My Obligatory Gen Con 2015 Recap -- Part 1

Gen Con was almost as exhausting as it was amazing. If all you're interested in is reading about new games and what I thought of them, just skip through all the dumb words and get to the pictures. If you are interested in reading about my overall Gen Con experience, the dumb words are for you. This is part 1 of a 3 part series.

Donald, Niki, and I arrived in Indy the Wednesday before the con officially started. We had been asked to be VIP guests of an event hosted by Geek Chic XP at the Indianapolis Zoo so we headed directly there. We got to see turtles making babies, which if I may say so myself, is the absolute best way to start a convention. You simply have to try it. A bunch of industry people were there, so it was good to do the con-small-talk-catch-up with them. Other stuff happened, but really, turtles making babies is all you need to know.

We waited until around midnight to grab our badges, hoping that the line would be shorter. It wasn't. Afterwards we met up with Matthew Gravelyn and Hunter Shelburne (two twitter board game friends) to head to Steak n Shake. For some reason at Gen Con it seems like everyone forgets, or just mutually agrees to ignore, the fact Steak n Shake isn't good. People act like they actually WANT to go there. Its weird. 

ANYWAYS, at Steak n Shake we ran into Rodney from Watch It Played, I asked what games he was interested in at the con and he told me about a game called The Grizzled. I was pretty surprised because I hadn't heard anything about it. In preparation for my yearly "Top 10 Games to See at Gen Con" video, I go through pretty much every preview list and podcast I can find. Ill talk more about The Grizzled in a later post, but know that it was certainly the surprise game of the con. Then I THINK Donald, Niki, and I just went back to our hotel and went to bed. Honestly, it all feels like it was a year ago.

The next morning we got up early and had breakfast then leisurely headed to the dealers hall. I generally try and avoid the first hour or so the dealers hall is open, especially the first day, because it is a packed, sweaty, mad house. I knew that waiting meant I wouldn't get a copy of Mysterium, but Im fine with waiting a month to pay $15 less for a game. BUT I was quite surprised to find out Asmodee sold out of Discoveries in the first hour. If you watched my "Top 10 Games to See at Gen Con" video, you know that Discoveries was at the top of my list. I had multiple people come up to me during the con and thank me for that list, saying I was the reason they bought Discoveries. Remind me to never help people.

Our first task was to check out a prototype for Gloomhaven. The designer is interested in advertising on our D&D Podcast and wanted us to check out the game to make sure we liked it/were interested in taking his cash dolla dollas. Gloomhaven is a very simple dungeon crawler with what seems to be a pretty awesome campaign. Its much simpler and more intuitive than games like Descent, or event the Dungeons and Dragons board games but it still keeps that wonderful dungeon crawl-y feel. I loved the way movement and combat worked, it was all card based. Each character has a different set of cards to choose from. The fighter has strong attacks, the rogue is quick... You get the idea. Each turn, all the players simultaneously choose 2 cards from their hand. Each card has 2 choices on it, the top is generally combat, the bottom is generally movement. You can only use 1 of the two actions listed on each card. After everyone has revealed their cards, you get to choose how you resolve the actions you selected with your cards. Maybe you though you would get the jump on the monsters, so you chose a card thinking you would be using its attack, BUT the monsters drew a higher initiative, so now that attack is useless. NO WORRIES! Now the movement value of the card is helpful. Its a great way of doing action selection without handcuffing you to crappy moves. I plan to "borrow" this mechanic for a game Ive been working on.

Next, after a quick trip around the dealers room, we sat down for lunch awful-shitty-con-lunch. While we were there we ran into Michael Coe of Gamelyn games. He had a prototype of Tiny Epic West, so we played that over lunch. The game combines worker placement with poker in an interesting way. I had some issues with it but enjoyed it overall. I think Donald was pretty frustrated with it because he isn't a poker player. I could certainly understand his frustration, a lot of the strategy of where/how you place your workers hinged on what sort of poker hand you could make/win. Without knowing the odds of poker hands, it was basically a guessing game for him. 

I sat down with Donny Behne, a Dallas board game friend, to FINALLY play Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn. I had scored an advanced copy from Plaid Hat because I helped them package up a bunch of their pre-orders the prior weekend, but I hadn't gotten a chance to actually sit down and play it. Donny and I had a very tight game and I must say, Ashes is really good. The turn structure is quite different than any other CCG/LCG/Whatever-the-hell-CG I have played and made for some very interesting and intense gameplay. Ive decided this is gonna be my LCG. Please go out and buy a copy so Plaid Hat supports it for a long time.

That evening I headed to the DFW Nerd Night Charity event. DFW Nerd Night is a local gaming organization that hosts board game parties for charity. Every year at Gen Con they host a huge party for charity. This is one of my favorite places  to meet up with friends and fans to play games. When we arrived, everyone was given free copies of Fluxx Dice, Buck Hunter Dice, and a Cool Mini Or Not figure. Seeing as nobody at my table was particularly interested in any of these, we promptly combined all the bits and tried designing a new game on the fly. We wound up with a push your luck bag builder based around a rondel. It wasn't very good. After that, I got in a few playtest of Galapagos Expeditions with other designers including Darrell Louder (Compounded,) Jonathan Gilmour (Dead of Winter,) and David Chott (Lagoon: Land of Druids.) The playtest went well, and everyone had interesting feedback on changes I could make. 

After that, we played one of Jonathan Gilmour's new games called News@11. News@11 is a party game, similar to Snake Oil or Funemployed, where you are given several words that you have to combine together. In this case, you are trying to tell a news story. For example, you might have "pants" and "birds" and you have to deliver the consumer report on the new... I don't know... Bird pants. Some people like to get creative. Me? Oh, I get right to the point. There are bird pants, and you should buy some. The game is played in 3 rounds, first is the morning news and you are given one card. Second is the evening news, now you have 2 cards. Third is the nightly news, every player has to weave a tale using 3 cards (6 words.) Im not a big fan of party games like this (I don't like Snake Oil or FunEmployed either,) so while I didn't particularly enjoy it, the design was solid and others were having a great time.

The night was winding down at this point, but I managed to sneak in another playtest of Galapagos Expeditions, this time with Isaac Vega (Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn) and Emerson Matsuuchi (Specter Ops.) They are two of my favorite people in the industry and both great designers so their input meant a lot to me. They enjoyed the game and their input was basically the exact opposite of the first group's. Group 1 wanted me to add complexity to the game, group 2 wanted me to simplify the game. Overall I think that means Im in a pretty good spot. The main thing I took away from the playtests was that I need to fix a certain rule. Nothing is mechanically wrong with it, but players always have a hard time remembering it during the game, despite the fact I make careful considerations to highlight it when teaching the rules. This tells me the rule is not intuitive, it doesn't feel like something a player NEEDS to do during the game. Highlighting it in bold in the rulebook is a fix, but a lazy one that doesn't actually address the problem, actually changing the way the game is played is much harder, but is the better option. Simple things like this can be (and are) the difference between a good game and a great game. Or maybe they aren't and I actually have no idea what Im talking about when it comes to game design, but those previous sentences sure sounded insightful... Right?

I was supposed to meet up with Donald, Niki, and friends of Board with Life at 1 a.m. We were doing a sort of "day in review" podcast where we sat down to talk about our days with designers, publishers, reviewers, friends... Basically anyone who wanted to stop by. BUT I was completely drained and couldn't find where they were recording it, so I just walked back to the hotel and crashed.

Check back Monday for Part 2.