Going Analog

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

Gen Con 2019: The best (the best!!) games of the show

Our favorite board games from our favorite board game convention, as determined by our friends...er, a panel of experts

We really shouldn't do this "Game of the Show" thing with Gen Con. No doubt, the tabletop-gaming convention's stature justifies it: It's North America's largest with nearly 70,000 attendees and more than 500 exhibitors (that's a helluva lot of games). But let us tell you how impossible this task is:

  • Combined, all the contributors to this article didn't even play half the games at the show, even though we packed all four days and nights with demos after demos. (We have the dark circles beneath our eyes to prove it.)
  • It’s impossible to look at any of this objectively. Maybe we enjoyed a game less because the person giving us the demo was a jackass (it's happened) or wasn’t good at teaching anything (ditto). Or maybe our group was really into something because we were all in a good mood, right after our morning coffee kicked in.
  • It’s really difficult to distinguish what makes something a “Gen Con game” to begin with. Some of the titles there have been out for many years. Some won’t be out for another couple.

So let’s make this simple: For purposes of this article, a “Game of the Show” has to be something we played directly due to our presence at Gen Con, whether it’s new or old. And it can be based on a quick, scaled-down demo, which may not represent the full product after several full plays. Finally, the names you see below are staff, contributors, or friends of Going Analog.

Alright, enough qualifications. Let’s get on with it! (And if you’d rather listen than read -- even though you’ve read this far -- go check out our Gen Con wrap-up episode on our bi-weekly podcast.)

Game of the Show: Letter Jam

Publisher: Czech Games Edition
Designer: Ondra Skoupý

Judge: Shoe, editor-in-chief, Going Analog

Nothing about Letter Jam screams “Game of the Show” material. It’s a cooperative word game. It’s a party game...maybe? But the strategy that goes into giving your teammates the perfect clue word to help them figure out what hidden-to-them letters they’re holding is oh so satisfying. Letter Jam is also responsible for my biggest disappointment of the show: I didn’t buy it when I had a chance, and it was sold out by the time I got around to it. It’s a long wait until its October release….

Shoe’s runners-up: Dead Man’s Cabal (Pandasaurus), Foundations of Rome (Arcane Wonders)

Game of the Show: Dead Man's Cabal

Publisher: Pandasaurus
Designer: Daniel Newman

Judge: Christina Ha, host, Going Analog Podcast

It's really difficult to come up with an elevator pitch for Dead Man's Cabal. You can’t really call it “worker placement,” “roll and write,” “deckbuilding,” or any of the other easy-to-categorize genres. It's just different!

I love the unique gameplay, the great skull and bone components, and the theme: We're weirdo necromancers who want to throw a dead man's party, but we have no guests, so we'll go and raise some. Planning ahead to take the action you want while strategizing a mandatory shared public action leads to some interesting decisions -- and you hope the skulls will fall your way in the ritual chamber!

(Full disclosure: Pandasaurus supplied Going Analog a copy of this game.)

Christina’s runner-up: Foundations of Rome (Arcane Wonders)

Game of the Show: Hadara

Publisher: Z-Man
Designer: Benjamin Schwer

Judge: Amanda Farough, editor-in-chief, GameDaily.biz

Hadara caught me off guard -- it's not usually the kind of game that I enjoy playing. I was apprehensive about potentially fiddly rules that would annoy me, but Hadara is a surprisingly approachable experience despite all of the moving pieces. The game is about creating civilizations over the course of three in-game epochs. You choose your strategy -- spread culture, conquer through war, create commerce, cultivate agriculture -- and try to edge out the competition.

It's tricky because you don't want your competition to get too far ahead in military, agriculture, or commerce as each of those pieces contribute to how much culture you'll have earned to purchase things like medals and statues. Focus too heavily on military, and your culture will wither. Focus too much on commerce, and you might not have enough food to feed the wide array of artisans, philosophers, and mighty leaders that you've attracted through your wealth. Ignore military, and your competition will sweep through and conquer before you get the chance to earn those victory points.

Hadara's charm is in how quickly it moves, especially in a two-player game. And while one misstep in tactics might hinder you for the round, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're out of the game. And that's what I liked most about it: Making a mistake requires the player to adapt and make different decisions to make up for it.

Amanda's runners-up: Sinister Six (Spin Master), Letter Jam (Czech Games Edition), Mezo (Kolossal)

Game of the Show: Marvel Champions: The Card Game

Publisher: Fantasy Flight
Designers: Michael Boggs, Nate French, Caleb Grace

Judge: Jess Yi, contributor, Going Analog

The theme really comes alive as you battle with your fellow heroes to defeat a villainous threat. Players are able to openly assist one another with abilities and resources while the scenario becomes increasingly difficult as the game progresses. And the one mechanic that really stood out: being able to flip a character card to either the hero side or alter ego side, which thematically determines card actions and abilities.

Fans of Arkham Horror: TCG or The Lord of the Rings: TCG will be happy to know that designers from both games worked on this one, and the core set now has everything you need to play up to four players -- no more having to buy two core sets with redundant cards! 

Jess’s runners-up: Parks (Keymaster), Dragonscales (Arcane Wonders)

Game of the Show: Dragonscales

Publisher: Arcane Wonders
Designer: Richard Launius

Judge: Joe Canalin, contributor, Going Analog

Sometimes, I get so caught up in trying to find the next big competitive board game. Often times this comes at the expense of a game that is just silly fun to play. Dragonscales is that silly fun game and my Game of the Show for Gen Con 2019. 

Dragonscales has you taking down a big villain by teaming up with a bunch of lesser villains -- the type who have a really hard time playing nice with each other. Do you actually work together to defeat the dragon? Or do you make a mad dash for the exit, leaving everyone else in the dust?

The game offers a mix of dice placement and card playing. And it has more than its fair share of “take that” elements, which can normally feel unfair or too cutthroat for the average gamer. But it feels balanced here and led to some of the biggest laughs that I’ve had this year. It’s a game that reminds you that sometimes, winning isn’t everything, though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try -- even if it’s at the expense of a few friendships along the way.

Joe’s runners-up: Letter Jam (Czech Games Edition), Marvel Champions: The Card Game (Fantasy Flight)

Game of the Show: ShipShape

Publisher: Calliope
Designer: Rob Daviau

Judge: Michael Leung, contributor, Going Analog

ShipShape has everything I am looking for in a board game. Being a dad with a two-year-old means dealing with a shrinking amount of time to expend on games. This means I set a pretty high bar for my ideal game: plays under an hour, competitive, has strategic depth, easy to teach, and fun (of course!). ShipShape checked all those boxes for me.

Michael’s runners-up: Parks (Keymaster), Potemkin Empire (Indie Boards & Cards)