Christian’s Gen Con 2014 Recap – The Games

The enormous vendor hall at Gen Con 2014 -- before the doors open to the public.

The enormous vendor hall at Gen Con 2014 just after the doors opened to the public.

This was my third time attending Gen Con, and it proved to be the busiest one yet for your faithful MeepleTown editor.

For those who haven’t attended Gen Con before, I should point out that it’s not strictly a gaming convention.  Oh, sure, almost everything is in some way related to games, but there’s not much time for sitting down and actually playing board games.  No, I had friends to meet up with, shows to watch, dungeons to conquer, and sleep to… well… okay, there wasn’t much sleep involved.

For that reason, I’m going to split this into two articles, with this first one covering the games I saw, and the next one covering the other miscellaneous happenings at Gen Con.

Fortunately, I did find some time to demo some new releases amongst the weekend’s other revelry.  Please note that these are my initial impressions based off a single play — or less.  In some cases, our demo schedule didn’t allow time for a full game.

Chimera – We chatted with designer Ralph Anderson while learning this game, which is essentially a three-player variant of Tichu.  It is very faithful to most of the core mechanics of Tichu, which is one of my personal favorites. It’s still a trick-taking game with elements of bidding and partnerships.  A key difference is that partnerships change based on who wins the initial bid; it’s two-against-one, with the non-bidding players temporarily allied.  There are a few other minor rule changes as well, but Tichu players will feel right at home with this one.  If I were in a card game mood with only three players available I might reach for Chimera, but overall I think I prefer its predecessor.

The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade – We were fortunate enough to sit down with designers (and brothers) Anders and Olle Tyrland for a demo of this 80’s-styled space “shoot-em-up”.  If you’ve ever played video game space shooters Gradius or R-Type, Kemble’s Cascade is essentially those in a board game format.  Players fly their spaceships around a constantly scrolling game field, shooting at enemies, asteroids, and each other.  As the game proceeds, players can upgrade their ships with shields, energy generators, and (most importantly!) bigger guns, eventually facing a huge, multi-tile boss.  The theme is well-executed, with 8-bit style graphics on virtually every component.  We didn’t have time to play a full game — according to the designers the normal session time is 60-90 minutes — but I enjoyed what I experienced.

Bruno Cathala teaches us Five Tribes!

Bruno Cathala teaches us Five Tribes!

Five Tribes – I was taught this game by Bruno Cathala himself, who playfully referred to it as a “worker-removal game”.  The game begins with a large tile grid, each containing a number of random colored meeples.  Gameplay is deceptively simple: Pick up all the meeples from any tile, and place them one-by-one, mancala-style, on adjacent tiles, forming a path.  The final meeple placed triggers actions based on the color and tile it was placed on.  The mechanics are simple to learn, yet deep enough to be engaging to a serious gamer, which is a rare combination.  This was the first game I demoed at Gen Con 2014, and it was by far my favorite.  I’ve been lukewarm on some of Days of Wonder’s recent releases, but Five Tribes looks like they’ve hit a home run.

Camel Up – This year’s Spiel des Jahres winner is finally coming to North America, and… well… it’s a camel racing game.  I understand its appeal to the SdJ voters, as it’s an extremely simple family game with a low barrier to entry and attractive components.  Players take turns betting on the camels, making them move, or putting down minor boosts or obstacles to help the race along.  Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like there was enough here to engage me.  There weren’t enough interesting choices, and the random factor is very high with not enough direct player control over the outcome.  Still, this would be a great choice for families with kids, and it would be a great gift for households that have been infested with mass-market kids’ games like Candy Land.

Shadowrun: Crossfire – I knew very little about this one going into Gen Con weekend.  The buzz was that it’s similar to the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, but more streamlined and exciting.  While the Pathfinder card game didn’t knock my socks all the way off, it made my ankles slightly chilly, so this sounded promising.  Shadowrun: Crossfire is a cooperative deck-building game with a twist: characters persist from session to session and become more powerful by means of a “karma” system with which players can buy upgrades.  The game comes with a set of stickers that can be affixed directly to the character cards, similar to how the board changes in Risk Legacy.  Interestingly, the new version of the Pathfinder game has added more focus on persistent play, so it will be interesting to compare these two once we’ve spent more time with both of them.

The MeepleTown staff (and a friend) check out Lords of Xidit.

The MeepleTown staff (and a friend) check out Lords of Xidit. Can you guess from the picture who didn’t win?

Lords of Xidit – Asmodee has a massive release schedule for 2014, and unfortunately I only had time to experience this one game.  Designed by Régis Bonnessée (of Seasons fame), this is a “re-imagining” of Himalaya (see our interview with Mr. Bonnessée here for more details).  The setting and artwork are completely different — and, frankly, more appealing.  In their quest to become the most prominent lords of a mystical land, players must recruit adventurers and slay monsters.  Actions are programmed six at a time via dial-based player boards, so there’s a high level of advance planning and group-think required.  The time I spent with Lords of Xidit was enjoyable, but I wonder a bit about its replayability — on any given turn I felt like my best course of action was fairly obvious, and that could lead to future sessions being very similar.

Samurai Spirit – This is a cooperative game by Antoine Bauza that can handle up to seven players in under an hour.  If the collection of words in that last sentence didn’t have you rushing out to buy it, you may have to turn in your gamer card.  Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to play this on-site, but I did get a quick gameplay overview from one of the friendly Passport Games Studios staff members.  It looks very promising, and we’ll have a full review once we’ve spent some time with it.

Stacks and stacks of games at the Passport booth.

Stacks and stacks of games at the Passport booth.

I spent several hours walking the floor of the massive vendor hall, but there just isn’t enough time to get hands on everything.  My inner fanboy drooled over Fantasy Flight’s upcoming XCom game, which was present in pre-release form.  I marveled at the booth for indie-published Incredible Expeditions, with its elaborate steampunk-styled setpieces and stunning costumes.  I watched some games in progress of Plaid Hat Games’ Dead of Winter and kicked myself for not scheduling a demo with them.  I orbited the seemingly endless line to get into Paizo’s booth (which never seemed to shorten for the entire weekend) and kept walking.  Oh well, can’t win ’em all.

Am I disappointed that I didn’t see more of the new releases at Gen Con 2014?  Surprisingly, no!  The sheer number of new games — and better yet, the ever-growing number of people who love them — make this the most exciting time in the history of our hobby.  If my biggest problem is that there’s too much to see, we’ve got a great year ahead of us.

I’ll be back soon with coverage of the multitude of other events I experienced at this year’s Gen Con.

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