GenCon was a huge success this year, for our community and for the event as a whole. We all had a blast at the Slap and Tickle, which was well attended again this year. It was fantastic to meet our fellow GWJr, many for the first time, and spend some time playing games together. More than anything it got us all very excited for Penguin Con coming in October.
To get back to the conference as a whole though, they had a stupendous 45th anniversary. In four days they sold more than 41,000 badges, with a total turnstile attendance of 134,775! That’s up 12% from the year before, and up 30% since 2010. It’s more than just the newer, bigger Indianapolis Convention Center that’s bringing people to the conference. I genuinely consider this to be a golden age for the hobby games industry.
The biggest change we all felt this year was the boom in Kickstarter games. It seemed that every booth had a QR code to scan, or a marketing slick to take away that lead you ultimately to their current project. What that meant was less focus on the big names, the anchor stores of the vendor floor, and more traffic to the little guys and the up-and-comers. Everywhere you turned there were great games to play or learn about. Erik "wordsmythe" Hanson, Allen "pyroman" Cook, and I did our best to track them down. In alphabetical order here are the games, new and old, which stood out to us this year.
Agents of SMERSH:
Charlie: I didn’t expect to see this game at GenCon, but the game resellers Cool Stuff Inc. brought the designer in and let him camp out at their booth. I crashed a play-through of his only copy, created for his Kickstarter media, and was very impressed. Every turn is a miniature Bond movie, and even though I was getting my butt kicked, I had a fantastic time playing. The game all revolves around an encyclopedic book of fiction, and your decisions as you enter each encounter make the difference in telling the tale.
Charlie: Z-Man games has another cooperative game to add to their library, this time a bit more firmly in the worker-placement genre than their hit Pandemic was. Players come together to harvest the resources of Atlantis, all towards the goal of creating a series of devices which, when combined, will keep the island from sinking into the sea. Individual sections along each of the various arms of the island fall into the drink as the game goes on, swamping your workers and ruining the resources they were trying to bring back.
Allen: Seconded. The constant battle against the rising tide and ultimate failure makes this much more interesting than standard worker placement. You’re placing workers, but the island is constantly sinking and you have to balance that with placing workers on the navy to fight back invaders. If you don’t fight back the invasion, you lose more land and have fewer options. Really refreshing take on the worker-placement genre.
It was hard to tell where the triple-A booths began and the indie booths ended at this year’s GenCon, and that’s a good thing. When the production values of the mom and pop shops is competing with the big names, it keeps everyone on their toes and raises the quality of games for the entire industry. I didn’t get a chance to run a demo, but the concept for this one is fantastic. It’s 1982 and the Mexican economy has collapsed. Go for a joy ride through the 80’s and rob Mexico blind. If your “heat” gets too high, you could run afoul of the Mexican police, but play your cards right and you’ll get rich and ride off into the sunset in your rusting El Camino.
Bears! (From Fireside Games, who do Castle Panic! as well):
Erik: All dice-rolling, and a fast moving game. Central dice come up as tents or bears. Roll your own and pull from the center to match shotguns to bears, running or sleeping to tents (re-roll your own dice if you like, it only costs you precious, precious time). When there is only one type of die left in the middle, play stops. If there are only tents left, then sleeper-tent matches are worth extra points. If there are only bears left, then the bears maul the tents and you lose points for trying to sleep through it. Fun, fast-paced game that carries the intensity of a game like Pit, but with a simpler strategy and ruleset, and only indirect interaction.
Charlie: Allen and I wandered past this game a few times during our tour of the floor. A Play-Dough-based miniatures game, you say? A game where you sculpt your creature, then work with the game master to develop some rules to represent its powers? Kids, flanked by their parents, moving little monsters around a 10’x10’ battlefield? Might have to buy a few tickets and give this a go next year just for the experience.
Allen : 7 Wonders, in spaaaaaaace! Seriously though, deck builder with interesting combat but still that euro-style group single-player dynamic. You start at the edge of the galaxy, conquering worlds with your armies. The worlds provide energy which you can use to purchase new units and armies. Once armies are used, they get placed back into your hand. Once you reach the core of the galaxy, you have to face down some heroes and epic planetary challenges, but the outcome can make or break your game. I had a great time when we played.
Charlie: Yet another Kickstarted game, this from the makers of Leviathans (a game that I swooned over last year and which was finally for sale on the floor this year), The Duke is an unassuming game with wooden tiles played over a traditional chess or checkers board. It’s subtle, very strong, and deserves more attention than I’m able to give it here. Download the rules here and get out your strongest patchJulian oils simmering for this one when it comes out.
Flames of War:
Charlie: I’ve burnished the brass buckles of many a Space Marine gorget in my day, but I’ve never once tried to paint a Flames of War miniature. Perhaps that’s because I have too much respect for WWII vets to put the wrong markings on a Sherman, or paint a bandolier poorly. Regardless, the miniatures on display at this year’s Flames of War tournament were phenomenal. And I turned over a rock and found a Vietnam set that I’d never known about. Pewter Hueys … I was speechless.
Erik: I think we’ve mentioned this in the past, maybe just on the podcast. These minis tempt me.
Games Workshop:Charlie: You know these people. They’re the ones with all the exorbitantly priced miniatures. But, gods, they’re beautiful. It’s hard to believe, but it was their very first time at GenCon. They brought the entire Black Library, and a bunch of great new 40k models to show off, including a close air support fighter and some disturbingly large Imperial Guard mechanized artillery pieces. They added some international flavor to the floor this year, and we’re looking forward to seeing them again in 2013. For the Emperor!
Memoir ’44 Equipment Pack:
Charlie: Did a little more research on this one after the con. Days of Wonder bills it as “the largest set of figures ever released for Memoir ’44” and I take them at their word. 4 minor WWII nations (French infantry, Finnish ski troops, Italian artillery, and Polish cavalry), 4 artillery types, 3 new tanks, snipers, and Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) to bring them all ashore. Add to that a bevy of new scenarios, and this is a great expansion for an already good wargame.
Mice and Mystics:
Charlie: The Redwall books meets Mouseguard roleplaying meets Castle Ravenloft. We talked a bit about it on the podcast, but suffice to say that this game has our attention. With an easy to learn system that builds in complexity and dynamic, beautifully illustrated tiles, this “cooperative storytelling” game could be a big hit. It’s available for pre-order right now at a steep discount.
Richard Garfield released this game in 1996, before his hit game Magic turned the tables on the hobby gaming world. Many people in the know consider this game to be his best, and perhaps one of the best collectible card games ever designed. This re-release has been shoehorned into Fantasy Flight’s Android universe, but it isn’t any worse for the wear. The game pits a “Runner” against the “Corporation” in a game of cat and mouse in a vaguely futuristic landscape of firewalls, code bases, and jacked-in cyber punks. Myself, an avowed CCG-hater, fell in love during my first demo on the floor. Too bad these sold out in the first few hours of the con or I’d have left with a copy for myself.
Outbreak: Undead (Hunters Books):
Erik: We talked about this on the podcast and are reaching out to the publishers to check it out. An online portal to your real world zombie preparedness planning. Stay tuned, zombie lovers. And please put your pants back on.
Roll To The South Pole (Rio Grande):
Erik: We covered this “Can’t stop exploring” game on the podcast. This game is definitely on my short list, despite its box art.
Shake And Take (Out Of The Box, who does the Pirates vs. Pirates / Ninja vs. Ninja series):
Erik: I’ve seen this game on the floor for quite a while, but I finally stopped and checked it out. Everyone gets what looks like a laminated placemat covered with little aliens in five shapes. The starting player takes a long dry-erase marker with a bulbous alien head on the back and rolls a custom d6 (five sides match five alien shapes, plus one wild-card side). The next player starts shaking another custom d6, trying to get the one alien head to come up, at which point the second player will grab the alien head of the marker and rip it from the current player’s hand to start their own turn. Before that alien head comes up on the die, the first player tries to circle as many aliens as possible that match the shape on their die (and can re-roll). Play is fast, and there’s no room for multitasking, even with a table full of players. Goal is to circle every alien on your mat.
Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery
Charlie: I’m very sad to have missed playing this game at the con, but we talked about it at length during the podcast. It sounds fantastic, but I don’t think the fact that the TV series has ended bodes well for it. Gladiatorial combat on a hexagonal grid is the focus here, while raising your own prestige in ancient Rome is the ultimate goal. The sand demands blood! And I demand a copy of this game. Just maybe next year when it’s on clearance. What can I say … I’m cheap and an opportunist.
Takenoko (Asmodee, who does Mr. Jack and Dixit):
It looks like a Catan board, only you’re trying to bring irrigation to appropriate tiles so that you can grow bamboo for your cute little panda figures. Pandas are picky eaters, so you need to grow the appropriate size and color of bamboo for your pandas. I didn’t get much time at it, but it seems to have a sort of “surprise, I just met my goals” sort of ending. I especially appreciated the art, which was in a cuter, pastel direction, rather than the more bombastic style of a lot of other games.
Charlie: This is the third year that World Works Games has brought this 1” gridded 3D building system to GenCon, but the first that it’s been presented well, in my opinion. Two years ago they had a shipment come back defective and were unwilling to sell it, last year their shipment came in such small quantities that they were unable to display it dramatically. But this year they hit a sweet spot and their diorama was very effective. The price point is a bit high, since each set is $50, and enough clips to be creative cost you extra, but drop $200 bones on this and get three stories more game space than with comparable Dwarven Forge kit.
Charlie: Scotch and Zombies aficionados take note. Flying Frog is going back to the well and pushing a direct expansion for Last Night on Earth. This time heroes, and zombies, level up between games. The system is compatible with all of their other LNoE-type games, so your carnies and Martians can get in on the fun to.
X-Wing Miniatures Game:
Charlie: This game didn’t sell quite as fast as Netrunner, but it was a close call. $40 gets you two TIEs and one X-Wing, all beautifully presented on clear plastic risers. That seems a bit high for three ships, and add to that the fact that each additional ship will be $15 and Fantasy Flight may have a problem in the long run with penetration. However, they did seem to sell well on the floor. There are a lot of options for expansion, such as Y-Wings and Vader’s TIE, as well as promises of SLAV I and the Millennium Falcon soon to ship. It’s a great system, fun to play, and the presentation on the conference floor was complete with a Death Star trench run in all its glory.
Charlie: This was a Kickstarted game that hit its goal some time ago. It was one of the first times it’s been for sale, and the price point took many people by surprise. A solid game, with great art assets and tons of minis in the box, but at $90 it felt a bit high. There was lots of traffic at the booth, but the team seemed to leave the conference with more units than they wanted to. Clever features included a game board where the individual spaces were only apparent if you knew to look for them, as they tended to follow the natural breaks in the terrain/art rather than an imposed grid. Zombies responded to noise and moved toward the player, sometimes in massive hoards. Players worked together to gather food and other resources and get off the map alive.