Going Analog

Where video game industry veterans introduce great board games to video gamers

The best and worst of Gen Con 2016 (staff edition)

We played a ton of games this year, and here are our takeaways.

Some of us Going Analog reviewers just got back from Gen Con, the annual big-deal convention for all things tabletop gaming. We played a ton of board games -- some so brand-spanking new that they're not even out in retail stores yet and some older ones that the show helped us discover.
​Read on to see what we liked and didn’t like! And also check out what other experts in the industry thought of Gen Con, with commentary by Board with Life, Geek and Sundry, Polygon, and more.

Shoe, Host/Reviewer:


Favorite game that I played: Mystic Vale
Have you played a deck-building game like Ascension or Dominion? Then you pretty much know what to do here. But you’re not building decks -- you’re building cards. I love this system of sleeving and overlaying clear cards on top of each other to create unique new ones. I wanted to play it again as soon as I got home.

Favorite game that I played (runner-up #1): Imhotep
As soon as the publisher’s rep finished explaining the rules, before I even took a single turn, I knew I was going to buy this game. It’s simple -- decide what your building blocks will be used for, such as building a pyramid or an obelisk -- then ship them off at the right time. Imhotep offers a lot of interesting choices to make plus pretty brisk turns.

Favorite game that I played (runner-up #2): Beyond Baker Street
This “hold your cards backwards and let your teammates give clues as to what you’re holding” game is clearly inspired by the award-winning Hanabi. And I love it. Card-counting is easy (and a must) to help solve little co-op mysteries.

The game I wish I got to play (but didn’t): Colony
Michael pointed out that I really love dice-placement games, and he’s right. I was drawn right away to Colony’s mechanic of rolling dice to get certain combinations in order to buy special buildings that will give you more gameplay options. I can tell that this one will be good, even without having actually played it.

Thing I loved most about Gen Con 2016: The demos
Give me more and more of them, please. I love walking through the dealer’s hall and just getting short samples of so many different and unique experiences. And playing these demos was so much more fun with the sleep-deprived and slap-happy goofballs below.

Thing I hated most about Gen Con 2016: That guy
He played Imhotep with Matt and me. He would carefully explain how awesome his strategies were, even after everyone at the table complimented him. We know it was a good move, dude. That’s why we said that was a good move. Also: body odor. I know Indianapolis was hot and humid, but damn -- Old Spice it up a little, won't you?

Michael Donahoe, reviewer:


Favorite game that I played: The Pursuit of Happiness
What's best in life besides crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentations of their women? Sex, duh! So here's my obligatory make-two-inanimate-objects-procreate analogy: Pursuit of Happiness plays like The Game of Life and The Sims birthed a baby board game. But unlike Game of Life and Sims, Pursuit of Happiness isn't stupidly simple and doesn’t require a degree in product management to be good at it. Instead, it's an accessible worker-placement game where you strive to have the happiest life ever...before you grow old and die. Fun!

Favorite game that I played (runner-up #1): Oceanos
When I first saw Oceanos, I thought to myself, "Man, this game looks deep!" And boy was I right. And, um, wrong, too (say wha?). Because, y'see, Oceanos may be an aquatic-themed game that has you exploring the depths of the ocean in a customizable submarine, but the gameplay is dirt simple: Like 7 Wonders (made by the same designer, by the way), it uses simple card-drafting mechanics. That means turns move fast and scoring is simple despite the fact that there are multiple ways to win. So, like I said: deep!

Favorite game that I played (runner-up #2): Mystic Vale
Even though I couldn't remember the name of this game -- I kept calling it "Mystic Valley" -- I totally won't forget its unique card-crafting system. On the surface, it's a fairly simple deck-building game where you buy new cards, add them to your deck, and then tally up your points at the end to see who wins. Pedestrian, right? Well, here's where things get interesting: Instead of buying complete cards, you "craft" new cards by adding pieces of them to your starting cards via transparent sleeves. If it sounds weird, it is. But Mystic Vale's "card-crafting system" is such a cool idea that's worthy of its buzzword-y branding.

The game I wish I got to play (but didn’t): Corrupted Kingdoms
I hate politics. I hate lobbying. And I hate cabinets (not literal cabinets -- they rule!). So I should have hated the idea of a political board game that has all these things. But take these ideas and throw in a bunch of vampires, goblins, and zombies? Sold! Or at least on the premise -- I sadly didn't have a chance to play Corrupted Kingdoms, but the idea of running a monster corporation and trying to pass bills sounded weirdly fun. Wait, did I just call politics fun? Ugh.

Thing I loved most about Gen Con 2016: Spandex guy
I got to see a dude wear a way-too-tight Darth Vader spandex biker outfit. Why? Gen Con! Aww yeah! That, and the fact I got to play so many random games (many of which I may have never played had I not gone) was so rad.

Thing I hated most about Gen Con 2016: Time
There was just not enough of it. Despite the fact we attended all four days of the show, I still left feeling like I didn't get to see/play everything. Also: The airport ran out of broccoli. WTF!

Stephanie Palermo, reviewer:


Favorite game that I played: The Big Book of Madness
Big Book really scratched that cooperative itch that I seem to get with great frequency. You’re each playing junior wizards with upgradable spells, working together to take down curses that appear with each turn of the big book’s pages in a timely manner before more curses come your team’s way. What I liked most about it is how it illustrates progression and the chaos level visually with the turn of each page and with the curse cards.

Favorite game that I played (runner-up #1): Imhotep
Imhotep is great if you like lots of interesting interaction. With one action per turn, each player needs to use it wisely. You may want to play one of your resources, but you can’t both play and ship your resources on the same turn. Deploying a resource opens up the next player to either work toward their own benefit or choose to sail your ship off to a less-than-ideal destination. You can pick this game up in minutes, but the level of strategic depth offered left me excited -- and the winning architect in our demo!

Favorite game that I played (runner-up #2): Grimslingers
I went into Gen Con hoping to discover at least one to two good co-op games worthy of traveling home with and ended up with a third thanks to this surprise find (the other being Dead Men Tell No Tales). Grimslingers is a story-driven, spell-slinging, sci-fi western, one- to four-player co-op game. The campaign contains about four chapters of a story estimated to last around 60-90 minutes each. When you’re not playing the campaign, you can also have fun slinging spells in duels with up to six players. If your spell has the same “number” (think, initiative) as another player or enemy, a duel is initiated which plays out like a speedy push-your-luck game of blackjack. I am looking forward to seeing how the campaign’s story evolves!

The game I wish I got to play (but didn’t): Mansions of Madness (Second Edition)
Mansions is one of my favorite games of all time, but the mandatory “dungeon master” (one versus all) doesn’t get to enjoy the unraveling mystery themselves. Said DM must also do most of the lengthy game setup alone due to secrecy requirements, which makes it a massive chore for someone to bring the game to the table. The new edition of Mansions introduces a phone app that eliminates the need for a DM, dictates setup tiles for each campaign, and displays the secret cards for you, so nothing is spoiled during setup. This is basically my board game dream come true. Oh, but I didn’t play this at Gen Con. I wished I did! So I just skipped to the “direct to the purchase” phase.

Thing I loved most about Gen Con 2016: Discoverability
There were games on my list pre-Gen Con I knew I wanted to check out, but the main hall and countless side rooms are the nature’s bounty of board game heaven. There’s never enough time to play and see it all, but you’re guaranteed to discover new and exciting games you wouldn’t have heard of elsewhere. Keep an open mind, and try as many games as possible!

Thing I hated most about Gen Con 2016: Quarterbackers
I ran into a few quarterback nerds during demos who insisted they had better moves in mind for my turn than moves I had chosen, even when it was their first time playing. That said, there were just as many welcoming people happy to invite newcomers to their groups and share their bounty of gaming goodness.

Matt Hickman, reviewer:


Favorite game that I played: Terraforming Mars
After following the sarcastic Mars rover for so long, I feel like I understand a bit of its pain: Mars is a harsh place. But what better way to make it a little nicer than bringing your friends and trying to make it habitable? The theme was a big hit for me. The semi-cooperative nature of working together to bring up the temperature, ocean levels, and overall habitability while competing for victory points and ultimately the lion’s share of Mars is awesome. Seeing the planet literally come to life (and weighing the benefit of the planet against your own victory conditions) is exciting, conflicting and challenging. It’s like Archipelago, but in Terraforming Mars you’re only conquering barren rock!

Favorite game that I played (runner-up #1): Imhotep
What’s better than building immortal monuments to dead politicians? Imhotep is such a simple, easy-to-understand take on worker placement, yet the quarry/boat mechanic adds infinite strategic depth to this game. The art is nice, it plays quick, and building tiny wooden monuments is extremely gratifying. This one also seems like it will scale to two players very well.

Favorite game that I played (runner-up #2): Unfair
My surprise hit of the show. If Terraforming and Imhotep weren’t so well executed (and complete) this would have won for me. I probably would have walked right by it if it weren’t for Michael’s deep love of amusement parks, and I’m super glad I played. A really fun builder using cards to construct attractions and hire staff to draw the most guests. The play is fairly simple, but the perfectly integrated theme, the thoughtful and extremely well-executed art, and fun mechanics make this a must-buy for me. But this is where the catch comes in: Unfair will be a Kickstarter game. Now, they already had printer proofs, so I’m not worried about their ability to deliver, but it means I need to wait months to get it! So please back this wonderful game, so I can have it and play it again.

The game I wish I got to play (but didn’t): The Pursuit of Happiness
Another Michael-influenced one. I watched a little bit of it, and the idea of “Sims the board game” meets a well-designed version of Life was deeply appealing. Unfortunately I didn’t get to play this super bright, colorful, lively game because Stronghold Games’ magic was in full force this con, and I couldn’t get near the thing.

Thing I loved most about Gen Con 2016: Demos, demos everywhere
The thing about board games: Until you get your hands on it and actually play a turn, it’s so hard to tell a boring one from a great one. Gen Con is a wonderland for this. Virtually every booth had demos, most of them tailored to be 10-15 minutes long to give you a nice bite-size sample. For some larger games, short demos may raise more questions and make you hunger for more. But for most, it’s the perfect length to help you decide if you really want that card-drafting, hamburger-building game (which you do).

Thing I hated most about Gen Con 2016: The event ticket system
Having to buy tickets in advance for miscellaneous rooms and demos sucks and discourages spontaneous play. I’m not talking specific events like True Dungeon or chain-mail crafting that have finite seats and require money coming in to cover costs. But there were few bigger disappointments than walking up to BoardGameGeek’s room full of games and being told that it would cost close to $50 for our group to play for two hours. I understand the need of paying for a venue and ensuring people don’t just spam registration for events that they have no intention of attending. But this seems like a poor solution to this problem. More than once I saw a game I was interested in and ended up walking away from simply because I didn’t want to pay $4 to try a $25 game. So we ended up going to places that welcomed us for free -- Kosmos’ play area, for example, which got two of us to buy Imhotep. Board games already require a sizeable investment to get in the door. Why raise another wall once you’ve gotten them interested?

Christina Ha, narrator/reviewer


Favorite game that I played: The Big Book of Madness
Iello’s very challenging co-op has great art (by Naiade of Tokaido fame) and is also about casting spells and saving your magic school from evil. Players really have to strategize on how to maximize turns and support each other. It has very interesting mechanics layered on top of a deck-building base, such as using “telepathy” to give a teammate an additional action to play something out-of-turn.

Favorite game that I played (runner-up #1): Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle
Another co-op deck-builder about casting magic! For pure theme and Harry Potter nerdiness, Hogwarts Battle can’t be beat. The starter decks are tailored to your character (Hermione has a Time-Turner, Neville has Trevor, etc.), and you really have to work together to heal each other and prevent the dark villains from controlling crucial locations. A surprisingly difficult demo! Great gateway deck-building for anyone who loves Harry Potter. Now to wait until September for this release....

Favorite game that I played (runner-up #2): Grifters
This definitely flew under my radar until the last day of the show. It explores the criminal underbelly of the Coup universe with a “hand-building” mechanic rather than deck-building; you must strategically cycle through a crew of criminals to have enough specialists on hand to complete your dirty missions and steal enough credits to win. I loved Grifters because it reminded me of Coup but without the lying!

The game I wish I got to play (but didn’t): Oceanos
But now we own it. I won’t get to savor my regret for long.

Thing I loved most about Gen Con 2016: Everyone loves games!
People love games, the hotels around the convention center love games, the local businesses love games, games, games, gaaaaames.

Thing I hated most about Gen Con 2016: A few negative nerds
OK, I get it, you really know games and have opinions! You don’t have to poop on everyone else’s parade.