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Derek’s Gen Con 2013 Recap

genconGen Con 2013 is over, and it may have been the best one yet. Let’s just dive right in, starting with some noteworthy items about the con in general, and then I’ll talk about THE GAMES!

 

-This was my first year attending Trade Day. There was some really interesting stuff for educators (and some terrible presentations as well, unfortunately), from elementary school all the way through university level. I hope to present at Trade Day next year after doing my Social Board Games course in the spring. In the evening, there were some really cool demos, and the coolest part was that AEG gave free copies of Trains to educators and librarians!

 

-Asmodee was the belle of the ball. In the main hall, they were right in the center, and they took advantage of it. Both Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala were there signing and demoing games, and most importantly, their demoers were fantastic. They were friendly, funny, and completely clear and helpful with the rules. This year more than any other, I got stuck with demo people at other booths who flat out did not know how to play the games they were demoing, which is inexcusable. Having some of the best games of the con at the Asmodee booth didn’t hurt either.

 

-I also got to do two North Star Games events, the Wits & Wagers game show and a Clubs tournament. The game show was hilarious and fun (plus, our team won). The Clubs tournament was interesting because I played with a lot of older folk who did not seem like they were really there for the roleplaying or costumes or authors – they were just card sharks who pounced on the tag line, “If you like Hearts & Spades, you’ll love Clubs!”. The prizes for both events were super generous as well. Props to Luke Warren at NSG for heading up some great events.

On the Gen Con FAQ, this is listed:

Q: Does your show host any classic games such as scrabble, pinochle, bridge, etc.?

Our show does not typically host these types of games; however, we would love to incorporate them into the show. If you are interested in hosting one of these classic games or know of someone who is, please have them contact our events team at events(at)gencon.com.

That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t have to be true at all. Gen Con should be for everyone. This event, and the USAopoly & Winning Moves booths, all showed that this is false anyway. Get on it, Gen Con!

 

-Another change this year was that most demos I played were just for a few turns or half of the game, not the full game, which was better for some games than others. However, it meant I was actually able to sit down and play the demos I wanted, with maybe one or two exceptions. Saturday seemed less crowded than usual as well (Sunday was crazy), so that helped. Keep this in mind when I discuss the games below – several of these did not get a full play.

 

Other than those tidbits, I also played some Magic, but most importantly, I demoed about forty new (to me, at least) board games! I’m going to do this “sandwich style” and tell you about five good games, five disappointing games, and then five GREAT games. Here we go!

 

The Good:

 

The Phantom Society. This game was published by Funforge in Europe, but IELLO is publishing it here. The rules made it sound much more complicated than it is. Basically, in a four-player game there are two teams of two, ghosts and ghost hunters busters. After players take turns laying down the board, the ghosts are hidden under the board and the ghosts are trying to do $45,000 worth of damage to the mansion before the busters find them. It was a very simple, clever, 20-minute game, overproduced and sold for $40 MSRP in classic IELLO fashion. (Not that I’m complaining. Games should be beautiful!)

 

TokaidoNo, this game is not new. I finally had a chance to sit down and play it, and I was surprised by how much fun the game was despite having one of the simplest concepts ever. I think my in-laws would really enjoy it. There is some room for strategy despite having nearly zero interaction. The end of the game feels like everyone is just like “Look at all this neat stuff I found!” and then you decide which pile of stuff is worth more points. And for gamers who don’t like confrontation, that’s a pretty ringing endorsement, I think. It’s also an absolutely gorgeous game – pictures do not do it justice. Excited to see what the upcoming expansion adds.

 

photo (4)SpyriumNewb alert: I have not played Caylus. Regardless, this was an extremely good, classic Eurogame on its own, without any reference to William Attia’s prior work. It had a very interesting system where you essentially could place workers that would increase the cost of the worker actions of other players, but they could have their workers take money instead of doing an action, and it would be more money if lots of action-taxing workers were nearby. On top of that was a pretty classical system of turning money into resources (Spyrium) and then turning the resources into VPs. The only real gripe I had with the game is that I just do not like Ystari’s artwork and graphic design. If this had been made by a company like GameWorks or Matagot, I would have probably bought it at the con. As it is, I may still buy it anyway, because it is so cheap and the gameplay was so good.

 

photo (2)Lewis & ClarkHidden away outside the exhibit hall, Ludonaute (whose games are being distributed by Game Salute) was demoing a few games, including this one. This is probably the most “Euro” and most complex game I played at the con. This time, when you cashed in your resources, instead of gaining VPs, you advanced along the river towards Fort Clatsope (the first one there wins). The card play in the game used some very strange, but very clever mechanisms, and it felt like deckbuilding except that everything was in your hand or on the table, and you could eventually spend a turn to recover your hand. I guess you could call it “handbuilding”? Either way, a really fun game with a gorgeous, gorgeous design (Vincent Dutrait knows his stuff). Looking forward to this one for sure.

 

Phantom of the OperaBruno Cathala came to the show to demo this game at the Asmodee booth, which was released there for the first time in the States. This game is a further development of the Mr. Jack system – this was essentially an upgrade of Mr. Jack Pocket to a full board game. It is by far the most beautiful of the four games, and the most fun as well. I like the theme quite a bit better, and the game fixes problems you didn’t even see as problems in the original games. A clever new movement mechanism eliminates the need for hexes on that beautiful board, and the end-game condition is now player-controlled instead of a fixed eight rounds, allowing for more strategy. An improvement in every way. If you like any of the Mr. Jack games, or even if you didn’t, you should try this one.

 

The Disappointing:

 

Battlelore Second EditionI’m an owner and lover of the original BattleLore, although I do kind of hate the flags. Fantasy Flight has moved the game to the world of Descent and Runebound, improved aspects of the gameplay and most importantly, ruined all compatibility with any previous expansions (including their own). I don’t especially like the new setting, although I think painting the sides red/blue is better than the flag system. Another annoyance is that I was told the game came with one set of cards (each unit has its own card), which makes it a pain to see and remember the abilities of the opposing army. I also think the incompatibility of old expansions is pretty douchey. Altogether I’m just frustrated by this release.

 

Dungeon Roll. I only checked this game out because of the bad press it got from other big time reviewers, which made me curious. I should have just trusted them, as they were spot on. Virtually no decisions to be made in this game, even if the concept is great. Someone should take the cue and do this better, because it is a great concept.

 

Thunderstone / Lost LegendsSpeaking of using other people’s ideas… I played both of these for the first time at the con. While Thunderstone is D&D stuck on top of Dominion, Lost Legends is D&D stuck on top of 7 Wonders. Both were terrible, boring games, far inferior to their inspirations. I really don’t understand why people get excited for games that are so derivative, such as…

 

Trains. In and of itself, Trains is not a bad game. However, the board does simply nothing to change the genre. The only difference is that aspects of Dominion that were being played in expert players’ heads is now being laid out physically on the table. There’s no adjusting for player count on the board, either, which makes the board even more superfluous for two-player games. On top of that, several of the cards in this game are outright plagiarism (Silver, Gold, Cellar, Mint). I don’t see how they were able to get away with that. On top of that, while people may say the Waste cards make the game more different and challenging, it’s a skill set Dominion players already have (managing crap cards in the deck) and it makes the game less fun, not more. Why would you emphasize the least fun part of game you’re ripping off? I think that AEG is a great company that does a lot on the publisher side to do cool things for fans and I suspect they have great customer service – I just wish their games weren’t so derivative.

 

Legends of Andor - Last year, I talked about the importance of having someone who knows the rules when you’re in the board game library checking something out, because it’s so annoying to sit there at a con and try to puzzle out a game. But hey, wait, Legends of Andor has that cool tutorial thing! And actually, it was pretty cool. We were able to just figure out the game as we went. The problem was that the game is so unbelievably boring. Even when the game became difficult, the decisions were not interesting. Combat was not interesting. Movement was not interesting. The “puzzle” aspect of running out of time versus fighting monsters was not interesting. I would rather play just about any other cooperative game.

 

The GREAT!:

 

Star RealmsOn Wednesday, I was able to meet up with Magic Hall of Famer Rob Dougherty, who is working on this game with fellow HOFer Darwin Kastle when not working on Ascension. FINALLY, someone is making a deckbuilding game where the goal is just to kill your frickin’ opponent! This game plays very similar to Ascension, except that attack points are used to kill your opponent instead of monsters, so the central row is always just things to buy (which is a huge improvement). There were also bases (Constructs, essentially) that could be attacked but provided great bonuses if not removed. I loved how smooth and quick the game was. It’s also way more satisfying to end the game by using your amazing engine to kill your opponent, instead of ending the game by ruining your engine until the VP cards are gone. The game basically takes the opposite approach from Trains, by making your deck more and more awesome instead of constantly clogging it.

The best part is that the game is going to retail for $14.95 MSRP, which is insane. Even though I found the sci-fi setting, art, and name to be extremely generic, I’m still pumped about this game because of the great mechanics and low price. It finally felt like two of my favorite games (Dominion and Magic) were put together in the right way. This is the only deckbuilding game I’ve played, out of maybe ten, where I didn’t feel like it was just a worse version of Dominion. Rob said a Kickstarter should be underway soon.

 

photo (5)Relic Runners. My first play of this was only a few turns – if that happened to you at Gen Con, I strongly encourage you to reserve judgment until you play a full game of this. This is a game that accelerates as it goes along, and before you know it, people are able to have crazy turns thanks to the many special abilities that can be found, and the pathways they’ve setup for themselves. And before you dismiss this game as having zero interaction (it looks that way from the rules), sit down and play it. At least three times during the game, players snatched a move out from underneath me. (I got destroyed but loved it). I would say this is the best “Big Adventure Series” game Days of Wonder has put out. The only reason I don’t think it will reach the sales figures of Ticket to Ride/Small World/Memoir ’44 is that it has the complexity of the latter two (which are aimed more at gamers) but is being billed as a family game in the vein of Ticket to Ride. While the actions on your turn are rather simple, there are a LOT of effects and combos in the game, which is something that I love – but they do make the game more complex. Can’t wait for this release.

 

photo (1)RampageYou’ve probably seen this game several times by now. Antoine Bauza and Ludovic Maublanc have come up with a real winner here. You are literally destroying Tokyo (which is a bunch of meeples holding up tiles) by flicking discs, dropping monsters down, and literally blowing down buildings in Tokyo. I played this game twice and wish I had gone back and played it a third time. This is a great example of just making a game that is awesome fun, doing something truly original and not just trying to piggyback the latest trendy mechanisms. While other designers are busy copycatting, Antoine Bauza is out there smashing game boards and flipping cards inside out. The only real issue I have with the game is sanitary concerns. I flat-out told my fellow players to stand back as I knocked over most of the board with my ridiculous spittle-breath. My comrade for the con (conrade?) works in a public library, and while he knew it would be a hit with the kids, can you imagine this game covered in the slobber of dozens of five year olds? Yuck. I imagine replacement parts for this game are going to be a nightmare. Regardless, this game was just so much fun. I felt like a kid again, in a great way.

 

7 Wonders: BabelIt was truly amazing to be able to play this prototype with Antoine Bauza, the designer (and I won!). We were asked not to tell about the specific effects (they aren’t final yet), but I can share the mechanisms. Basically, you can discard a card and do a fourth action: building a part of Babel. The parts are drafted at the beginning of the game (each player gets three) and when you build one, you add a “law” to the game (think Lancaster). Once a fifth law is built (they go clockwise in a spiral of four squares), it covers up the first one, and so on. So if a law is bad for you, you need people to help you build more pieces and cover it up. You also get VPs for building the pieces.

The second part of the expansion is a pact with Babel, which is different each round. You need to play a card of the type indicated on the pact, and pay an extra indicated resource, and then you can grab a token. If all the tokens are grabbed (players minus 1), the pact succeeds and all the token-grabbers get a bonus. If any are left, it fails and those without tokens get a penalty.

Both aspects changed the game up considerably but were extremely fun to play. While it had a huge impact on the game, it was a reactive change (you could choose to avoid participation in those parts of the game, or wait and see what happens) which was much different than the front-loaded Leaders. I look forward to mixing this expansion in with Cities. 

Antoine said it [probably] will not include things for Cities and Leaders so that players don’t feel like they have to use all of the expansions together – he likes to just use one or two himself. He also said that after this, he’ll go back to Armada (which was going well, but Repos asked him to do Babel first) and after that, he doesn’t necessarily plan to keep going (the “7 expansions” plan was more Repos’ idea than his).

This expansion was awesome and I’m foaming at the mouth to pick it up.

 

photo (3)SOS TitanicProbably not a game that was even on your radar, but this was my number one game at the con. This is a cooperative game that was essentially solitaire (i.e. the card game Solitaire, you know, the one your boss is playing right now on his computer… but you’re reading this, so…). There were differences – two suits instead of four, you want like cards instead of alternating, and so on.  The theme fits the game really well, though, as the lifeboats are the “aces” and you are trying to move the columns higher on the ship as it sinks and eventually place people in the boats. It was an absolute joy to play.

I mentioned to Bruno how good the game was, and how interesting it was to see very old mechanisms being used again, like Solitaire here and Bingo in Rise of Augustus. He said something profound: “It’s like music. It’s not the note, but how you use it. The same goes for mechanisms.” What an insightful author, and what a great game!

 

Did you attend Gen Con? What games did YOU think were great (or maybe not so great)? Let us know in the comments!

7 comments to Derek’s Gen Con 2013 Recap

  • Thanks for the great wrap-up! I wholeheartedly agree about the Asmodee demoers. After playing elsewhere (with the exception of Cryptozoic’s Gravwell demoer), I wanted to spend all my time in the Asmodee booth. They were just that good, as were their games.

    Thanks also for the details on Babel. I had intended to stop buying 7 Wonders expansions, since there’s usually someone less sure-footed in my games, but I may have to lift the embargo for Babel.

  • Derek Thompson

    I don’t like the Leaders expansion because it forces so many up-front decisions, but I like expansions that just offer more choices that you can take or leave – Cities is a great example. Babel felt more like that, but with the swingy-ness of Leaders. Best of both worlds!

  • That’s good to hear. I like Leaders, but I don’t often include it because (as you say) it front-loads the decisions in a way that’s very difficult for newer players. Cities is excellent because what it adds isn’t that difficult to grasp but it opens the game considerably, and the team rules are surprisingly good. The Wonder Pack is a great concept, but only two of the wonders seem worth anything (and one of those requires you to play with Leaders). I will keep my eyes open for Babel.

  • aed

    You are seriously in the minority when it comes to Trains!

  • Derek Thompson

    You are right. Keep in mind, I have played about 3,500 games of Dominion (mostly on isotropic before it shut down), so much of the game is abstracted in my head. I wasn’t the best, but I was up there. I was level 44 I think at one point (the highest players were around 52).

    In a two-player game of Trains, apart from some obvious blocking type moves on the board, players can easily carve out their own space. Placing a station on a space you are in essentially means that Station Expansion becomes “Gain 2 VP tokens (like Monument in Dominion’s Prosperity expansion) and gain a Curse (or, ok, Ruins)”. The board is an attempt at lowering the abstraction in Dominion, but it isn’t necessary to do at the highest levels of the game.

    So you have a major increase in complexity, but in my opinion, not much reward. You are using a board to do things that could, at the core, be printed on cards.

    On top of that, you are making players gain Waste cards for just about everything, which is not any more interesting than the “crap card management” of Dominion, just MORE of the same.

    On top of that, you have even more plagiarism than I mentioned above, like Adventurer and Wishing Well and the VP cards(which just have different costs).

    It was VERY cool of AEG to give us a free copy of the game – which is why we did the giveaway last week. Games on the shelf deserve to be played and enjoyed!

  • moshe

    Regarding “star realms” and I quote “FINALLY, someone is making a deckbuilding game where the goal is just to kill your frickin’ opponent!”

    Seriously? Puzzle strike is around for almost three years… and have the same idea, employed better than any other concept I saw.

    Star realm in a great game, but please pay attention to what in already released before being exited on a deck building game that lets you kill your opponent.

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