Gen Con 2018 approaches! Somehow the largest board game convention in North America seems to sneak up on us every year right up until the point where suddenly it’s the only thing the entire hobby is talking about. By now you’ve probably seen all sorts of preview videos, press announcements, and a bevy of Top Ten lists bandied about like candy at Halloween. And today, I’m going to add one more piece of sweet, sweet gaming goodness to the mix with my own annual preview list. This was an annual segment I used to do on our podcast, but with it no longer in operation, we’re now doing it here instead.
Compiling titles for such a concise list is no easy task if you want to be thorough, and every year seems to get incrementally harder. This year’s massive Indy-based gaming event is boasting over 600 unique titles on the formal BGG preview list – half of which are standalone games actually for sale.
That’s…a lot of cardboard.
With all of those games jostling for your attention, your shelf space, and your hard earned dollars, it can be positively overwhelming for the average consumer to process, let alone the enfranchised gamers that live for such things. For most people, trying to absorb that much information is like trying to wrestle a runaway tidal wave. Where does one even begin trying to navigate such a massive array of potential options? What should you prioritize, and what is worth passing on?
It can be daunting at the best of times, but it also doesn’t help if you keep seeing the same names over and over again.
By now, with Gen Con 48 hours away, you’ve seen a litany of outlets talking about which New Hotness to check out, from marquee titles, to what’s topping the BGG popularity meter, to which games are working their way through social media buzz. I’m not here to add to that cacophony. Today’s list isn’t going to just be another mention of the top five most popular games or the five likely go get the most attention.
The reasons for that are twofold. First, it’s simply not helpful to you to hear the same information you’ve probably been inundated with from numerous other places. Second, and more pertinently, putting out yet another preview list that only focuses on the same handful of titles as everyone else does no service to the literally hundreds of other games being shown off at Gen Con. So, yes, we could sit here and talk about Root and Reef and Detective and Forbidden Sky and The Reckoners and so on. But I won’t.
Instead may I present a short list of games reflecting Gen Con 2018. The first series are a handful of newly released titles that I’m personally interested in checking which aren’t guaranteed to be climbing the buzz meters and may or may even not show up on a lot of other lists. That is followed up by a pair of unpublished games to keep an eye on, and then, as listeners of the podcast will know, my two annual convention predictions. The first is the title I feel that has been way overhyped for what it is, ultimately leading to a game with a overwrought or unjustified expectations. The second is my guess at the convention’s Sleeper Hit – a game getting relatively little attention going into the convention that will jump significantly in popularity afterwards.
So, with that, let’s run down my Off-Radar Games for Gen Con 2018.
Gen Con is nothing if not a smorgasbord of shiny new games to entice your eyes, hearts, and wallets, and even the most picky gamers are bound to find a few titles to interest them along the way. Here are a few titles that have caught my attention for one reason or another.
Publisher: CMON | Players: 2-4 | Play Time: 40-50 Minutes
Gizmos is precisely the kind of game that caters to my inner tinkerer on two levels. Firstly, as the name implies, the game is all about building things. In this game, players are contestants in a science fair, and your goal is to build the best new Whoosits and Whatsits possible. Building these engines not only help you win, but they also propel the game forward.
Second, this game adds a 3D component to it in the form of a physical device with marbles that you need to remove in order to help build said engines, raising the entertainment level by adding a colorful and visceral side to the experience. You get to invent things and it uses physical pieces to accomplish that in a non-dexterous way? Great Scott!
Kashgar: Merchants of the Silk Road
Publisher: Grail Games | Players: 2-4 | Play Time: 45 Minutes
Technically speaking, Kashgar isn’t a new game per se, but until now the game has only been available in German. Thanks to Grail Games, this caravan-focused game has reached the English-speaking world by way of a successful Kickstarter. A Kickstarter I regrettably didn’t get in on. So this is my first chance to check it out.
The main hook to Kashgar is that it’s deckbuilder-adjacent, making an interesting twist on the genre. In this game, players are competing over control of three trade caravans bringing spice from Asia to Europe. To do this, players influence the state of the game by playing cards publicly to the caravans themselves in an open table manner. Your cards interact with those already there, helping further your goals and effectively making Kashgar an open hand-building / deckbuilding game at each of the three locations. Like all games in this territory, it starts off simple but can get a bit more tricky as the card interactions ramp up. I simply can’t resist investigating new deckbuilding ideas, even – especially – if they deviate in some way, and so here we are.
Publisher: CMON / Cranio Games | Players: 2-4 | Play Time: 60-100 Minutes
A second CMON title on the list by sheer coincidence, Newton is easily one of the less touted new titles in this publisher’s lengthy catalog of new material at Gen Con 2018. Which for those of us who enjoy card-driven Euro games is a shame, because on the surface there seems like there’s a lot to like with this one. Newton takes place during the scientific revolution of the 17th century and focused on the works of the brightest minds of the time, including a little-known scientist named Isaac Newton. (He’s got a lot of potential I hear.)
Played over several rounds, players are trying to become the next great scientist of the age, joining many of the influential people of their era who will ultimately go down in history. To do this, players use cards from their hand to take actions, which are influenced by various effects on the board. The novel twist is that at the end of each round players must leave one of their action cards behind. You lose the ability to use that card, but its effect becomes more powerful. New cards are gained throughout the process, avoiding it becoming a diminishing action situation, but it still leaves plenty of room for strategic thinking and planning. The whole thing makes it feel like a distant cousin of Concordia to me, and if that turns out to be remotely accurate, I’ll be quite happy.
Publisher: Brain Games | Players: 3-5 | Play Time: 30 Minutes
Most of the attention at this year’s Brain Games booth is undoubtedly going to be focused on the release of Ice Cool 2, the followup to their smashing casual game hit. Yet while I enjoy penguin-flicking antics as much as the next person (and I do), my primary focus is actually on their less advertised title, Pikoko. Pikoko is a quick trick-taking game with straightforward scoring.
The wonky thing about this one is that it’s a trick-taking game played Hanabi style. Yes, in this lightweight card game, you’re still playing cards and trying to win as many sets as you can, but you can’t actually see your own hand. Instead, you see everyone else’s colorful cards – held there by cute cardboard holders in the shape of peacocks, with the cards as its plumage, and you actually play cards from the hand of the player next to you. Seeing the majority of the cards in use helps you be tactical with which cards to play when and in determining how many tricks you can feasibly win, rather than making purely mental assumptions or playing blindly. Whether it’s the next best thing or merely a gimmick remains to be seen, but this is one trick-taking experience I’m eager to try. I want to see how much it shakes up a format that can sometimes get a reputation for being repetitive, and occasionally, even a little stale.
The Rise of Queensdale
Publisher: alea / Ravensburger | Players: 2-4 | Play Time: 45-60 Minutes
Of all the titles on my shortlist, Queensdale I probably have the most questions about, but I’m intrigued enough to want to pursue it further. Partially because I’m a glutton for punishment. The Rise of Queensdale is the latest in the growing series of legacy games, and the modest attention (or lack thereof) going into Gen Con makes me wonder if legacy games have already reached peak saturation or if there’s something about this one that’s making people cautious. (It could also just be the 300 other new games out there too. Just saying…) There’s only one way to find out!
In The Rise of Queensdale, players have been tasked by the King to travel into a new region and build a city worthy of the crown. Your goal over the course of multiple playthroughs is to gather resources, upgrade your stuff, and collectively affect the state of the town through the various actions that you take. Admittedly the pitch gives off a very Charterstone vibe to it, but there are notable differences here. For one, it is a dice worker placement game, which often adds its own wrinkles, and cursory investigation of the rules leads me to believe that there are more peaks and valleys by comparison, with the decisions made by players having a more drastic impact on the state of the game – for better or worse. This could be quite compelling as a result, with each playthrough genuinely feeling different based on the actions of those involved. The thematic side may be a little generic, but there seems to be more innovation under the hood than it seems at first glance. If I’m right, and I hope that I am, this one may be poised to do quite well in the months ahead.
Gen Con may be known as the main North American gaming event for brand new releases, but as an expo style convention it’s also a hotbed for game pitches, demos, and signings. Beneath the glitz of all the new releases, there also exists a veritable hotbed of prototypes – not to mention a perfect means for publishers to showcase upcoming games to entice you down the line.
While there are a couple dozen unreleased games I’ll be making a concerted effort to check out, these two stand out the most for me.
Bee Lives: We Will Only Know Summer
Publisher: Hit ‘Em With a Shoe | Players: 1-4 | Play Time: 30-120 Minutes
Euro games aren’t traditionally known for their deep and creative thematic elements, and while that doesn’t generally stop me from enjoying a crunchy, strategic cube-pushing puzzle, I’d be lying if I said that theme doesn’t matter at all. If anything, the more thematic one can make a Euro-style game, the better off both the genre and the hobby are.
Bee Lives is one of the more esoteric Euro themes I’ve come across, and if nothing else I’m itching to see how it’s trying to pull it off. Bee-flavored games aren’t unheard of, but this is by far the heaviest game I’ve seen using it as its backdrop. In this resource management game, players spend several rounds managing a bee hive and are trying to ensure that your bees are the most successful. What makes it interesting though is that players must not only contend with their internal hive-building struggles, but they have to take into account a communal external environment that’s directly influenced by everyone in the game.
Between the internal/external tension, uncommon theme, and the desire to add some extra beauty to a sometimes bland slice of the gaming world, you better bee-lieve I’m checking it out.
City of the Big Shoulders
Publisher: Parallel Games | Players: 2-4 | Play Time: 120-180 Minutes
Speaking of dry Euro games…this brings me to my other Must See demo of mention. It’s not exactly flashy or eye-catching at first glance, but it’s one I’m sort of determined to see this year in earnest.
Mostly because I was actually supposed to see this one in action with the designer during Gen Con 2017, but due to a series of unfortunate timing events, that moment of glory never materialized.
I’m not letting that mistake happen again.
City of the Big Shoulders is not a game for everyone, certainly. It takes place in Chicago during the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. Spanning several decades, the game’s main hook is that it mixes the economics and stock manipulation parts of an 18XX game with the traditional action-taking behavior of a worker placement game. The result is a heavy Euro with all of the brain-burning, long-term planning attributes that I (and most Tacticians) personally enjoy in a game, all in about 150 minutes. For those of us who like a game you can really dig into it but don’t have the means or interest in day-long rail games, City of the Big Shoulders seems like the kind of heavyweight compromise worth checking out.
For all the titles listed at Gen Con, most come and go without a ton of fanfare. Only a small percentage get widespread attention. Sometimes this is by mere word of mouth, but often it’s due to a combination of effective publisher marketing, name brand recognition of the designer or publisher, and in small doses, the media arm of the hobby helping hype it up.
An overhyped game doesn’t necessarily mean the game is bad. Rather, it just means that due to all of its inflated attention, it has reached a state where it can’t possibly fulfill the level of unrealistic expectation that’s been bestowed upon it. My pick for the Overhyped Game of Gen Con 2018 is:
Publisher: Pandasaurus Games | Players: 3-5 | Play Time: 30-45 Minutes
I feel almost a little bad bestowing this title on this game, because in isolation, it has a fantastic series of anecdotes that are absolutely praiseworthy. It’s innovative and explores gaming by literally changing your perception of how to play a game. It was designed by a college student for her blind uncle, and it passes that experience on to the players in a game that mixes asymmetric gameplay with an in-game tension fueled by sensory deprivation.
There are a lot of laudable traits to Nyctophobia, and it’s a hell of a feel-good creation story. But like other title earners of past years, it’s a pedestal it likely shouldn’t have been put on in the first place.
Again, it’s not that this game is bad. Rather, it’s just that it’s not going to have the level of widespread appeal it’s being made out to. This is a game where all but one of the players sits at the table with blinders on, progressing through the game in total darkness as they try to find their way through a physical maze. Meanwhile, one player works against the table trying to undermine and prevent the group from escaping.
That’s all well and good, but while it will be popular in the grander gaming spheres for a hot minute, a game where you spend the entire time with a mask on isn’t going to be the preferred way for many to spend their game night. It’s certainly different and enjoyable in small doses, but despite a version finding its way onto Target shelves, I still predict it’s simply not going to have the level of lasting widespread appeal some are unfairly putting on it.
Which, in this game’s case, is kind of a shame. For a game about exploring darkness, the last thing it needed was to be put under a too-bright spotlight.
Despite the efforts of the board game industry to do so, no game is guaranteed to be a hit. No matter how much industry knowledge, market trend info, or media pull you have, there is no magic bullet that will ensure any given game is going to be received exactly as you expect. Some games are predicted to become massively successful only to fail horribly, whereas others come on to the scene with little notice and take off like mad. The Sleeper pick focuses on the latter.
The Sleeper is a bit of an exercise I started a number of years ago in trying to predict what I thought was a game with serious potential that no one was actively paying attention to going into the convention. This started with guessing the sleeper hit of Essen Spiele was since we don’t get to go but has sense evolved to where I do it for any convention where a sufficiently decent number of titles are released.
Yet while I’ve historically had good luck predicting ones for Essen, Gen Con has always proven a wee bit trickier.
But let’s not let that stop us, shall we? We won’t know for sure until at least a month or so after the convention if this one holds up, but at any rate, my educated guess for the Gen Con Sleeper will be:
Spirits of the Forest
Publisher: ThunderGryph Games | Players: 1-4 | Play Time: 20 Minutes
Historically the Gen Con Sleeper tends to be a game that is accessible, replayable, affordable, and quick. Spirits of the Forest fits all of those criteria. Not only is the game easy to teach, but it plays in under a half hour and its (mostly) card-based gameplay keeps the price point low. The game was originally a highly successful Kickstarter, which helped pay for some excellent production quality.
It also happens to be incredibly colorful in an eye-catching way, which always helps draw attention.
In this card drafting, set collection style game, players are elemental forces looking to collect the most of nine different spirits, represented as icons on gridded tiles on the board. Each turn players collect two of these tiles, all with the goal of trying to have the majority of each spirit at the end of the game. Picking up specific tiles can also have a bearing on how certain spirits are scored. Whoever scores the most points is the winner. It’s that simple.
Spirits of the Forest is certainly one game I’m planning on checking out, if nothing else than to see the final product. But with its simplistic-yet-approachable style, combined with a decent presentation and easy rule set, methinks that quite a few others may be checking this one out too in the days and weeks ahead…