Bringing in more than 60,000 people, the annual Gen Con gaming convention has gotten so large that this year’s event in Indianapolis expanded beyond the Indiana Convention Center to Lucas Oil Stadium and game companies’ unofficial off-site parties and pop-ups. The exhibit hall was as crowded as ever, with some games selling out before anyone but the “Very Important Gamer” premium ticket-holders had a chance to buy them, while others required reservations or hour-long waits to play a demo. Luckily, the scale of the event means there were always plenty of booths where you could just stroll up and play a game, sometimes with the designer explaining the rules. Here’s a taste of what I played during the four-day August event.
The gist: Seven samurai try to defend a village from a horde of ninja.
How it’s played: This strictly two-player game puts one person in control of the titular ronin, while the other fields an army of ninja. The ninja’s goal is to take over five zones on the village map, while the ronin have to kill them all or survive for eight rounds. Some ronin are focused on combat and want to be in areas with ninja so that they can easily kill them or soak up hits for the fragile support ronin, who need to be uncontested to pull off powerful tricks. Meanwhile, ninja left unopposed can activate an occupied zone’s ability, poisoning your ronin or forcing them to stay on the board at the end of a round so that the ninja player knows exactly where to plan an ambush. Each player chooses where they’re going to deploy their forces each round by laying them out on a mini-board behind a screen, then both players reveal their formations. It results in some seriously complicated doublethink, as the ronin player guesses which zones the ninja will try to trigger while also accounting for the possibility of ninja going into largely useless zones in the hopes of ambushing a support character.
Both sides are likely to face heavy losses before the game ends. Ninja who encounter ronin automatically die, but the ronins’ health is decidedly finite. In later rounds, the ninja player gets the chance to field forces on more places on the board, meaning the ronin might get off to a strong start but will quickly feel pressured. Our game felt close and tense up until the penultimate round, and the countless permutations of strategies guarantee that no two games will play out exactly alike.
Release status: Available through Grey Fox Games.
The gist: Build a submarine to explore the ocean in search of fish, treasure, and coral.
How it’s played: Oceanos’ kid-friendly concept and adorable art make it perfect for families, but it’s also complex enough that a group of adults can get very involved in trying various strategies. Each turn, players pick between two cards. The discarded card goes to the round’s dealer, and your pick is laid down in a row that represents the area your submarine is exploring. Some cards let you pick up upgrades for your vessel, such as an improved periscope that gives you access to more card choices or extra divers you can deploy to pick up treasure that’s worth points at the end of the game. These upgrades are charmingly portrayed by reassembling your sub and swapping in more impressive tiles as if they were puzzle pieces. The upgrades you prioritize shape your strategy, so you might be looking to find as many different types of fish as possible or focusing on fuel so that you can take advantage of a good hand by playing more than one card at once.
There are also tiles with kraken eyes that should largely be avoided. If you have the most, the kraken will show up and give you negative points—but you can try to come in just under your neighbor to take advantage of the powerful effects a kraken card can have. Because treasure is worth a random number of points at the end of the game and your previous choices don’t overly impact your decisions in the next round, you never feel too far behind and players can pull ahead surprisingly quickly. The biggest struggle might be staying focused on what your neighbors are up to instead of ogling the images of hammerhead sharks dressed in dapper top hats.
Release status: Oceanos will be available in October.
Pathfinder Role-Playing Game: Horror Adventures
The gist: Everything you need to run a Pathfinder game that will give your players nightmares.
How it’s played: Lovecraftian horrors and undead monsters have been showing up in Pathfinder for years, but this supplement to the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired role-playing game lets you up the horror factor by providing rules for everything from driving characters insane to having them slowly succumb to vampirism, curses, and horrific diseases. This new book might spark an entirely new adventure but it also offers plenty of material that can be integrated into your existing campaign as well, providing new archetypes for most of the game’s existing classes that fit into the horror setting and are suitable for both heroes and villains, plus new spells, monsters, and rules for corrupted locations if you want to make a haunted house or dark forest. The whole thing is packed with flavor and deeply unsettling art. If you see your game master reading this book, you should be afraid.
Release status: Released at Gen Con and available now.
The gist: Build up a mid-1800s Massachusetts town and hunt whales to make money.
How it’s played: The game is split between a town board—where you gather resources needed to launch ships, keep them at sea, and process caught whales—and the ocean, where you spend each turn drawing tiles that represent what types of whales you catch. Depressingly and accurately, the number of whales is set at the start of the game, and if you get into the whaling game late, your hunting isn’t going to be easy. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to spend time in town. Players who don’t have enough money to process all the blubber they bring back wind up having to sell their catch at auction, where a player who spent their turns building banks can leap ahead and win.
Release status: Available for purchase through Greater Than Games.
Cthulhu: A Deck Building Game
The gist: Fight Lovecraftian horrors and their cultists using moxie and magic.
How it’s played: One to six players work to defeat Elder Gods by doing battle against lesser evils and picking up cards that will help them, such as spells and weapons. They also have to contend with Mythos events that can have even nastier effects than the monsters themselves. Sanity and health are resources that need to be spent to achieve victory, but if they bottom out, you’re out of the game.
Considering that Horror Adventures, Z-Man Games’ Pandemic: Reign Of Cthulhu, and Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror: The Card Game were all getting prominent previews at Gen Con, it’s easy to feel Lovecraft fatigue. Cthulhu: A Deck Building Game distinguishes itself with the number of possible heroes and antagonists, a focus on gear, and a highly customizable difficulty level based on how many Elder Gods you have to defeat to win and the frequency of those dangerous Mythos events.
Release status: Kickstarter backers should be receiving the game in September, and it will be available to purchase in early October.
Council Of Blackthorn
The gist: Win the favor of the kingdom so that you can succeed an aging king.
How it’s played: This could also be described as King’s Landing the board game, with players each controlling a different member of the king’s council who is seeking to influence their kingdom’s four political factions. Dice rolls determine how much influence you can gain with a faction by playing complimentary cards. If you have a certain amount of influence with a group, playing those cards can also get you powerful secondary effects. Those effects never happen when the dice are giving the maximum influence, but when the dice are at the minimum they happen regardless of your current score with a faction. That means there’s never dead cards—players just have to be strategic about when to play what.
There’s also a sub-game with players avoiding and passing around treason cards worth an unknown number of points. In true Game Of Thrones fashion, this is something you can’t ignore since no matter how well you play during the rest of the game, if you have the most treason points at the end, you’ve lost the king’s trust and, in turn, your head.
Release status: Great Northern Games plans to ship Council Of Blackthorn to Kickstarter backers this month and it will be available to purchase in September.
The gist: Eat as much food as you can to be the biggest, strongest goblin.
How it’s played: Each turn, players can grab something from a set of cards laid out in the middle or use a card in front of them. These include food worth various values of points when eaten, weapons you can use to attack your fellow players and steal their food, and special one-use cards that can let you do things like makes an opponent puke out the chow they’ve already eaten. The game’s goofy and fast and seems like it would be a hit with kids, requiring very little strategy beyond some basics—try to not make yourself a target by grabbing the biggest food on the table, and avoid making enemies by picking on certain players too much. You also have to be aware of what cards are in the middle pile. If there’s ever no food to be had, all the cards are cleared from both the center and your hands, upsetting your plans for future turns. All that discarding also speeds up the end of the game, which can leave you unprepared if you were favoring a long-term strategy.
Release status: Available for purchase from Midnight Campaign Games.
7 Wonders Duel: Pantheon
The gist: Build your civilization, but don’t forget to appease the gods.
How it’s played: The first expansion for 7 Wonders Duel, the two-player version of 7 Wonders that was released last year, expands on the game by integrating deities from a variety of ancient pantheons that you can appeal to for powerful effects. Picking cards from the first age gets you mythology tokens, giving you the power to play divinities whose position on the table determines their relative cost to activate. It costs less gold to gain the favor of gods near you, but once a god is placed in one of the board’s slots, you can’t move them even if you find a god you’d prefer to have nearby. The key is deciding which powers you’re likely to want to use based on your strategy and investing wisely.
Appealing to the gods in the game’s second and third age means you won’t get to take a card during that round, but this can actually prove a boon when you don’t want to pick something up and accidentally give your opponent access to a powerful card further in the stack. It adds an extra layer of tactics to the game, much like 7 Wonders Babel did for the seven-player version. The one flaw is that the effects of a god’s divine intervention are so powerful that you’ll want to jump on them as soon as they’re available, meaning the expansion’s impact is limited in the game’s third round to the addition of temple cards, which provide big rewards for the end of the game but add little flavor.
Release status: Asmodee plans to release 7 Wonders Duel: Pantheon later in 2016.
The gist: Steal gold and gems and use your ill-gotten goods.
How it’s played: This dice game is about being exactly the right amount of greedy. Each turn starts with a player rolling a set of dice with sides that represent different types of gems, bags of gold, or points for your final score. Then, the roller chooses which dice to keep and which to put back in the center. Successive players can choose to take some number of dice from the center or steal all of another player’s dice, keeping some and re-rolling at least one to go back in the center. When every player has at least some dice in front of them, the round ends and you take your goods to the market where you can purchase cards representing corrupt officials, fences, and security systems that have lasting effects, like letting you buy extra cards during the market phase or changing the face of certain dice.
Each card’s cost is represented by different colored dice, so the key is figuring out what you want to buy and trying to get the dice to support that without hording so many that you become a target of theft and have all your plans ruined. With a group that isn’t good at that sort of risk assessment, rounds could easily go way too long. But if you do have the right table, Thief’s Market is easy to pick up with enough strategy and randomness to be fun to master.
Release status: The game has been distributed to Kickstarter backers and should be generally available at gaming stores and online later this year.
The gist: Armies of robots do battle by strategically fusing into larger robots.
How it’s played: A tactical game by Zephyr Workshop, A.E.G.I.S. lets each player choose from more than 60 different robots across five classes—some specialize in straightforward offense while others repair your forces or slow down your enemies—to design a mechanical army. Different types of robots can be fused together to create more powerful machines, and figuring out when and how to combine them is key. Robots don’t get to act the round they fuse, so you’re giving your opponent an edge by having fewer units attacking them or taking support actions. The game makes up for it by giving some of the advanced robots a special effect when they fuse, like doing damage to everything around them, but those can be dangerous to employ since you also don’t want to leave your fused robots too exposed to attacks. You’ll really lose momentum if your opponent gets to kill two or more of your bots for the price of one. Dice rolls determine the success of most attacks, so even the best planned moves can be foiled by bad luck, but special abilities that change the numbers needed for success or let you re-roll a die are incredibly powerful, since they can remove or reduce uncertainty in your strategy.
Every robot you control gives you a set amount of energy each turn, which is needed to move, attack, and use support powers. When a robot dies, you lose those resources. If your energy totals are low you might not even be able to activate all of your forces on a given turn. That’s devastating when you’re already at a unit disadvantage, forcing you to make calculations about whether it’s best to try to go all out and assault your opponent with your hardest-hitting units in hopes of leveling the playing field or try to retreat or take advantage of a map’s terrain and make it harder for a superior force to pick the rest of your army off. Luckily the game is quick to set up, learn, and play, so you can always just switch up your tactics and start a fresh battle.
Release status: Originally self-published, A.E.G.I.S. has been picked up by Greenbrier Games and will launch a Kickstarter later this year.