Oh, Gen Con 2011. Even when you were sending man-eating trolls to devour me, I still had a crazy-glad time playing, testing and sneak-peeking every game on the planet. So successful was I at wringing the life out of every waking moment for four days straight, that in the end it was I who devoured you.
It’s becoming an almost annual event for me, this trip to Indianapolis for the self-proclaimed “Best Four Days in Gaming.” I finally feel like I’m starting to figure out how to “do” this convention, and it begins and ends with meticulous pre-planning. I scoured game-related sites for weeks in advance to suss out what new games were making their debut, where the new hotness would be (all the better for circling it on the two-page convention floor map), and how to schedule my time (and allotment of event tickets) to play every game I could handle.
Here’s the list of What I Very Much Liked at this convention. If you’re not a gamer, or cannot appreciate the thrill of a box full of dice, board-backed maps, plastic Nazis and miniature Martians, I pity you. Still, you would be forced to admit, the visuals to be enjoyed at a fest like this are a fascinating feast for even the least nerdly among us.
Behold, my Post-Mortem Hot List:
1. Eye Candy
Even if you never roll one die, you can still meet your fun quotient at Gen Con by taking in all manner of amazing wares, displays and yes, costumes. For example, the guys at Dwarven Forge always roll out a gorgeous display of modular resin bits for constructing 3D maps for miniatures games:
Their dungeon corridors go on forever, and include whimsical surprises like the white-robed adventurer in the lower right corner of this picture who seems to have gotten lost while picking up some power converters from Tosche Station.
There’s also a blue million expertly painted miniatures on display:
I wish I had taken a photo of one where a sorcerer was reading from a scroll; the scroll itself glowed blue, and it cast a blue glow on the magician’s face and clothes, all the work of a deft paintbrush. This all comes from independent artists competing for prizes and Nerd Immortality.
When you’re through painting your miniatures, why not turn them loose on a medieval Oktoberfest in a village of solid resin buildings?
This beauteous display comes from the righteous craftsmen of the Miniature Building Authority, and as you can see, new housing starts are not cheap in a fantasy world either:
For your money, at least, you get a Gandalf-topped tower whose every floor is a discrete component. All the better for slashing your way to the top one stair at a time.
When you’re bored with the exhibition hall, you can kill some time building a house of cards in the name of charity. It’s Cardhalla, a fund-raising event that lets attendees turn ubiquitous, superfluous Magic the Gathering cards into grand structures:
It seemed like the new game Leviathans was everywhere at this convention. I had arrived too late to play my scheduled demo of this flying steampunk battleships game, but I had plenty of time to enjoy the oversized models that, come on, are just too cool, whether or not the game is any good:
Also, giant drow warriors:
This guy is the famous Drizzt, who my son and I are just now discovering as we read the first of R.A. Salvatore’s many, many sword-and-sorcery tales.
There was so much, much more of this kind of visual feasting, it would explode the Internet to try and catalog it all.
2. Bespoke Goods, Tailor-Made on Site
Gen Con put a special emphasis on start-ups this year, and Entrepreneur’s Alley is where I ran across the nerdy stylings of Three Geeks and a Needle. I happened to be looking for an extra large dice bag to do blind drawings of tiles for the game Carcassone. When I explained to one of the titular geeks that I was looking for a bag big enough to draw tiles, she said, “Sort of like Carcassone?” Ah, yes, I should have known, my fellow Geeks would know what I was talking about. They had nothing in stock, however, for the size I wanted, and I nearly left in disappointment, when I was told, “We could make one for you. It could be done by tomorrow.” Indeed, the Geeks had their sewing machine in the booth, and after doing some hands-breadth guesstimating and selecting from their available fabrics, we settled on my custom design. When I arrived the next day, I was just in time to see these final touches being sewn into my brand new tile bag. (The Geeks apologized that it wasn’t quite done, but I insisted that getting to see my product leaving the assembly line was more than worth the slight wait.)
3. Games for the Sitting and the Savoring
This year I figured out how to use the event calendar at the Gen Con site to do more than just look at people playing games. With proper planning, I could be one of them! These game events are more than demos, they are complete play-throughs, and often take two or three hours to complete. They require careful planning if you want to sample them. One highlight was getting to play Defenders of the Realm — the guy running the game turned out to be the designer himself, the industry legend Richard Launius. Defenders is a fun and innovative cooperative game on its own; we players had a particularly great time because we could pick Richard’s brain about why he made certain design decisions. I’ll be buying this game as soon as my little Defenders are a couple of years older and a bit more worthy of the Realm.
Like a dummy I didn’t take a picture of the game in progress or of Richard, but I did manage to squeeze off a quick snap when my handsome, arrow-flinging ranger managed to kill Gorgutt, the dreaded orc general, and became … wait for it … the Orc Slayer!
Later that day, I sampled a new game called Deadwood from Fantasy Flight Games. This seemingly light little game had a surprising amount of depth. Players add buildings to a burgeoning Wild West town, sending in the cowboys from their ranches to sling guns, wreak havoc and jockey for position until the railroad finally arrives.
I enjoyed the ease of getting started and the simplicity of the decisions (which is ideal for my kids) and the longer we played I realized that if you choose to really puzzle through your choices, you could be rewarded by deeper analysis, too. This is perfect for my family demographic, and I brought a copy of this one home.
After a little deliberation, I tried another Fantasy Flight offering, the new Lord of the Rings: The Card Game:
I almost steered clear because the LOTR theme is pretty heavily milked in games, up to and including another Tolkien’d card game just a few years ago. But here’s a crucial difference: That old game was a collectible card game, which is the code word that means you can purchase box after box after box of randomized cards, and still never find the one Ultra-Rare Frodo you really needed to make a killer Hobbit deck, or whatever. I have zero interest in such frustrating money-sinks.
But this version’s a living card game, which means (apparently) when you buy a box, everyone gets the same thing. There are no mega-rares, no coveted card to chase. Plus it is a cooperative-style game that features the capability of solo play, and that suits the temperment of my house.
After our sample game, my review is that I think I like it — and may like it more on future plays — but it is pretty much the opposite of the Deadwood game I played right before it: not easy to pick up and run with, not easy to teach (except to other regular card gamers, it seems), and not easy to make a quick decision. For learning curve reasons alone, I’ll wait to buy this one.
A surprising dud turned out to have a surprising up-side. My final play of my first night was Cosmic Encounter, a classic game that has been printed and reprinted for the better part of 30 years. My favorite games podcast (The Dice Tower hosted by a where-does-he-find-the-time gamer named Tom Vasel) recenty ranked Cosmic Encounter the No. 1 game of its annual All-Time Best list, so I knew I wanted to give it a go.
How did I like it? The game ended before it got to my turn. No kidding. I was playing an alien race called the Observer, and I was the seventh of seven players; the game ended after the fifth player’s turn. Gameplay-wise, I sort of enjoyed it, because even though I never got to my own turn, I had plenty to do on others’ turns; the game is primarily an alliance-building and alliance-shattering exercise as each active player seeks the aid of others to attack or defend various planets. But before this table of newbies knew what it was doing, we had let a guy build an amazing lead that could not be stopped, and that, well, was a bit of a turnoff.
But here’s the up-side. The next day I’m walking the convention floor and who should walk past me but Dice Tower host Tom Vasel. I accost him and he’s generous enough to stop his purposeful stride and greet me. Immediately I put him on the spot about my deflating experience with his No. 1 game. He laughed and put the blame on our game tutor, who failed to show us how to put the brakes on the eventual winner. He implored me to give it another try, and I agreed I would. Nice guy.
Tom also gave me a ribbon to affix to my convention badge that advertised the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund. Tom set up the fund to help gamers in need, and it’s named after his infant son who was born prematurely and died earlier this year. I wore the ribbon proudly, and you can see it in the photo at the bottom of this post.
4. Games for the Breezing By
I also played a lot of walk-up-to-the-table demos of games. These quick-hit demos are sometimes harder to get into because there is no schedule; if you don’t get lucky by walking up to an empty seat, you must either wait 10-15 minutes for the current players to cycle out, or you watch over their shoulders as they get the quick overview.
My absolute favorite of these was this behemoth:
No, not that guy, the box — Fortune and Glory: The Cliffhanger Game — which is stuffed to the gills with plastic miniatures, dice and pretty, pretty cards. The premise is that you and your fellow players are Indiana-Jones-like adventurers in a 1930s pulp movie, scouring the globe in a race to find valuable artifacts. On your turn, as you press your luck to get closer and closer to your reward — the plunder of a hidden jungle city, for example — you find yourself in movie-like entanglements, such as fist-fights with mobsters or collapsing-wall traps. If you fail at overcoming one of these tasks, you are put into a Cliffhanger, and the play passes to the next person. It worked really well with our game demonstrator, pictured above, who spun our unfolding story like he was a cinematic voice-over.
Once when I (that is to say, my character: Jake Zane, Flying Ace) was investigating the Himalayas, I found myself in a boat chase with villains on my tail. (Why a boat chase in the Himalyas? Because games, that’s why!) When I failed the dice-rolling to shake these boat-borne bad guys, my Boat Chase card was flipped over to its “Cliffhanger” side, which read: “Waterfall!” Our demonstrator handled it beautifully: “As Jake Zane watches the bow of his boat plunge over the edge of the waterfall, the camera cuts away to reclusive novelist Alexander Cartwright and his quest deep inside the hidden city…”
Jake Zane eventually died trying to infiltrate a Nazi-filled zeppelin. Yeah, that’s the recipe for a great game. It costs — coughcough — 100 bones, so I’ll have to save up before I can bring this beauty home.
Apparently the game Quarriors was burning up the buzz charts, judging by the throngs of people huddled around the half-dozen-or-so tables to get a demo of this “dice-building” game:
I generally enjoyed the act of rolling fistfuls of dice (and adding to those handfuls by buying increasingly powerful dice from a common pool), but decided its gameplay and theme were not really a match for my house, and sighed in relief as I saved myself 40 bucks.
I’m a BIG FAN of Plaid Hat Games, having discovered them at last year’s Gen Con and going a little coocoo for their game Summoner Wars. This year they were demoing Dungeon Run, a tile-laying dungeon-crawler set in the Summoner Wars universe. I tried to turn up my nose at a common dungeon crawl (I mean how many board games have mined that theme?) but damned if I didn’t fall for this one. Quick, fun play, melded with equal parts cooperation and screwage between players. Dungeon Run will come home to me as soon as it’s released. Oh, and I picked up the Summoner Wars Master Set, which has six new armies for this zippy, clever, all-awesome-all-the-time, two-player card brawl.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Hey, That’s My Fish, the game with the worst name (sounds like it came straight out of a Target game aisle, from next to soulless corporate games with names like Grab That Pickle or Don’t Step in the Doo Doo!). HTMF is actually a brilliant little kid’s game of maneuvering and blocking, and Fantasy Flight had a miniature version for $14. HEY GAME INDUSTRY: If all your best children’s games, beginner games and gateway games were in affordable, portable packages like this, not only could more dads bring back souvenirs for their kids, but we could grow the hobby as a whole to the point where I would not have to drive to the middle of Indiana to meet other people who love games as much as I do. That’s free advice; you can use that.
All in all, Gen Con, you served up a delicious buffet of gaming entrees, and I gobbled it up. If I had a time machine, I’d totally go back and relieve this convention again. Oh, wait a second. I do!: