hit, for me, was the deceptively simple, and essentially abstract Times Square, a cute little two player card game (yet another by Reiner Knizia) that at first seems incredibly random but has far more going on under the surface. I taught people to play it all weekend, it never took more than 2 minutes, and nobody ever played just one game.
Sharing space with Rio Grande this year was Out of the Box, perhaps my favorite game company, mostly because I'm a parent. They make nothing but family friendly games, including the classic Apples to Apples party game. Every year, my friend Chris and I spend two hours with the designers going over their new games. Every year, we buy almost all of them. This year, three games were must-buys: the dexterity based Wallamoppi, the card-game Pepper, and the simple Connect4 variant Mix Up. The best game from them I didn't buy is aBRIDGEd, a bridge variant that's actually fun and teachable to kids, but I truly hate bridge, and even this couldn't engender a change of heart.
Please God, no more Magic
Given my penchant for addiction, I tried to avoid all of the collectible games with a burning hatred known only to the reformed. I did take a gander at Dreamblade, the latest crack being peddled by Wizards of the Coast. It's Magic with minis. Really. It's even less a minis game than D&D minis or Axis&Allies minis.
To be fair to the corporate megalith that is Hasbro/Wizards, the Heroscape crew was there, and as they have for the last two years, they blew the freakin' doors off. Heroscape is insanely great, for those of you who've missed it, and it's the single best gateway drug the hardcore gaming market has ever had. It's deceptively simple, easy to teach, has a big Lego factor, is available in the mass market, and is both cheap and non-collectible. Their booth was surrounded by loyal fanboys collecting the newest freebie -- "Sir Hawthorne" -- which of course ended up on eBay within hours. Fan organized Heroscape events were running nonstop all weekend long in the miniatures hall. This year Hasbro showed off their version of the promiscuous Marvel license, and a new wave of large, cool looking "flagbearers." It continues to amaze me that something so great, cheap, and non-collectible comes from the same juggernaut as Magic.
I did make a preliminary pass at the new World of Warcraft Trading Card Game and again, all I can really say is "yee ha, Magic with Tauren!" OK, that's not totally fair. It's slightly more interesting than that, with a solid Alliance vs. Horde storyline built in, and some interesting Hero/Weapon/Spell dynamics that make it not horrible. The art is very nice. They will sell a crapload of it. But as a game, hey it is what it is. The much pimped in-game tie-ins seem like they will be limited to the occasional hat or belt or non-useful adornment, which means they will be, like pets, pointless and much coveted.
I found the guys over at Eve much more interesting. I had a chance to both play the new collectible card game (Eve: The Second Genesis) and spend some quality time with the designers, and it's just different enough to be cool. The game feels more like expansion and exploration than "pound the other guy," and the pace is more deliberate and filled with static effects than most CCGs -- more Cosmic Encounters and less Yu-Gi-Oh. I won't buy any, I'll be honest about that, but if they make a non-collectible or a full-set version, I think I would.
The only final shoutout I'd like to make is for the team at NeverWinter Nights 2. To be honest, I haven't been all that excited about it. I'd seen some footage and sure, it's pretty, but I guess I'm just jaded. Just like every CCG starts to feel like Magic, every CRPG starts to seem like World of Warcraft. I played through about 10 minutes of demo content and was impressed, but not ebullient. It was a little buggy (hey, it's a demo), but the same old "click on floor, open text box, make a choice, fight a monster" thing just seemed so old at this point. But then I went around the OTHER side of the demo booth. Way in the back there was a nice little nerdy guy playing with a CAD program. Nobody was talking to him.
"Hey, whats that?" I asked.
"Oh, it's the toolkit."
My jaw dropped. This isn't a toolbox, its a god-machine for world-builders. A few minutes with my new nerdy friend left me feeling like you could use the NWN sandbox to build just about any RPG experience you could imagine. Kind of like Second Life but with graphics that don't suck and no bandwidth limitations. I'll be buying NWN2 when it comes out just because I'm a whore for anything based on D & D. But what I'm really looking forward to is the user-content that comes about about 4-6 months after release.
OK, that's it. I'm suffering from post-con-stress-dissorder, and unbelievably still had a job to come home to, so this is Rabbit, signing off.