Gen Con was back to its usual August schedule, and other than requiring masks and proof of vaccination, there were no restrictions this year, so it felt very much like a pre-pandemic Gen Con. To give you some sense of how big it was this year, I had 68 publishers on my to-visit list going into the show, with a bunch of meetings scheduled beforehand, and visited 38, with fly-by visits to a couple more. Put the word out there that we back up, folks.
I’ll start, as always, with a quick, gut-reaction, top 10 games I played or demoed at Gen Con 2022. Two quick caveats—I didn’t play anything I’d already played, so games like Ark Nova, one of the best games of 2022 so far, aren’t on this list because I already have it and reviewed it. (It’s awesome.) I also leaned towards midweight games and below for efficiency, because I could play more of those games in the same amount of time. I do have notes on some longer/crunchier games coming later this week in my overall Gen Con wrap-up, but for this list I only ranked games I played in full or in a demo. Later this week I’ll have a rundown of everything I saw, played, demoed, or even glanced at longingly while racing by to my next meeting. Until then, here are the best board games I played at Gen Con this year.
If you loved the Quacks of Quedlinburg but wanted to play it with younger kids, this is a stripped-down version of that Spiel winner but for kids aged five and up. You still draw from a bag, but you can’t bust as you could in the original game—your third white token just ends your turn, without costing you everything you gained. The scoring is much simpler too, and the board has two sides with a longer track on one side. I don’t think every game really needs a kids’ version, but this is perfect.
A roll-and-write (big year for those) with a modular board, as players choose dice that represent passengers on a river cruise of sorts, and you can send them out on excursions to villages for points when you fill out different rows. It’s a very tight game that plays out quickly, and the board changes every game so it doesn’t exhaust itself like some roll and writes.
A simple and very quick-playing city builder, where players take tiles to lay next to or on top of tiles they’ve already played, with district spaces worth more the higher they are. You also need plaza spaces in the colors of those districts to score for them, and you want to gain and cover quarries to get more stone, which is how you choose tiles from the line in the construction supply. Games can take just 20-25 minutes.
Flatout Games, developers of Calico and this year’s Spiel des Jahres winner, Cascadia, is about to deliver their third game, Verdant, to their Kickstarter backers. It’s a gorgeous game, as all of Flatout’s are, and I think maybe the lightest of the three, but not in a bad way. You’re trying to fill your house with houseplants, and they all need different things, such as more or less sunlight, and each plant card represents a real species with traits tied to the real plant’s characteristics. You’ll also play room cards and decorate with non-plant items, of course. It has the same card and tile selection mechanic as Cascadia.
The sequel to Tokaido, Namiji is a little bigger, a little longer, and a little sweeter, as Tokaido made it easy for a player to get the shaft at game-end. The art and basic movement mechanics will be very familiar, but other than the panoramas, the other locations all have new functions. Most fun: press your luck by drawing shrimp tokens from a bag, but if you draw two crabs, you bust! You’ll also gather fish and place them on your personal board to try to create rows or columns of the same color or same fish type for additional points, and you have many opportunities to gain objective cards throughout the game. The art is just fantastic, too.
This Spiel des Jahres finalist is finally out in North America. Players each start with a hand of cards that have two different numbers, one on the top left and one on the bottom right. You may not reorder your hand; you may only turn the entire hand upside down, which reveals the other set of numbers. The first player plays either a single card from their hand, a set of cards of the same number that were all adjacent in their hand, or a run of cards in ascending or descending order, also all adjacent in their hand. The next player must “show” by playing something more valuable than what is on the table, with sets always beating runs of the same card count, taking the cards on the table for points; or “scout” by taking a card from the left or right end of what’s on the table. You can put the card you took anywhere in your hand, and can rotate it, so you can try to create sets or runs as you go. The game ends when three straight players scout or when one player gets rid of all of their cards. It’s a fun cognitive challenge.
Shown as a prototype at last year’s Gen Con, this forever timely cooperative game asks players to combat a massive oil spill in the ocean by containing the spread, cleaning up what is already out, and saving marine life affected by it. You put dice into a central tower that randomly spreads them around the board, so you never quite know where the next mess will be. Smirk and Dagger has even created a common core education plan for science teachers that want to use it in schools.
Fly around space and create wormholes to make your return trip faster! This is another pickup-and-delivery game where you try to move your ship next to planets matching the cards in your hand, then playing them to represent the passengers you’ve delivered for two points each. As you, you create specific wormhole connections that anyone can use, although using another player’s wormholes gives them a point. You can also gain points from placing the first wormhole next to any planet. The game enters its end phase when every planet has a wormhole, after which you play three more rounds. With five players, it goes pretty quickly and definitely rewards efficiency.
A new flip-and-write from Saashi, the designer of the amazing solitaire game Coffee Roasters, Get on Board has two to five players building bus routes in Manhattan or London, placing little tracks on a common board and checking off the people or sites they pass. There’s a pickup-and-delivery element and both public and private objectives. But if you ever circle your route back on itself, you have failed the challenge and are eliminated immediately! One player at my demo deliberately bounced herself so she could run and buy a copy before they ran out. I’d say that’s a vote in the game’s favor.
Does the world need another trick-taking game? Apparently it does. Inspired by Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment, Cat in the Box gives everyone a hand of numbered cards, all of them black. No card has a suit until it is observed (played), at which point the player declares its suit—red, green, blue, or yellow—and then places one of their tokens on the matching space on the card-counting track. So if you play a 4 card and declare that it’s blue, no one else may play a blue 4 in that round. You must follow suit, but if you don’t want to, you can declare that you’re out of that color—and then you’re committed to that for the rest of the round as well. Players say whether they’ll win one, two, or three tricks, and if they hit that exactly, they can also score for the biggest contiguous group of tokens they’ve placed on the card-counting board. But if you ever find yourself without a legal play, you’ve caused a paradox! The round ends and you lose one point per completed trick. It’s such a clever conceit and results in a lot of fun and gamesmanship.
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.