After a two-year absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic, board game convention Gen Con returned to Indianapolis earlier this month with a smaller show. Postponed by eight weeks, attendance was capped at half of the previous maximum, and most publishers from outside of the United States and Canada ended up skipping the event. As an attendee at my fifth Gen Con, however, I’d say it was a rousing success given the circumstances.
The upside to the lower capacity, even with somewhat fewer exhibitors than usual, was that it was far easier to demo games I wanted to try—the only obstacle this year was time, not the demand for seats at certain tables. A few times, I actually had to wait—gasp!—to play something while the crew in the booth tried to recruit more players. This isn’t great for publishers, I’m sure, but it did make for a more enjoyable con, even with some pretty big publishers (Asmodee, most notably) and some key international ones (Osprey, Game Brewer) absent.
I was certainly anxious about attending a convention during a pandemic, especially since my wife just recovered from a breakthrough infection, but once I was there, I was thinking about it far less because mask compliance was so high—I saw more people without shirts than without masks. (They were cosplayers. I hope.) The Indianapolis Convention Center has upgraded its air filtration, and their staff were actively accosting people who had their masks on incorrectly or didn’t have them on at all in the hallways, which may be why they’ve been able to avoid any outbreaks so far this year.
Gen Con has always been an inclusive event in my experience, but I thought it seemed even more so this year when it came to the LGBTQ+ community, and I was happy to see that one queer exhibitor, who was attending his first Gen Con, felt the same way. My observation, at least, was that a higher percentage of attendees or exhibitors were wearing something that indicated they were members of that community than I’d ever seen before—and that’s how it should be.
Now, on to the games…
Hachette is better known as a book publisher, but they have moved aggressively into board game publishing in the last few years, acquiring the publisher Gigamic in January of 2019 and the wonderfully named studio Sorry We Are French in March of this year. Hachette thus made its first appearance at Gen Con with a longer list of titles in its catalog than most “new” publishers, as they brought Gigamic’s Aquatica (from 2019) and SWAF’s Iki (2015), as well as several newer titles, including my favorite game of the con, Nidavellir. It’s a light bidding game that gives you a constant stream of decisions to make, as you’re using your five coins each round to bid on cards in three distinct rows on the table. If you played your 0 coin on one of the three rows, you can upgrade one of your coins to the sum of the two coins you didn’t use for bids in that round, so your bidding power increases as the game moves on. You’re bidding on cards in five colors, each of which scores in its own way, and each time you get a set of cards in all five colors, you get to take a powerful Hero card for free. I won a four-person game of this, in case you were wondering. Hachette also had Oltree, the new game from Antoine Bauza, which had a lot of story and text in the game but not that much actual game play. Dinner in Paris is a medium-light game where you collect cards showing different ingredients that will allow you to build restaurants on the board and gain income, but the real points come from placing your little terrace tiles out in front of those restaurants, gaining points, increasing your income further, and matching private and public objective cards. Shamans is a trick-taking game for three to five players, similar in some ways to The Crew, but there’s always at least one traitor in every round, so you’re not all on the same side, and can try to collect a dagger token and assassinate another player if you think they’re on the opposite side from you. You change roles each round, and play until one player has accumulated 8 victory points, which you gain from being on the winning team or collecting certain tokens. I also got a huge laugh when someone loudly referred to the company as “ha-SHET-ee,” which I would say was a real hachette job on their name. (It’s pronounced “ha-SHET,” just two syllables.)
Arcane Wonders’ Furnace, co-published with Hobby World, was probably the hottest game of the convention—I saw more people carrying copies of Furnace they’d purchased than any other game. It is very good, reminding me of the engine-building game Gizmos, but requiring more forethought and certainly less forgiving. Furnace has an unusual auction mechanism where players bid on cards displayed in each of the game’s four rounds, but if you don’t place the highest bid on a card, you get “compensation” shown on the top of that card. You try to create the strongest engine of cards through which you will move left to right at the end of each round, converting resources back and forth (as in Century Spice Road) but with the ultimate goal of converting them to money. It plays in under an hour and works for two to four players, with a bot player in the two-player game that places bid tokens on cards according to the roll of a die. They also had Picture Perfect, a hidden-information game where players try to place different cardboard figures on their boards according to those figures’ preferences—to be in the middle of a row, to not be next to any men—and thus posing them for the most valuable picture. You get points for each criterion you meet, but lose 3 if you can’t meet any criteria for any individual figure.
Plan B Games, which was just acquired this summer by Asmodee (returning founder Sophie Gravel to the head of Z-Man Games, which she founded and sold to Asmodee a few years ago), had its recent release Equinox, Reiner Knizia’s re-imagining of his 1997 game Colossal Arena, but rather unlike any of his major games. It’s a betting game, a bit similar to Camel Up, in that you’re bidding in each round on which of the eight creatures will still be in the game’s tournament after the final round. Here, however, the tournament is rigged: players play hand cards showing those creatures, along with face values, to each row, representing a round. The creature with the lowest value at the end of the round is eliminated. You bet on which creatures are likely to make it to the end of the tournament, and if the creature on which you bet big is eliminated in a round because it had the lowest face value, well, gambling is for people who are bad at math, right? It’s coming out in a Golem edition—same game, new skin—later this year. They also had a demo version of the fourth Azul game, Azul: Queen’s Garden, which changes the tile selection for the first time, allowing you to also build out your board as you go, with greater challenges for scoring. It also has a bright green theme that contrasts well with the art in and outside the three previous games. Finally, they had the new edition of Great Western Trail, with better components, a solo mode, a mini-expansion, and none of the offensive art of the original. I’ve ranked that before as my all-time favorite complex or heavy game, and I stand by it. The game play is incredible, and now the board is just that much better.
Capstone Games seems to have a bigger footprint at Gen Con every year, as their line expands to include family games as well as their trademark gamer’s games. Iberian Gauge joins Irish Gauge and Ride the Rails in the Iron Rail series; this title, designed by Irish Gauge designer Amabel Holland, was first released in 2017 by the train game publisher Winsome Games, and now has a sleek new look to match the previous two titles. It’s another game of building train routes and buying stock in each rail line, and this one has a real take-that mechanic where a share’s value drops if that rail line doesn’t connect to a new city on a turn, which can wipe out a lot of shareholder value in a hurry. Best of all, the game has a two-page rulebook … well, rule sheet. Riftforce is a fun two-player game that has some Battle Line elements, but where the cards you play on one turn can be activated in a subsequent turn to attack your opponent’s cards across from them, with different colors bringing different powers. You’ll make plans, and your opponent will blow them up. Coffee Traders is a seriously heavy Euro, promising a 2-2.5 hour game time, set in the 1970s with the rise of Fair Trade coffee, which is itself an integral part of the game. Capstone also had Juicy Fruits and CloudAge, both of which I reviewed here last month.
Gamewright, which was recently acquired by puzzle company Buffalo Games, had several new games for younger players on offer, including the Splendor-like Happy City, where players buy building cards from three different decks of increasing value, with most buildings providing more income for future turns. Buildings either give you more citizens or more ‘hearts,’ for happiness, and your final score is the product of your total citizens and your total hearts. They also had Shifting Stones, another light game where players try to match the patterns on their hand cards in the 3×3 tableau of stones. On your turn, you can either flip a stone over to reveal the color on its other side, or switch the places of two adjacent stones. And they had Phil Walker-Harding’s Super Mega Lucky Box, a simple flip-and-write in the vein of his hit Silver & Gold.
Pandasaurus had the most eventual week, as some geniuses broke into the warehouse where their games were stored and tried to fence the products on eBay … but since those games were going to be released at Gen Con for the first time, anything they sold was, by default, stolen. Ocean’s 11, they were not. Dinosaur World is the worker-placement game that serves as a sequel to Dinosaur Island, as you’re building your own big theme park for tourists to come gawk at dinosaurs and spend lots of money. There’s also the Dinosaur Island Roar & Write (get it?), a dice-drafting game where you use the dice as ‘workers’ and try to fit them on your paper in polyomino shapes, condensing the Dinosaur Island experience into a sub-one hour game. The Loop, which came out last year in Europe, is a cooperative game where players manage their decks and resources to try to defeat a common enemy. The board is really stylish and eye-catching. Pandasaurus also showed two upcoming titles, including the 4D chess-inspired two-player game That Time You Killed Me, with three boards that represent the past, present, and future, so what you do on the past board affects your tokens on the two ‘later’ boards, but what you do in the future only affects that board. You can already play the upcoming roll-and-write game Trek 12 on BoardGameArena (I have!); every roll of the pair of dice lets you write one number on your sheet—the sum, difference, or product of the two, or either individual die value. You’re trying to create runs of consecutive numbers or groups of the same number, and also meeting certain objectives specific to that game.
Weird Giraffe has its dice-drafting and building game Tumble Town, which has a little building for rolling the dice that is very reminiscent of the birdhouse-roller in Wingspan. The game has dice in four colors that you can use to build the cards you acquire, matching the requirements in color, quantity, and face value of the building—with the latter sometimes as simple as getting three dice that don’t match, or as involved as getting the total of their faces to exceed a particular value. You score for each building and earn bonuses for meeting specific criteria, once each, on your card, like a building with a brown die on the bottom.
Renegade has the brand-new deckbuilder from Richard Garfield, called The Hunger, with a push-your-luck mechanic where you have to return home by daybreak or perish (like Clank! or Deep Sea Adventure), and a deckbuilding aspect, which you’d expect from the mind behind Magic: the Gathering. The new Crimes & Capers game series gives you mysteries in a box for four players, playable once per group, but without the component destruction of some mystery games (like the great Exit series). They also showed off an expansion to The Search for Planet X with upgraded components; a holiday-themed version of the light game Gudetama, featuring the lazy egg character of that name; and a Princess Princess Ever After-themed version of Love Letter, a rare and welcome example of queer representation in a board game.
Restoration Games showed off a finished version of Return to Dark Tower, the long-awaited update to the 1980s cult classic, which has been delayed due to the pandemic. The tower itself looks amazing, and probably cost a pretty penny to make. They also had a new take on the 1990 game Key to the Kingdom, which you might remember for the way you’d fold the board when one player went through a whirlpool (an actual hole in the board), but which isn’t remembered for being an especially good game. The game board still folds, but movement is far easier, and you don’t lose item cards when you use them, which should make the game more playable and far more fun for family play.
Ravensburger continued its run of big-box tie-in games with Alien: Fate of the Nostromo, a cooperative game based on the original Alien movie (I don’t think the John Hurt figurine has a retractable bursting abdomen, though); and Disney: Gargoyles, based on a mid-1990s TV series of which I have no memory whatsoever. The Marvel Villainous game got its first expansion with Mischief & Malice, introducing Loki (of course), Madame Masque, and M.O.D.O.K. And Horrified now has a sequel game in Horrified: American Monsters, another cooperative game where you face off against various mythical creatures of U.S. origins, including Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, and the Ozark Howler.
Grand Gamers Guild demoed Gorinto, an abstract game for two to four players where you take tiles from a 5×5 board and try to build stacks in the game’s different colors with them, gaining one tile at a time at first but potentially getting more once you build up your supply of tiles in either of that game’s two focus colors. They also had a heavier game, the wonderfully titled Belgian Beers Race, for sale but not on display or for demo. Players race around various breweries in Belgium, using different forms of transport, and then decide whether to buy beer, buy cheese, or drink beer, with the risk of getting too drunk and suffering a penalty (I presume a hangover of some sort).
Sequoia, from BoardGameTables, is billed as “Can’t Stop meets Las Vegas,” and that’s a fairly apt description. It’s a small-box game for two to five players where each player gets five dice and rolls them at the start of each turn. They then choose any four dice to create two pairs, placing a tree token on the square of each pair’s value. At game end, you score the tallest and second-tallest tree on each square, with those values changing in every game.
Devir Games, a major publisher and distributor in Latin America and Spain, had an impressive display of small-box games. The Red Cathedral has been out for a little while already, earning a very strong ranking on BoardGameGeek for its combination of a crunchy game and a small package/footprint. You gather resources to complete sections of the cathedral, with six available per player, while also competing for control of each tower and trying to cash in gems for “prestige points,” which have a variable conversion rate to victory points. Yes, it’s yet another “everyone’s trying to build the big cathedral in town” theme, but the mechanics are fresh and turns seem to move along quickly. Luna Capital is a somewhat Quadropolis-like city builder, with art by graphic novelist and editorial cartoonist Albert Monteys. Castle Party is a flip-and-write in the vein of Silver & Gold, but where you mark squares on your board with multiple symbols to represent the monsters you’ve invited to your party, leading to some very involved scoring for a lightweight game. They also had the Eiffel Tower expansion for the two-player game Paris: La Cité de Lumière, which will be out early next year and offers more and bigger scoring opportunities; and two games in the solitaire Mazescape series.
Floodgate’s big release at the show was the stunning Vivid Memories, where players try to collect ‘fragments’ of childhood memories—okay, they’re little diamond-shaped tokens in different colors, but the way you place and score them is novel, creating little paths on your ‘brain boards’ to connect what I guess would be synapses for points and additional bonuses. They also had a preview of Décorum, a “game of passive-aggressive cohabitation,” with a really clever premise: Two people are going to live together, and have to lay out their house (on the board) to suit both of their desires … but you can’t tell the other player what you want, so they have to infer it from your actions, and vice versa. There’s also a real-time game in the queue for Floodgate called Kites, where players try to play cards to flip the five timers back and forth so none runs out before they get through the deck. I tried a quick demo of this and it’s a lot harder than it sounds.
KOSMOS had The Crew: Deep Sea Adventures, the sequel to the Kennerspiel-winning 2019 game The Crew. This game plays the same way as the original, a cooperative trick-taking game where you had to complete a series of challenges that started out easy and gradually became more difficult, but has more challenges, more difficult ones, and better combinations of them to make the game more … uh, challenging. Anno 1800 is the new heavy Euro from Martin Wallace (Brass, Steam), a sprawling economic game with shades of Puerto Rico (without the weird gamification of colonialism) and a two-hour play time. The Adventures of Robin Hood comes from the author of Legends of Andor, and is a cooperative, campaign-based game where players play as the famous outlaw and his band of merry men. It earned a Spiel nomination this past summer, and comes with an actual book that you’ll read in parts—as with a Choose Your Own Adventure book—over the course of multiple plays.
AEG (Alderac) didn’t have demos set up at their booth, but I was lucky enough to spot someone who’d just bought Cascadia and was looking for more players, so I got to try it out. Cascadia is the spiritual sequel to the amazing tile-placement game Calico, but where Calico was sneaky-hard because of the way your board’s frame limited where you could place tiles, in Cascadia, there is no board and you can build out in any direction. The game has five animal types, each of which scores in a unique way, and five terrain types, each of which scores the same way, with one point for each tile in your largest area of that type (as in Planet). You select a tile from the market and take the animal token that’s above it, but don’t have to place them together. Play continues until everyone has placed 20 tiles, and then you score. Each animal type has four different scoring mechanisms ranging from easy to yikes. It’s lighter than Calico, because it’s harder to box yourself into a corner, but the five different ways of scoring animals requires a lot of mental work to optimize your tile plays.
Atlas Games’ Dice Miner was one of the biggest hits of the con, a dice-drafting game with some scoring quirks and a selection mechanism that is true to its theme. There’s a cardboard “mountain” that holds the dice you roll in each round in a sort of pyramid, and on your turn, you can select any one die as long as doing so won’t make any other die fall down. There are four die colors and each scores separately, with the black die mostly providing hazards in the form of dragons and falling rocks that you must repel with blue dice showing shields and axes, respectively.
Keymaster’s Trails didn’t make it to the show, but they had one copy set up for display; it’s the lighter, shorter companion to their hit game Parks, playable in about 20 minutes.
Smirk & Dagger had a well-received demo model of The Spill, a co-operative game where players try to stop the spread of an oil spill at sea, which just funded on Kickstarter earlier this month.
Good Games had Land vs Sea, a simple tile-placement game for two or four players (the latter playing as two teams), one trying as Land and the other as the Sea. The goal is to create closed shapes of your terrain, and thus place tiles to prevent your opponent from doing so, with extra scoring opportunities based on symbols on the tiles.
25th Century Games has brought back Reiner Knizia’s Tutankhamun, a lesser-known game of his from 1993. It’s a light game where players move along a path of tiles as far as they wish, claiming the artifacts on which they land, trying to collect the most of each type. The scoring moves backwards, as you give up points as you go and try to be the first player to hit zero. The 2018 game Luxor, by Rudiger Dorn, took this concept and added some complexity by putting it on an actual board and giving each player several meeples, with artifacts requiring one to three meeples for you to claim them. 25th Century also had On the Rocks, a game of cocktail construction … with marbles. You draw cards that require you to collect marbles in specific colors, and complete those for points and to try to earn tips.
Deep Water had Fantastic Factories, a previously self-published game they brought out this year, another engine-builder with a Gizmos vibe to it. They also announced Floor Plan: The Winchester Mystery House, taking the flip-and-write mechanics of Floor Plan to the real-life setting of the San Jose mansion that is known for doors and stairs that go nowhere, interior windows, fake bathrooms, and, maybe, ghosts. (Not really.) They also announced Sovereign Suns, a heavier sequel to 2019’s Sovereign Skies that will combine deckbuilding, resource management, and area control mechanics.
Funko brought out The Rocketeer: Fate of the Future, based on the 1991 Disney movie (which itself is receiving a reboot in the near future), with art that perfectly replicates the late 1930s look and feel from the film. It’s a two-player game, with one player playing the title character and the other the evil actor Neville Sinclair, who wants to steal the Rocketeer’s jetpack. They also had an expansion to their game The Goonies: Never Say Die, called Under the Goondocks, with three new adventures and, most annoyingly, teenagers. Funko also announced an upcoming game based on the film The Warriors, due out early next year; and a legacy game set in the Jurassic World universe, due out next summer.
Iello had Khôra: Rise of an Empire, a medium-heavy economic game with a big footprint on the table, built around dice-rolling and card drafting, with players trying to progress up multiple tracks while upgrading their cities’ powers in five different categories. It’s an expanded retake on a 2017 game called Improvement of the POLIS, which was only published in Japan. They also had Eric Vogel on hand to sign copies of his 2020 game Kitara, a quiet gem of card drafting and area control that is incredibly easy to learn but gives you a ton of action on the board. Each card you acquire increases your abilities—giving you move movement points, additional military units, or the ability to choose cards further up the line of the public display. There’s some area control, but in the way that Small World handles it, where you’ll gain and lose territories all the time. I’m a fan, and not just because Eric was a nice guy.
Amigo has risen from the ashes of the former Mayfair Games, and has taken over some of the games from the latter’s line, including the popular hidden-identity game Saboteur. They also introduced Magic Mountain, a simple game for kids 5+ where you try to roll marbles down the inclined board to try to hit the good witches, advancing them on the track, and avoiding the bad witches. The board has grooved paths that fork and recombine, so there’s some strategy in where you start the marbles, but also plenty of luck. It’s cooperative as well.
Oh, and if you’re curious, here are my 10 favorite games of Gen Con 2021, although a fair list of every game I enjoyed or would like to play based on a quick overview would run at least 25 titles deep.
10. Dice Miner
8. Vivid Memories
4. The Red Cathedral
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.