Gen Con 2018 in a Fairly Decent Sized Nutshell (Brandon Kempf)
Indianapolis, Indiana is the home of Gen Con and it’s about a 5 ½ hour drive for me plus an hour lost due to time zones and an hour lost due to Illinois not really marking their interstates very well. I normally don’t plan on going to Gen Con, it’s big, it’s loud and it’s quite expensive to be honest, but this year I went ahead and applied for a press badge as soon as they were available, just in case we decided to go, and go we did.
The biggest issue with Gen Con, is where you stay. Every year they open the housing blocks and every year they run short of rooms, it’s inevitable when you have an event that brings in about 65000 attendees and even more as exhibitors and workers. You just can never have enough hotel rooms at the convention center and surrounding area. The housing situation continues to be such a cluster and a mess that a couple companies chose to skip this year, R&R Games being one of the more notable ones. With that said, if you don’t mind an Uber or a Cab or some other mode of transportation, there are plenty of hotel rooms within about 12 miles of the show and we stayed at one out East for our two evenings at Gen Con and it worked out just fine for us, heck, we didn’t even get our room until the week of the show.
While Gen Con is known for the housing mess, it is also known for something else, long lines. When we rolled into Indianapolis at about quarter till 5 in the evening, the lines were queuing up everywhere. Note, if you are press and you can get there before 3 pm, you can pick up your press pass early on the 2nd floor of the JW Marriot, I didn’t make it, but it all worked out in the end. My two accomplices were picking up their passes at Will Call, and at about 5:30 pm that will call line was approximately an hour and a half wait or so. Now, that may sound awful, but after seeing that line, I think it’s a miracle that the folks at Gen Con got folks through that quickly.
Wednesday night saw the FFG In Flight Report which had the board game community in a lather over the newly announced Richard Garfield game, Keyforge. I wasn’t there for the In Flight, but I heard all about it after the fact and had a look at one of the decks thanks to W. Eric Martin who was kind enough to sit down with us and teach us Lost Cities Rivals — which was absolutely wonderful by the way. But Keyforge looks really interesting because of a couple things — firstly the production. I don’t know how they are going to pull this off, each deck having a unique piece of art for the card backs and each deck also having a unique name. I don’t know how this gets printed. Secondly each deck is different, not unique, but different. Each sealed deck will have 36 cards and the entirety of Keyforge has 360 cards, but each deck will be uniquely put together, due to the game having 7 houses and each house kind of acts unique and only 3 houses will be represented in each deck. Accusations of the inability to balance the decks or it being just as bad as a CCG were swift and immediate, but I hope they have calmed down, because even though Fantasy Flight Games doesn’t normally make games that interest me, this was by far the most interesting announcement at Gen Con 2018 and I will be in on this as soon as they are available. OH! There is also a base box for the game, it comes with 2 pre-built decks that everyone will have and 2 unique decks — along with the rules and chits. You can certainly play with only the single deck packs, but the bigger box makes it all a bit easier.
Four in the morning rolls around pretty early regardless of when you go to bed and that was the appointed time for me to get up the next morning to head back to the Indianapolis Convention Center and line up to get the early pass for the Exhibitor Hall. So we headed to the hotel and after some negotiations that did not go our way (next time we’re bringing a cot), we called it a night.
A quick Uber ride and boom we’re at the Convention Hall by 5 in the morning. The place is empty and I begin to wonder why anyone feels the need to get their passes the night before when they can just get up bright and early the next morning and get them without waiting. Surprisingly I wasn’t the first in line, but I was within the first five, so that early pass was a given. The press line is where I did most of my socializing with friends, Jake from Draft Mechanic joined me in line, as did Travis from Low Player Count, and of course, we’re all from PunchBoard Media — where we all bring something to the table. Laughs and great conversation helped the 2 ½ hour wait feel like minutes, and we met an awful lot of tall people.
I wasn’t going to talk about food in this Gen Con wrap up, it's just not all that important, and we only hit the food trucks once and our meals were mostly in the sit down dining establishments because it was just too damn hot and humid to sit outside and eat, but we had some fantastic donuts after the press line at Jack’s Donuts, and the wait on Thursday morning was non-existent, plus I ran into Chris Funk on the way there. So if you get the chance, this is the breakfast place to go, not that nasty Steak and Shake.
This next part is going to sound entirely too entitled and I appreciate that, but it is what it is. Thanks to the early press entry, I got to wander the Exhibit Hall for an hour before the place was just completely overwhelmed. What this meant for me was that I had nearly everything I wanted, before the doors officially opened. Heck, I even sat down to a demo just to watch everyone come rushing in. But here’s the thing, I don’t think it really mattered this year. I don’t think that anything I wanted was really in that kind of short demand where they would be sold out, 15 minutes into opening. There were a few titles that were being limited on a daily basis, Railroad Ink, Newton & Rise of Queensdale, but for the most part, the games were still there any time I walked around. Which brings me to wonder if maybe scarcity was kind of falsely advertised. I’m sure there were sellouts, I know that Coimbra was gone when I went back by their booth on Friday. I know that others sold out as well, but most of that was by Sunday, the day when everyone should sell out of their games less they have to haul them all back. This year also seemed to be the year of the late arrival — or even missing all together — games. Restoration Games had a Penny Press made for the show to smash some pennies with their titles on them, but it didn’t show up till Saturday. Space Cowboys had the new expansion for T.I.M.E Stories but it didn’t show up till Saturday and Libellud had Shadows Amsterdam which was just a mess that never managed to show up at the show, in spite of advertisements telling everyone otherwise. Report is that the pallet appeared in Indianapolis on Monday, the day after the show. Shadows Amsterdam was actually one of the games that I sat down to for a demo and it lived up to expectations. Think of it as a real time team vs team Mysterium and Codenames mash up with absolutely beautiful presentation. It was good, but it was not there to buy, ever, even though they had kept telling us it’s on the way.
Let’s talk parking at Gen Con. If you don’t get there before 8 am on Thursday or Friday, chances are you will be parking over a mile away. And this means that you will probably be hauling heavy bags of Gen Con acquired games that far as well. Indianapolis is a working city, those parking spots especially during Gen Con are a pretty highly sought after commodity. We had to do the walk on Thursday, and it was painful but it was a break and it got us out of the Convention Hall and into the “fresh air” and sunshine.
The two previous times I have went to Gen Con, I got in very little gaming, there just isn’t time, but we made the time this year thanks to the BGG Hot Rooms Game and thanks to Chad Roberts. He got us passes to get into the room anytime we wanted to and we took advantage of that and played games into early Friday morning. Now having access to this meant that we missed all the fun that was happening over at the JW Marriot, which apparently had a pretty substantially sized open gaming area that became the meeting area for most of the PunchBoard Media crew, but I just was happy to be sitting down in comfortable chairs, playing games so I didn’t move at all. Call me lazy, but my feet thanked me.
What did we play and demo? Here we go, time for some quick hits.
Guardians - Picked it up because it was in short demand and it sounded cool and shared a bit of a resemblance to Overwatch. Played demo not too long after buying and enjoyed it enough to not regret buying it. Played it 1v1 with the delightful Carl Gannon and had a good time. We got to see a bit of how the game works without using the special abilities on the locations that you are fighting over. It is very push/pull as you are just trying to control locations enough to take them over and gain them as victory points. There are 10 heroes in the base box, each with their own deck of abilities and their own Ultimates which can be triggered by doing different spells that build up charge. Easily expandable if it gains some traction.
Mesozooic - The demo I got was quick, I had sat down because I was tired and I realized I was at a demo table and the guy was there ready to show off the game so that’s what he did. The game is one of those sliding puzzles where you have one empty space and you start maneuvering your cards around trying to connect what needs to be connected and putting things adjacent to what they need to be adjacent to. Looked fun and the price was right so I picked it up, we’ll see how it goes in a real play.
Shadows Amsterdam - The game that never showed up at Gen Con in spite of us being assured that it would show up each morning. So the quick pitch, think of this as a cross between Codenames and Mysterium done in real time. You are on teams and someone is the head of the team and their job is to lead you to the three pieces of information and once you find those pieces you have to find the get back to the informant. This is done by showing players tiles that have art on them that are supposed to lead them in the right direction. Use 1 tile to say it is 1 tile away, 2 tiles for 2 tiles away. Super fast and a lot of fun, it should have sold out at the show, but as it is, the copies never made it.
Lost Cities Rivals - We have recently been on a kick of trying all the Lost Cities/Keltis variants that we can get our hands on, this is among the best. It’s definitely Lost Cities but throw in a bit of that Knizia auction goodness in a perfect sum game (all the money in the game is there from the get go and that total never changes) and you have an absolutely wonderful game.
Forbidden Sky - This wasn’t one of my favorites at the show, but it certainly sold quite well. It feels like they tried to grow up the Forbidden line a bit too much. I don’t like the fact that tiles don’t always look like they match and it just seems wonky from the get go. I do love the components though, especially that Rocket that is on the big pad that you are trying to escape via. Some fun ensues when you are successful, we won’t spoil it here.
Railroad Ink - Roll and Write games are growing up and it feels good. Think of Avenue, except that you are rolling dice instead of flipping cards and you also have four that you have to use each turn — more if you are playing with the expansions included in the boxes. It’s route building and it’s brain meltingly good.
Orbis - This one fell flat for me. It was in the BGG Hot Games Room so we picked it up and played. It’s a tile laying game where you are building a pyramid of tiles. Your base can be any color but as you go up you must match what is below. You are gathering resources to spend on future tiles. Each time a tile is bought all of the orthogonally adjacent tiles in the buy area gain a resource of the color of the tile purchased. Ultimately you have fifteen choices to work with and you better hope you aren’t resource starved when you get towards the end. It’s micro-transactions where you only have 15 choices the entire game and if you miss one round due to being resource poor, you are probably out of contention. I’d definitely play it again, but even if it were for sale this year, I wouldn’t have picked this one up.
Pikoko - A beautiful trick taking game where you cannot see your own cards and you play the hand of the player to your left. I really enjoyed this one and had another wonderful play of it after Gen Con, but there are a couple issues with the game that I want to see if they keep occuring after a couple more plays. In the game you basically gain points by betting on the other players, which is all good and fine, but then you have another way to gain points called Confidence cards and I just have not figured out why you would ever put your confidence on anyone other than the player whose hand you are controlling, or just play the simple +1 point card for yourself every turn.
Gizmos - Probably my hit of the convention so far. Wonderful presentation with another marble dispenser, ala Potion Explosion, but this is pure engine building. It starts slow, but quickly builds to it’s frenetic ending.
TAGS - And this is probably the surprise of the convention. It’s a real time trivia/party game and it does it super well. The board has five categories going across the top, and four letters or letter combinations going down the side. In between where these meet are marbles that are placed out randomly in three different colors which signify different values. Every player has 15 seconds to name something from the categories that starts with the letters on the side and take one of the marbles, after 15 seconds the next player goes and then the next player goes and it goes around like this until no one can score a marble. Do this three rounds and the most points wins. Absolutely shouldn’t be as fun as it is, but it most certainly stood out for me in a crowded field of games.
Since we’ve been home we’ve also played Pyramid of Pengqueen, Patchwork Express, Meeple Circus, Reef & Dinosaur Tea Party but we’ll save those for more in depth talk sometime in the future.
One thing we did miss out on playing that we saw, and heard, in play an awful lot late at night in the Hot Games Room was Dude from North Star Games, dude.
Gen Con 2018 wasn’t without it’s bad side, we had a company president lose his credentials the first day of the show, but he stood up and took responsibility for what he did in a wonderfully penned apology, and we had an alt right asshole allegedly get punched, which I get, they deserve it, but it is such a slippery slope and now he’s doing nothing but profiting off it with a go fund me page, sometimes I just really weap for society and what they are willing to throw money at.
We headed out Friday, our bags full and the back of the Nissan even more full. I love Gen Con, and I love that the hobby I love can have something that brings in 65,000 rabid fans, but the older I get, the more consumerist it seems to me and that kind of makes me feel like maybe it needs to be dialed back a bit. I mean there were over 600 games released or shown at this year’s Gen Con. That’s just too much to take in, not that anyone should strive to do so. It also feels like it is bringing down quality in the hobby to me, so many games in production that we have to have limited quantities available because the manufacturing companies can’t keep up and get things where they need to be, when they need to be there. We have games being rushed through development — or skipping it altogether — to hit timelines and make it by the show. We have an entire print run of a game where the game is misspelled on the backs of the cards. It’s watering down the pool, every time we hear an announcement like Machi Koro Legacy I just wonder where the ingenuity is going, where is the creativity? It seems like it is being soaked up into the latest selling point instead of into the next great game. Yet, I keep doing it, I keep chasing the dream of finding that one perfect game in that haystack of chaff and Gen Con is the perfect place for that — and just when you think you are getting ahead and you are good to relax and play the games you have piled up — here comes Essen Spiel and we start it all over again.