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The Best Games at Gen Con 2018

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Gen Con 2018, the 51st edition of the best four days in gaming (their phrase, not mine, but I won’t argue) set yet another attendance record after doing the same last year as well. There were nearly 700 new games introduced at the convention, which is held in downtown Indianapolis, and I was there to see as many of them as I could. I’ve ranked the twenty best new titles I saw at the event, and below that go through other new games of note, including games already out or on their way, upcoming Kickstarters, and reprints or expansions that also caught my eye.

1. Nyctophobia

Courtesy of Pandasaurus Games

There’s no better back story to any board game this year than Nyctophobia’s. Designed by Catherine Stippell while she was still in high school, Nyctophobia (which means ‘fear of the dark’) requires players to surrender their sense of sight while they play. One player plays the big foozle—an axe murderer, an evil mage, or a vampire, depending on which edition you get—and can see the board and all players’ movements, while the other players play as a team but must wear blackout glasses, so they can only play by touch and by talking to other players. Stippell has an uncle who is blind and wanted to design a game he could also play without requiring rule changes to accommodate him. Players must communicate and come up with mental maps of the board to figure out how to escape—each scenario is slightly different—without getting caught by the one player who can see where everyone else is. It’s the most novel game I saw at Gen Con, and the design of the pieces to make them highly functional in a tactile-only environment is incredibly clever. The vampire edition is exclusive to Target and should be in those stories any day.


2. Everdell

An absolutely gorgeous new title from Starling Games and first-time designer James Wilson, Everdell combines the worker-placement aspect of Stone Age (with a little nod on the board to that game, albeit without a ‘love shack’) and the tableau-building aspect of games like Seasons, a novel combination itself, but the theme is what kept crowds coming to Starling’s booth—the game is set in a forest and the players play as turtles, squirrels, hares, or porcupines, collecting things like berries or pebbles to help build out their critter villages of cards.


3. Coimbra

Plan B had three new titles on display at Gen Con and all look like hits, with Coimbra the most complex and promising among them. A medium-heavy dice-drafting game with stunning art, Coimbra has players vying to add cards to their hands and try to move up four point tracks against other players, but the game has an internal balancing mechanism that forces players to make hard choices about what paths to pursue.


4. The Mind

The most divisive game of the year, The Mind comes from Wolfgang Warsch, who landed three of the six Spiel des Jahres nominations this year—one for this game, and a Kennerspiel des Jahres nod for Ganz schön Clever, and then a Kennerspiel win for Die Quacksalber von Quedlinburg. I think he might be on to something. The Mind is incredibly simple to explain, and very hard to beat. The game’s main deck has 100 cards, numbered from 1 to 100. Players work together to progress through the game’s levels; for level N, each player gets N cards from the deck, and all players must then play their cards to the table in ascending order but without talking or otherwise signaling to other players. The first few rounds are easy; I have yet to get past level 8, trying with multiple partners, even with multiple ‘lives’ and the ability to discard cards by using ‘throwing star’ cards.


5. Blue Lagoon

A new Reiner Knizia game with a cover that strongly reminds me of a certain animated movie, Blue Lagoon is classic Knizia, a game that’s very mathy underneath but hides all that stuff from the players. Each player tries to build out a route on the board by placing tokens to collect treasures, visit as many islands as possible, and form the longest possible contiguous route through those islands.


6. Bosk

The just-announced title from Sagrada designer Daryl Andrews along with Erica Bouyouris will come to Kickstarter this fall, and while there’s an obvious similarity in theme to Photosynthesis, Bosk’s mechanics are entirely different—it’s an area control game with two phases, one where players plant trees in the spring to control certain spaces, but in the fall, the wind blows leaves off the trees on to different squares on the board, shifting control and thus presenting tradeoffs to consider back in the planting phase. It’s expected to hit retail at some point in 2019.


7. Forbidden Sky

The latest game from Matt Leacock, the King of Co-ops, continues the series of Forbidden titles that includes Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, introducing a new element: The circuit. To win the game, players must build out a circuit with specific components on it, and complete that circuit to power a rocket ship (which lights up!) so they can escape, but must do so before any player is electrocuted or blown completely off the map. It looks great, as all of Gamewright’s Forbidden titles have, and introduces a real STEM element not often found in mainstream board games.


8. Reef

One of two new titles from Century Spice Road designer Emerson Matsuuchi—the other is Century Eastern WondersReef is a light family-strategy game where players try to match patterns on cards by stacking plastic cogs representing coral on a central 4×4 board, scoring if the top-down view matches what they have on their cards. It’s lighter than Azul, the 2018 Spiel des Jahres winner from Plan B, and plays a little faster, but has a similar feel and quick decision-making.


9. Villainous

A very light deckbuilder for people (including kids) who’ve really never played deckbuilders before, Villainous is a new Disney-themed and licensed board game, not a reskin of an existing game. (Full disclosure: I am a full-time employee of Disney-owned ESPN, which makes me a Cast Member.) Villainous lets players choose to be any of six famous Disney villains, each of whom has a unique deck and board, as well as a unique victory condition. Players mostly act on their own, but can trigger a Fate action and force an opponent to draw a card from his/her Fate deck, which includes Heroes and other cards that can slow your opponent down, giving you more time to finish your own objectives. It’s very light compared to most deckbuilders, and lacks the engine-building component of such games, but that makes it more appealing to the audience most likely to respond to the theme.


10. Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger

Z-Man Games would like me to relive the fourth grade, or at least one part of it—I am very much in the target demographic for this throwback title, which mimics the format and look of these once-popular books, where each page or chapter ended with a decision for the reader to make and a different page number for each potential choice. The game’s cards even have the slightly yellowed appearance of pages in mass-market paperbacks from the 1980s.


The best of the rest

1. Gunkimono

A retheme of a 2009 game called Heartland, Gunkimono brings updated art, a few small rules tweaks to reduce some of the luck of the former game, and better integration of theme and game play (unless farmers constantly stealing other farmers’ plots of land feels organic to you). Gunkimono was also flying out of Renegade Game Studios’ booth. Despite the thematic similarity to other recent titles like Rising Sun, the mechanics have more in common with Qin or Kingdomino plus the addition of ‘honor’ tracks that give substantial new abilities to players when they reach certain thresholds.


2. ROOT

Another game with immaculate artwork and a forest theme, ROOT was previewed at PAX Unplugged last year and was officially released at Gen Con. This asymmetric game gives each player a specific role and set of powers, like its predecessor Vast: The Crystal Caverns, and includes hand management, dice rolling, and area control. I found the rulebook to be very unclear, however, which might inhibit novices from trying to play or learn the game.


3. Mesozooic

Another Z-Man title, Mesozooic is a small-box game with a very clever little mechanic at its heart. Players draft hands of 11 cards to build their dinosaur zoos—Jeff Goldblum figurine not included—and then lay them out in a 4×3 grid with one space left vacant. They then all simultaneously have 45 seconds to slide the cards around to optimize their point total, using that one open space as in those 4×4 kids games with tiles numbered 1 through 15 where the goal is to get them into numerical order. The game comes with a base set, and then advanced cards that increase scoring possibilities without adding any real complexity to the rules.


4. Welcome To…

The party game that plays up to … well, they were calling for 200 players in one of the side rooms at the convention hall, so let’s just say the game scales beyond the number of players you can comfortably accommodate in your living room. There is an actual game here, which the publisher describes as “roll-and-write without the dice,” where players flip cards from three different piles and use the displayed numbers to fill in houses on their paper neighborhoods, trying to obey rules on numbering (don’t want to screw up the mailman’s route) while maximizing their scoring. There’s even a solo mode where you try to maximize your score before the draw deck runs out.


5. Century: Eastern Wonders

I’m not going to lie, I’ve called this game “Eastern Promises” about a dozen times already, enough that Viggo Mortensen should probably be on the box cover. Where Century: Spice Road limited each player’s moves to what s/he had in hand, Eastern Wonders gives all players equal access to the same pool of tiles. It’s a pickup-and-delivery game, also with a spice-merchant theme, with an elegant and very simple set of rules. Players can also combine this with Spice Road to create a single, larger game called “Sand to Sea.”


6. Victorian Masterminds

Antoine Bauza (7 Wonders, Tokaido, Takenoko) and Eric Lang (Rising Sun, Blood Rage) join forces in a steampunk-themed game where players are criminal masterminds capitalizing on the disappearance of Sherlock Holmes to gather parts for their ‘infernal machines.’ Each player has five henchmen to place on the board for actions, and the game ends when someone completes his/her machine, or the Secret Service puts everyone’s asses in the jackpot.


7. Archmage

Also from Starling Games, Archmage is a heavy Euro with a fantasy theme where players work to ‘learn’ increasingly powerful spells on cards, which they can then cast every turn once they’ve learned them—as long as they keep their tokens on the appropriate spaces. When you move up to learn a stronger spell, you might then lose the lower-level spell by taking your token off that spell’s space on the board. There’s also an economic element where each ‘race’ has its own currency, as well as another currency, blood, you can only acquire through battles and that serves to balance out the game and prevent any one player from falling too far behind.


8. Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game

Detective was probably in the top five games for pure buzz, although its long playing time—listed at 2-3 hours, but which could easily exceed that—is a major negative for me. A cooperative game that can be played solo, Detective asks players to solve complex crimes where they also use an online database that’s part of the game. The base game comes with five cases that are independent but must be solved sequentially. The concept is great, but I know that anything over two hours is a dealbreaker for many readers.


9. Die Quacksalber von Quedlinburg

Diese ist das most awkwardly-named game des Jahres, although North Star Games, which will publish the game in English in November, is retitling it as The Quacks of Quedlinburg. (I prefer the Spanish title, Pócimas y Brebajes, which just means “Potions and Concoctions.”) This won the Kennerspiel des Jahres award last month, a prize that generally goes to heavier games than this medium-light title where players represent charlatans trying to build potions by drawing ingredients from a bag. If you draw the wrong tile, however, you can ruin the entire batch. It’s a little fiddly to play and set up, however, and I would have given the Kennerspiel to Whistle Stop over this one.


10. Mercado

Rudiger Dorn, the designer of 2018 Spiel nominee Luxor and 2014 Kennerspiel winner Istanbul, is back with a lighter title here in Mercado, a press-your-luck game where players race to acquire reputation points by purchasing fancy goods before your opponents get to do so. It has more in common with his game Las Vegas, another press-your-luck title involving dice and gambling, than with his games Luxor, Istanbul, or Karuba.

Other big titles and announcements, organized by publisher:

Asmodee introduced … all the games, I think, so here’s just a sampling. The River is the upcoming title from Days of Wonder, to be released in October at Essen, with what feels like an Agricola-lite mechanic of placing workers on a central board (the river) while players build out their villages on their own boards along the shore. Orbis was a modest hit at the con for its Splendor-like feel and strong artwork, although I found endgame to be sadly broken by the way tiles from earlier in the game clogged up the central board (which could be fixed by one of two rules tweaks). It’s due out at Essen as well. Arkham Horror Third Edition was announced, the first full new edition in 13 years, and is still a co-op game in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu universe, with slightly shorter playing times and updated artwork.

The new deckbuilder KeyForge: Call of the Archons earned significant buzz because its designer is Richard Garfield, the inventor of Magic: the Gathering and Android: Netrunner and a pioneer in the genre; and because the design itself is novel—every deck is unique. Fantasy Flight Games claims there are 104 septillion possible decks in the initial set—that’s 1.04 × 1026 for the math-inclined among you—and there will be additional cards and decks in the future.

Asmodee’s Plaid Hat imprint had an under the radar success earlier this year with Stuffed Fables, a game where players play stuffed animals (“stuffies” … I don’t make this stuff up, folks) and work together to save their child-owner from some dastardly villain, with a strong storytelling component. The forthcoming Comanauts uses the same framework but with a different story and theme, as players must enter the subconscious of a comatose scientist who discovered a process for delivering clean energy but whose invention malfunctioned and may cause the end of the world. Good times!

For a lighter mood, there’s Just One, a party game where one player must guess the secret word from single-word clues given by all other players—but if any two players provide the same clue, that clue is discarded. Asmodee has also partnered with Heidelbär, a German publisher (duh), to produce Tags, a reimplementation of a ‘90s game called Category (itself very similar to the party game Scattergories); and a reissue of the 2014 Emerson Matsuuchi game VOLT, where players ‘program’ their robots to do battle with each other in the arena.

Z-Man also had copies of a new dudes-on-a-map Euro game, Race to the New Found Land, which has players sending their ship meeples across the board to explore the new world; Lowlands, a worker & tile placement game where players are farmers—seriously, real-world farming can’t possibly be fun enough justify this many farming board games—on a coastal space where the tide may rise enough to flood out all players; plus a new version of 1991’s mammoth History of the World, which I assume comes with fifteen … oy! Ten! Ten rules for all to obey.

Asmodee set up a demo area with newer titles from their smaller publishing partners in Europe, most of which haven’t been released in English yet; the best I saw was a Bruno Cathala game called Oliver Twist, where players are thieves trying to steal enough loot to buy their freedom from Fagin—but if you are too inefficient in your burgling, you might get caught by the cops. (Yes, I know that’s not how the book ends.) There was also a very strange co-op game called Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr, where players try to piece together the back story of a dying patient in a twist on the standard murder-mystery genre that explores the patient’s regrets, not who killed whom.

Other expansions and brand extensions from Asmodee’s family include the 7 Wonders Armada expansion, Fallout: New California, a new Catan game called Rise of the Inkas, and Patchwork Express, a smaller version of the two-player Patchwork that’s designed for players as young as 6. The Z-Man imprint recently reissued Reiner Knizia’s 2000 game Taj Mahal as well.

Asmodee Digital had a nearly-ready Terraforming Mars app for Steam, due out in September, and the Scythe app for the same, which I’ve had a lot of fun and success with (well, success in that it runs well, not that I win) the last few months, won’t be far behind. The Lord of the Rings Living Card Game, the first LCG to come to digital, will also drop on August 28th. Asmodee Digital announced a planned adaptation of Gloomhaven for some time next year, probably for Steam, as well as a port of the Days of Wonder game Five Tribes for multiple platforms.

Bezier introduced a new expansion for Whistle Stop, my #2 game of 2017, called the Rocky Mountains expansion, with a new addition to the board that forces players to work harder to cross mountain tiles. They also announced a new Ultimate Werewolf Legacy game, co-designed by Pandemic/Risk Legacy designer Rob Daviau, and One Week, a traditional tabletop game, both based on Bezier’s Ultimate Werewolf series of games. They also showed a deluxe edition of last year’s hit party game Werewords and will soon bring a family-friendly variant of the One Night Ultimate Werewolf game, called One Night Super Villains, to Kickstarter.

Blue Orange: In addition to Blue Lagoon, Blue Orange showed Scarabya, a new title from Bruno Cathala (who was at the show, signing copies of his games) and Ludovic Maublanc, who previously partnered on Mr. Jack and Cyclades. It’s another Tetris-like board game, like Patchwork or Bärenpark, where players try to place various oddly shaped tiles on their boards, but lacks player interaction unless you use a rules variant where two players work on the same board against each other. Blue Orange also introduced the Age of Giants expansion that works with both Kingdomino and Queendomino, adding new tiles that are good (footprints) and bad (giants) to increase the complexity of the base games.

CMON is known for its elaborate miniatures games, but they had plenty of lighter-weight games out at Gen Con, including a board game adaptation of the graphic novel series Kick-Ass and a tie-in game to the Netflix series Narcos. They hit the nostalgia button hard with a family game called Wacky Races, based on the Hanna Barbera series from the late ‘60s, where players are once again trying to outrace the villainous Dick Dastardly. Perhaps their most interesting new title, however, is Gizmos, where players represent kids competing at the science fair. Designed by Phil Walker-Harding (Bärenpark, Imhotep, Cacao, and Sushi Go!), Gizmos comes with a cardboard marble dispenser that kind of looks like a gumball machine, and players take marbles from its stack to provide ‘energy’ for the contraptions they’re building. It sold out at the con.

Calliope Games had its newest title, The Mansky Caper, where you all play the, ahem, associate of a crime boss named Al Mansky. You’ve decided that big Al hasn’t fully appreciated your services, so you’re going to rob his house while he’s out of town. Of course, other bimbos are thinking of doing the same thing, and you’re working against each other—except you can call in a ‘favor’ from another player during the game. Oh, and the house is booby-trapped. Best of luck. Calliope also announced the next three titles in their Titans Series, which features lighter games from major designers: Ship Shape from Rob Daviau, Everyone Loves a Parade from Mike Mulvihill, and Spy Master from Seth Johnson.

Cephalophair’s Founders of Gloomhaven is now out to Kickstarter backers and will hit the hobby channel shortly; it was my #1 game of Gen Con last year, and looks tremendous now that it’s finished. It’s set in the world of the RPG monster Gloomhaven, but is a more traditional game of tile-laying and worker placement with some economic and engine-building components, long and crunchy enough for heavy Euro players but without the commitment or $100+ price tag of Gloomhaven.

The delightfully named publisher Cheapass had a new standalone game called The Island of Doctor Lucky, a spinoff of the 1996 anti-Clue game Kill Doctor Lucky, where players are still trying to kill the same guy but can also try to throw ‘hazards’ at other players to slow them down, and must locate him on the map to try to attack him.

Deepwater also introduced Mystery of the Temples, which was published last year in Japan by EmperorS4. It features stunning artwork from the Taiwanese artist Maisherly (Hanamijoki, Planet Defenders, Shadows in Kyoto), with quick gameplay, mechanics that combine pickup/delivery with set collection, and a rondel format that offers some variability to the board in each play.

Dire Wolf showed off a new expansion for Clank! In Space! called Apocalypse!, although I don’t know why we need so many exclamation points. They also had the latest version of their free-to-play digital deckbuilder Eternal on display.

Floodgate: In addition to Bosk, Floodgate will bring Bad Maps to Kickstarter this fall, and introduced an expansion for Sagrada that allows up to six to play and includes private dice wheels that reduce the luck element involved in the original game’s snake draft mechanic. Bad Maps has players betting on the outcomes of each round, where players play cards to try to push pirates around the board in search of treasure while avoiding walls and pits, as if they were using inaccurate treasure maps to find the loot.

Iello had a huge booth with mostly previous releases, although they did have a few new titles including the best game name of the con in The Legend of the Cherry Tree that Blossoms Every Ten Years, which, of course, is originally from Japan. The gameplay doesn’t live up to the title or the art, unfortunately. They also had a new expansion for King of Tokyo called Anubis; a new title in their white-box series of small games called Nessos, where players must bluff to try to manipulate others into taking or refusing certain cards; and Raids, where players move around the board with their Viking meeples and try to take unclaimed runes or seize spaces from opponents by muscling in on occupied spaces.

Indie Boards and Cards announced a forthcoming two-player game called Kodama Duo that changes the original Kodama: The Tree Spirits (a favorite in my house) to improve the two-player experience. Indie and Stronghold Games also announced last week that they will be merging, part of an ongoing trend of consolidation in tabletop gaming as the huge number of games released each year gives even more value to greater scale in distribution and mind share.

Jellybean’s Show and Tile is a party game that works a bit like Pictionary, but has you making your drawings from square and triangular cardboard tiles in two colors; you score if people guess your word, and if you guess other players’ words. Ninjitsu! is a very quick card game for two to five players that is very suitable for kids, where players try to be the first to 21 points by playing treasure cards, but can swipe hidden cards from opponents—which could be treasures or could be booby traps. The Lady & the Tiger is based on the 1882 short story by Frank R. Stockton and contains rules for five different games that all use the same 18-card deck, playing anywhere from one to six players.

Keymaster introduced two new titles, Space Park and Caper. Space Park features amazing artwork, as you’d expect from a Keymaster title, beyond the light game play where players move three neutral ships around a modular board of cards to visit various tourist destinations in space, mostly to collect crystals they can trade in for points. Caper is a two-player game that reimplements a Spanish title called It’s Mine.

KOSMOS introduced or announced four new titles in the Exit: The Game series of single-use, escape room-themed games, a series that won the Kennerspiel des Jahres award in 2017. The first of the four new titles is out now, and the others should be out by Christmas. There’s also a new Lost Cities Rivals game, which expands the two-player Lost Cities to a four-player format; and a new expansion for Imhotep, A New Dynasty, with new place and market cards that dramatically change the way the game is played and scored.

Plan B has brought Heaven & Ale, another Kennerspiel nominee, out in English, and announced a new Azul variant called Stained Glass of Sintra that features clear tiles and two-sided window panes on player boards to increase the complexity.

Queen Games had Luxor, the Spiel nominee from Rudiger Dorn, for sale and on display; it’s a light Euro where players move along a spiral track, gathering artifacts from an Egyptian tomb and sometimes adding abilities that help them as they progress towards the center and toward bigger reward tokens. They also will shortly have Kickstarters for Skylands (a remake of a Japanese game called The King of Frontier) and Bastille.

And finally, one game I didn’t get to see, but that’s from a designer I’ve liked in the past: Daniele Tascini, the man behind the 2012 high strategy game Tzolkin—best known for the innovative board of interlocking gears of varying sizes that rotate together each round—is back with a new title, Teotihuacan: City of Gods, this time set among the Aztecs, with yet another clever board design and a whole bunch of ways to score.


Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.

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