Top Of The Table – The Games Of Gen Con 2016
For tabletop enthusiasts, August is a time of celebration. That’s because Gen Con, the largest hobby games convention in North America, promises to bring a bevy of new releases, announcements, and perhaps most importantly, opportunities to get together and play games. The massive convention in Indianapolis has blossomed from its original incarnation in 1968, when it was established by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax as a wargaming get-together.
Today, tabletop gaming companies from around the world gather to show off their best. “Publishers love to launch games at Gen Con, and that is nothing new,” says Gen Con’s vice president of business development Scott Elliott. “It’s fair to say that Gen Con has been the launch pad for gaming for almost half a century. The modern games industry, digital, paper, and otherwise, is filled by people who grew up playing face-to-face games, and many of those games and game companies got their starts at Gen Con. With the increase in crossovers and ports between digital and table top gaming, Gen Con attendees see innovations that others have to wait to experience.”
Gen Con Indy 2016 is in progress even as we speak. Even with tens of thousands of attendees, lots of tabletop fans can’t make it to the event, and I’m here to help. Hundreds of games are showcased, but here are several of the hottest titles getting buzz at this year’s event. I’ve made a point to highlight games that are targeting public release now or in the next few months, so you can start planning your end-of-year gaming options. For the many games I don't have a chance to feature today, watch for additional coverage in the coming months.
Designer: Rob Daviau
Publisher: Plaid Hat Games
Legacy games have been all the rage in recent years, allowing not only an ongoing experience that carries over between sessions, but shifting rules, game board elements, and storylines that permanently alter the game and its world. Designer Rob Daviau is largely responsible for the design innovation, and SeaFall is the first of his legacy games to be based on an original world of his own devising.
Players control a seafaring province as it spreads its influence across the oceans, raiding, trading, and expanding. The three- to five-player adventure sees you competing for greatness on the high seas, with the ultimate goal of finding the island at the end of the world, and becoming emperor. Across the campaign, you track major milestones on a historical record on the back of the rulebook. Open spaces in the rulebook indicate places where new rules are added to your unique campaign as it progresses. Components gain stickers that change their meaning, and cards are torn up and destroyed as your group progresses.
“SeaFall is an epic game of adventure, discovery, raiding, and civilization,” Daviau told me. “Kind of an Indiana Jones in the 17th century. It’s a game I designed for my 12 year-old self, as I was an avid D&D player, and this sense of adventure is what got me into gaming in the first place. It took me three years to design, and is the first legacy game not based on an earlier game. I’m so excited for it to be in players’ hands so they can set out on their adventure."
After a limited release at the show, expect SeaFall to be a hot commodity on the gaming market when it hits retail release in September or October.
Designer: Vlaada Chvátil
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
One of my favorite games from last year was Codenames, a brilliant and addicting party game about words, meanings, and teamwork, in which competing teams each try to guess the correct word cards as hinted at by their team’s “spymaster.” That original game was included in my listing of last year’s best tabletop games, and it has remained one of my favorite games to break out and play in the months since. And I’m not the only one who likes it; the game recently won the coveted Spiel des Jahres award.
That game’s follow-up is making a splash at this year’s show, maintaining the focus on spycraft, but shifting from word-based cards to picture cards. Each of the picture cards includes an illustration that combines multiple elements, and can be interpreted and described in multiple ways, like a knight carrying a broomstick, or a flying piggy bank.
“Pictures work differently in the game than words, because they tap into a different part of the human imagination,” says designer Vlaada Chvátil. “Some people prefer to play with words and find hidden meanings and links. With pictures, it’s often more about the effect on the senses. Both have logical connections.”
Enthusiasts who miss their chance to snag a copy at Gen Con can watch for a September release.
Hit Z Road
Designer: Martin Wallace
Publisher: Space Cowboys
The new game from Martin Wallace embraces a mash-up theme, taking classic Americana influences and old-school board game aesthetics, and layering on the horror and brutality of a zombie apocalypse. The resulting game shines with originality, even in the crowded genre of zombie games.
Using components that look like repurposed bottle caps and poker chips, the game is all about a westward-bound road trip along Route 66. Instead of an innocent and non-violent race to the Pacific Coast, an ever-growing horde of zombies is constantly nipping at your heels.
Different routes present themselves, and random cards placed along each path can be easy to surmount, or offer thoroughly lethal challenges. Players bid on first access to the desirable routes, but in doing so, give away tokens for valuable resources like bullets and gas. From there, it’s all about surviving the varied encounters along the way, zipping past the walking dead if you have the fuel to do so, or holding the line with your paltry supply of bullets by rolling combat dice and accepting the outcome.
Hit Z Road is built to play quickly in under an hour for up to four players, and after its Gen Con launch, it should hit broader retailers soon after.
Next Page: Indulge your Game of Thrones fantasies, and return to the block stacking fun of childhood.
Designer: Grant Rodiek, Michał Oracz, Michał Walczak
Publisher: Portal Games
Looking for a new deep strategy game for your veteran group of board gamers? Early word on Cry Havoc is very hot, praising its asymmetric factions, deckbuilding features, area control objectives, and gorgeous sci-fi miniatures.
You control one of four opposing science fiction-themed species, each intent on plundering the resources of a bountiful planet. An elegant and nuanced combat system handles encounters between species, and demands that you make careful choices about different objectives like capturing prisoners or controlling regions. Your growing deck of cards also provides increased complexity and powers to tap into for your faction.
Cry Havoc’s most compelling feature is the diversity of its factions, from one group that leans heavily on resource management and defense, to a robotic threat that is all about building structures that dominate the board. Each army has an entirely different feel, and it’s clear that the designers are using that to optimize replay potential.
This sci-fi epic game is built for two to four players, and the publisher is promising a full release shortly after Gen Con concludes.
Designer: Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim
Publisher: Pretzel Games
If you have fond memories of block stacking as a kid, or you’re looking to pass on that fun to a new generation of builders, Junk Art is worth checking out. This two- to six-player building game is all about creating structures with oddly shaped pieces, and gathering fans for your eclectic art installation.
Junk Art has a simple system that governs the course of a game, all about slowly building up your stacked junk art from over 60 included wooden pieces of various sizes and shapes, represented during selection by matching cards. Identical color, tallest structure, or number of included pieces in your structure might all contribute to gaining fans, but the specific goal varies.
And that’s Junk Art’s other fun feature – its multiple game modes. The goal of your structure changes depending on the city in which you build your art, and each city has different desires, and thus different rules. Playing a full game encourages you to take a world tour through multiple cities, but you can customize to play with the cities you and your group like the best.
“With Junk Art we were trying to make a stacking game that had the ability to have random pieces played on a structure,” says co-designer Jay Cormier. “Normally this is hard because you can’t reach into a bag of pieces and pull one out randomly because you’d be able to feel the differences in each piece. We were able to accomplish this by including a deck of cards, with one card for each unique piece. This opened up a ton of gameplay options. As we developed the game it became challenging to find the base game because there were so many variants to choose from. Fortunately the game was picked up by Pretzel Games and they too saw the value in the multiple variants and decided to make that a core element of the game.”
Junk Art is being featured at Gen Con, but you can expect to find this family-friendly option at broader retailers late this summer.
Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne
Designer: Bill Eberle, Justin Kemppainnen, Greg Olotka, Peter Olotka
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
If you’ve been starving for the vengeful machinations of Westeros since the last TV season ended, The Iron Throne may be the game for you. The Iron Throne borrows heavily from the gameplay concepts established by another excellent game, Cosmic Encounter. In this new iteration on the design, three to five players jostle for power as the leaders of the five great houses in the Game of Thrones show.
In each turn, two players encounter one another, but the other players at the table can scheme, ally, and betray either of the active players. The Tyrells can offer support to the Starks, only to pull it at the last minute to ally with the Lannisters. Truces may form, but may only hold so long as both sides can find an advantage.
Each of the five houses has its own collection of heroic characters, like Tyrion and Arya. In any given game, players choose which character will lead the house, lending a unique power. A deck of house cards also brings your other major characters into play during encounters to sway the balance of power. Ultimately, your goal is to spread influence over Westerosi politics, and claim the Iron Throne.
Fantasy Flight is touting the bluffing and intrigue possibilities inherent to its adaptation of the wildly popular HBO show, and retailers should expect to have copies on sale in November.
Designer: Stefano Castelli, Andrea Crespi, and Lorenzo Silva
Publisher: Cool Mini or Not
This colorful and highly tactile game offers some visually arresting components and an intriguing gameplay loop, with more than a few thematic nods to everything from Harry Potter to match-three video games.
Players pour marbles into a dispensary – a slanted container with indents to hold columns of marbles – and then take turns snatching ingredients out to concoct designated potion recipes for their potions exam final. When the removal of a marble causes other like-colored marbles to click together, there’s an explosion that lets you grab those marbles as well.
Completing potions provides points towards the win, but you can also drink your completed potions for a chance to grab even more ingredients, depending on that potion’s effect.
The two- to four-player game is meant to be played in under an hour, and it’s hard to deny the fun of playing with all those colorful rolling spheres. General public release is coming shortly after Gen Con.
I wish there was time to highlight all the dozens of other great games on offer at this year’s big tabletop show, as this is just a taste of what game designers and publishers have been working on. I’ll be doing my best to highlight some of those other games from this year’s Gen Con in the coming months with more dedicated and detailed write-ups. In the meantime, if you’re looking for more great tabletop games, you may want to check out our Top of the Table hub by clicking into the banner below. And as always, email or tweet to let me know what games or topics you'd like to see featured in the future.