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What I Played at Gen Con: FarmerLenny Edition

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Gen Con is billed as “the best four days in gaming,” and it must be true, or they couldn’t put it on the sign. Okay, I’m not sure how to empirically verify the statement, but my experience at least comes close to validating the claim.

I promised in today’s news post that I would discuss the new games I played at Gen Con this year. I don’t plan to discuss the people I met (who were great) or tell the story of how these games came to be; I’m just going to give you the skinny on the games and how I thought about them after my play(s). (I’ll note whether my play was a full game or a demo game.) The first paragraph is a game overview if you want a (very quick) rules summary; the second paragraph is my impressions. These are in alphabetical order. If you want to skip to the games I liked best, you might want to check the entries for Gravwell, Impulse, Spyrium, and Rialto. Also, sorry; I was too busy playing to take pictures. I realize this is text heavy; I trust interested readers will persevere.

[Note: Futurewolfie posted his Gen Con wrap-up here. It’s more about the events at Gen Con and less about the games and fills in the details I left out.]

Dominion: Guilds
You know how to play Dominion (or you should). Guilds adds coin tokens, which allow players to save money until their moment of greatest need, and overpayment, which gives players a one-time benefit when they overpay for cards in the supply.

I loved Guilds. I sometimes forget that Dominion concepts are new, that they haven’t always been around. I think this is because Donald X has created a game that feels almost more “discovered” than designed (which I realize means it was very carefully designed). The gameplay for Guilds was smooth, and it opened a lot of tense choices. Should I save my coins or blow them early? Should I acquire engine pieces that give me coins or make a mad rush for the provinces? (Being a new set, I obviously went for the shiny new cards.) These considerations (and the longer text on the cards) places Guilds, with Dark Ages, into the gamer camp, but that’s okay. Guilds makes Dominion feel fresh again, especially for experienced players. I didn’t buy this at the con (high prices for a game that debuted at Origins), but I plan to make this the first (and possibly only) of the three small expansions I will buy.

Dungeon Fighter
In Dungeon Fighter, players are inept heroes thrown into a dangerous dungeon with nothing but their wits (and some dice) about them. Dungeon Fighter is cooperative, and players win by not losing (though winning seems impossible). Each turn, players will move to a new room and encounter a monster. Players defeat monsters by bouncing dice onto the target board and scoring hits. Dice must bounce at least once on the table before landing on the board to count, and each die bears a critical hit that will activate the thrower’s special ability. (Each player has a character with unique abilities.) In addition to this, some monsters and rooms have requirements for how players must throw the dice (with their eyes closed, while praying, while jumping, and so on). Players can equip armor, potions, and weapons, which will hopefully aid them in their quest to not die. If players can defeat the boss at the end of the dungeon, they win.

I got this in the math trade, and I wasn’t sure how I would like it. It is zany, obviously, but zany can be good or bad. For example, Munchkin zany was fun for me early on, but after the funny jokes wore off, I didn’t care much for the game. Space Alert and Escape, on the other hand, are also zany, but they are built on good gaming concepts that move beyond novelty. I can’t say for sure where Dungeon Fighter will land in my final assessment, but right now, it is on the good side of zany. The challenges in this game are ridiculous, which forges the bond of the party of heroes. Every win feels like an epic success; every failure feels like a major setback. There are hoots, hollers, high fives, and fist bumps to be had, and the game is hilarious. The weapons, which add restrictions to how players must throw the dice in exchange for increased damage to monsters, make the game feel like what Gauntlet of Fools wanted to be: ridiculous boasts that, if they pay off, pay off handsomely. But really, you look like a fool while playing, which isn’t a bad thing at Gen Con. We played and lost, and immediately played again. The game has table presence, and several people stopped by to gawk at it. The game is just hilarious to play. So far, we enjoy this. You’ll hear about it if this opinion changes.

Gravwell
I heard the concept of this one before Gen Con, but I wasn’t sure how it would play out. In Gravwell, players are escaping the pull of a black hole using only tractor beams (their ships’ thrusters are broken). Thus, their movement is dictated by the mass (and gravity) of the nearest objects to them. Gravwell is a simultaneous action selection racing game. The deck has 26 cards representing elements of the periodic table, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet and a number of spaces that a player will move when the card is chosen. Most cards in the deck are green, which pull players’ ships in the direction of the closest object. There are a few purple cards, which push players’ ships away from the closest object. There are two blue cards, which pull all objects (including other players’ ships) a number of spaces toward the player who uses the card. Players draft six cards for the round and then secretly and simultaneously play those cards, executing their cards in alphabetical order. The first player to reach the end of the track wins.

I loved Gravwell. I saw a group demoing it before us, and their game was taking forever, and it seemed very chaotic. This didn’t bode well for our impending demo, but I held my peace because I’ve interacted with the designer on Twitter and thought I owed it to him to check his game out. I am so glad I did. I’m pretty sure the chaos (there were huge swings in their race) and slow playtime in the first group were group dependent. I’ve played twice now, and both games were very tight, and quick (thirty minutes or less). Gravwell uses a very simple concept–gravity (move toward the closest object)–but the game involves lots of think and double-think, which I appreciate. The game does involve players’ plans being foiled frequently (when someone moves before you and you had planned for them to move after you, for example), but it’s more interesting for that, and I never felt like I didn’t have control over my choices. The game is simple enough to be a gateway kind of game (with the right crowd), yet thinky enough to satisfy gamers. This was the best game I played at the con, at least upon first impression. (Spyrium and Impulse are growing in my mind upon reflection.) I’m so glad Wolfie picked up a copy…even though he won both of our games. Very cool concept with slick execution and production. Highly recommended.

Impulse
Impulse is a 4X space game with primarily cards that plays in about an hour. Each card can be a sector of the space map, an action (in the impulse), a technology card, a mineral, an attack card, a technology card, or a good for trade. Each turn follows a few simple steps. First, a player must add a card from their hand to the impulse. The impulse is the heart of the game: it’s a shared action track that each player will perform on their turn, so players will want to choose cards for the impulse that benefit themselves more than the other players. Next, players may perform their technology action (these are asymmetrical at the start of the game and can be replaced during the game), then they may perform each action in the impulse in order. Actions include moving ships to explore sectors and fight enemies, trading cards for points, mining cards to boost actions, sabotaging other ships, and building ships. After actions, players may execute cards in their plan (if they have any). Then, players receive points, trim the impulse to three cards, and draw two cards. Players receive points for destroying enemy ships, trading goods, and having ships in the sector’s core. The first player to twenty points wins.

This is the game that I most wanted to try coming into Gen Con, and it took some tenacity on my part (Asmadi was short on demoers), but I got to play the new Carl Chudyk game. Much like Spyrium, I don’t think I grasped how much I liked this game until a few hours after it was over. Simply put, I loved it. It combines Chudyk’s signature “cards can be multiple things” with a spatial element and a fun theme. A 4X game that is primarily cards (WHERE ARE THE MINIS?) doesn’t seem like a winning proposition, but as far as this Euro gamer is concerned, I’d take this over the others any day. For starters, despite a lengthy explanation, we learned and played the game in 75 minutes. The game felt much longer than this–in a good way. I was engaged, my brain was firing on all cylinders to try to comprehend what to do, and I had a blast. There was so much interaction in the cards, and the hand management decision of how to use each card was mind-blowing. The game was disorienting at first, as all Chudyk’s other games have been for me, but after several turns, the players in our game were figuring it out and enjoying themselves. I was planning this as an insta-buy before; now that I know what I’m getting, I’m getting antsy for it to become available. If you like Glory to Rome or Innovation, this has enough the same that you’ll probably like this too. If you like space games of discovery and conquest, this game feels like that–but in an hour, and with components that will likely fit into a tiny box. (That is, you probably won’t break your back or the bank to get it.) I highly recommend checking this out.

Libertalia
I’d been wanting to try this pirate-themed role-selection game since last Gen Con (when it debuted), but it had eluded me. I got in a demo (one of three weeks) of the game at the Asmodee booth. The goal of Libertalia is to have the most gold at the end of three weeks. Each week has seven days (obvs), six days for working and one for rest and maintenance (even pirates observe a Sabbath). At the start of the week, booty tiles are allocated to each day, one for each player, and only some of the tiles are good. Players have an identical stack of thirty role cards, which are assigned a rank. Players have the same roles available to bid for the booty on each day, and each role has a special ability. Lower ranks activate their special abilities first; higher ranks get first choice of the booty.

I liked Libertalia quite a bit, even though I wasn’t very good at it. The role-selection bidding had a similar feel to the second round in For Sale (when players bid houses for checks), although in Libertalia, this mechanism is at the service of a larger, longer, and meatier game. I found the decisions tense and interesting, and I liked trying to outthink my opponents (even though I ultimately proved unsuccessful). There is some text to read on the role cards, which I was afraid would slow the game down, but even in our one play with all new players, this wasn’t an issue. (I suspect it’s because the players only see a maximum of nine role cards at a time, which is manageable.) This game was on my radar before the convention, and while I didn’t buy it at Gen Con, I will pursue a copy in trade. Seems like a great lunch game.

Mascarade
In Mascarade, each player is dealt a character with a special ability. At the beginning of the game, all players have their characters face up. After everyone has examined the characters, players turn them face-down. On each turn a player may do one of three actions: look at their character card, swap (or not) their character card with another player (mixing the cards under the table and giving each player a card), or claim to be a character, activating that character’s ability. If a player activates an ability, each other player in turn order may also claim to be that character. If no one else claims to be that character, the player performs the ability, no strings attached. If another player (or players) claim the ability, all claimants reveal their cards. Whoever holds the character claimed (if anyone) activates the ability; all other claimants pay 1 coin to the court. The first player to thirteen coins wins.

Mascarade feels like a mix between Coup and Citadels. After playing Mascarade, I think Coup is better (the jury’s out on Citadels; I’ve not played in a while). What I didn’t like about Mascarade is that I didn’t feel like my turns had much value. I could perform one action, and my choices were usually to do something to benefit myself or to play defensively, allowing the other players to benefit themselves on their turns, thus putting me behind. There wasn’t much I could do to both benefit me and hurt other players (as there is in Coup), and I felt less in control. I think this might improve with experience, but I can’t say for sure. The game had some interesting moments and is a beautiful production (with giant-sized cards), but this is one I don’t need to own, having both Coup and Citadels. I would be willing to play it again, though. It’s very quick and fits up to 13 players, which is nice.

Rialto
Rialto is set in Venice and feels very much like another game set in Venice, San Marco (I wonder if this game is Feld’s “twist on the earlier game?). The game is played in six rounds, and each round has three phases: card draft, card playing, and building phase. In the first phase, players claim a row of cards and receive additional cards from the deck. Then they cull the cards they drew down to seven for the second phase. In the second phase, play follows a set order every round in a series of six steps. In each step, players may play cards that match the step. Players execute the step’s action that number of times with a bonus going to the player who plays the most cards of that step. The steps all work together and let players increase their favor with the doge (who breaks ties); get gold, buildings, and councilmen into their supply; and place councilmen, gondolas, and bridges on the board. Bridges and gondolas determine the value of each district, and each district is scored using area majority at the end of the game. The player with the most points wins.

I’ve heard mixed reviews of this Feld, but I really enjoyed it. (Of course, I’m fairly new to Feld and haven’t played a broad selection of his games.) The actions all work together well, and the hand management aspect of this game is at the forefront. Rialto is very much an efficiency game, and a game of knowing when the opportune moment is to play cards. Players will want to play cards when they can receive the special bonus, but that’s not always possible, especially since getting councilmen into districts is difficult if not done early. The doge track provides a huge incentive–first choice of cards and breaking all ties (of which there are many). True to other Feld games, I lost miserably (though I got a few rules wrong–I’m going to blame that), but I can’t wait to play some more, and with this one being easy to explain and taking about an hour for rules and play, this should be an ideal lunchtime game. This was the only game I bought at Gen Con, and at least after a single game (with the promise of more to come), I do not regret the purchase.

Spyrium
I got in a full game of this at the Asmodee booth, despite one player leaving early. Spyrium is a Euro game through and through. Players place workers to get buildings and techniques to mine spyrium, earn money, and refine spyrium for victory points. The game lasts six rounds, and each round has two phases. All players start in phase 1, but they can move to phase 2 at different times. Each round has nine cards laid out in a 3×3 grid, with space in between each card. Players take turns placing their meeples between cards or activating the event (in phase 1) or retrieving their meeples, activating the event, or activating their buildings (in phase 2). There is no limit to the number of meeples that can be placed in between cards, but the more meeples there are, the more expensive cards are or the more money a player will earn if he removes the meeple.

Spyrium was a very thinky game, and while I could say with certainty that I liked it after my play, I couldn’t say much more. Upon reflection, though, this is the game I played at Gen Con that has stayed with me the most. There are so many decisions to make, and the decisions are interesting the whole way through. I’ve said many times that I wish other games would use The Speicherstadt’s auction mechanism, and Spyrium does–to great effect. Spyrium is the gamer’s game that The Speicherstadt’s gameplay eschews. (And that’s okay: there’s room for both games.) Everything is more complex in Spyrium: players allocate their workers to a space between two cards, meaning that other players can never be sure which of the two cards a player really wants (if any–meeples might be there for the money). Players receive a benefit from just piling on a popular space. Also, there’s a chicken aspect of choosing when to move into the next phase. It’s a benefit to move into the second phase before the other players, but if you move over too soon, you may not have enough of your meeples allocated to do everything you want to do. Money is tight in this game (as in Speicherstadt), and the gameplay and icons are intuitive, even if the game’s choices require some thought. The full game with three players lasted about 90 minutes, I think. (I was too engrossed to check the clock.) I’m not sure how typical this is–the player who left early slowed the game down quite a bit, and we had the rules explanation. I would imagine with quick players, this could be a lunch game. I hemmed and hawed at Gen Con, picking this game and putting it back no fewer than five times. I didn’t buy it there, and I’m a little disappointed in that, especially now that I’ve processed how awesome the game is. I plan to buy a copy when it’s available–and hope that I can find willing players.

Tessen
Tessen is a quick real-time game currently on Kickstarter. Players have a deck comprised of different animal cards and warriors. Players play cards in their own stacks of matching animals, but they can only have five piles going at a time and five cards in hand. Players may attack one another with warriors, temporarily pausing the game. The defending player must either play a warrior to defend or concede, giving the opponent the stack of animals attacked. Players may score stacks that contain three animals or more at any time, which keeps them safe (though could curtail future rewards). Whichever player has the most animals in their score pile at the end of the round removes one warrior from their deck. The game ends after one player has removed three warriors.

I thought Tessen was going to feel like Speed, a simple recognition game to pass the time. I was delighted to find that the game was much more about hand management, and there are some interesting decisions to be had in this short yet adrenaline-filled game. Players must watch their opponent closely as well as manage their own piles. There’s a bit of press-your-luck, as piles can only score if they have three or more animals, but since there are eight of each animal in a player’s deck, immediately scoring rows as able does not always allow players to get all of their animals into play. But, obviously, the bigger the pile, the more attractive it is to the opponent. And warriors, while great, can clog up your hand if unused, forcing players to attack each other. I enjoyed this game quite a bit. I had signed on as a backer earlier, and after playing I don’t regret my decision (though I do question whether my wife will play this one with me…). If you like real-time games, and even if you don’t, Tessen is worth checking out.

Time ‘n’ Space
Time ‘n’ Space is a real-time pick-up-and-deliver game where players’ actions are limited by one-minute sand timers. A full game lasts thirty minutes; I played a twelve-minute demo (the short game). Players must produce, hold, and deliver goods to opponents’ home worlds, where those goods are in demand, as well as manage their own homeworld’s demands. Each player has a number of demand chits for their homeworld, color coordinated with the goods in the game. When players fulfill a demand, they receive an opponent’s demand chit of the color of goods delivered (worth points at the end of the game). However, if a player has any demand chits of his own homeworld that match that color at the end of the game, he scores no points from the opponent’s chits. (This encourages players to demand things of other players, which reduces some things the player might be able to do.) Players are rewarded for delivering to multiple players.

I did not care for Time ‘n’ Space at all. Going into it, I wasn’t sure which side of the love/hate divide it would fall on, but after the demo I can safely place this in the “hate” category. I don’t mind real-time games, but what made Time ‘n’ Space so frustrating was the sand timers: the whole game was hurry up and wait. There wasn’t that much to plan in the game, and so I felt like I wasn’t doing much in the game. Time ‘n’ Space is very much a “you can’t do everything you want to!” kind of game, but the sand timer restriction really made this one a miss for me. Whereas Impulse felt long in a good way, this game felt long in a bad way. (Even though it took 20% of the time that Impulse took, it felt much longer.) I recognize that this was only the demo and that a full review would require a full play…but I’m currently not planning a full review, and I have no plans to play this again. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

Trains
I won’t say much about how to play Trains. It is very much Dominion with a board (some cards mirroring Dominion exactly), though with these key differences: cards affect the board; waste cards gum up players’ decks, usually as a result of their own choices rather than opponents’ attacks; waste cards are the only cards in the game that can be “trashed” (that is, not so much deck refining); points can be scored on both cards and the board.

I played a demo version of Trains, and I should begin by mentioning a few caveats. The person who ran the demo for us was not very good. She spent a good deal of it looking at her phone, didn’t explain things very well (especially the key differences from Dominion), and didn’t seem that interested to be there in general. (In her defense, this was toward the end of the day.) So…I’m not sure how much of my impression is based on the demo and how much is based on the game, but I thought Trains was just okay. I’m getting kind of tired of deck-builders that aren’t Dominion. I feel like each other deck-builder is Dominion-with-a-twist, and I’d much rather play Dominion (which is still the best, in my opinion). Now, there were some neat twists in that the cards were the vehicle to manage the game on the board. I like that quite a bit. There weren’t any attacks, but players could jockey for board position to mess with the other players. This was cool. I’m definitely willing to play this one some more (unlike Time ‘n’ Space), but my initial impression is that this game is not quite deserving of the hype it’s received. I’m hoping I’m wrong, though, because I really want to like this one.

Well, that’s it for me. I missed several games I wanted to try, but hey, you can only do so much in two days. (And I played some old favorites too.) What did you play?

I’ll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion10 Comments

    • It’s pretty fantastic. It’s got the same “controlled chaos” feel of other Chudyk designs, but this time in space and with a “board.” LOTS of combo potential, too. I can’t wait to explore it more.

    • I wish I was as tenacious as you in trying to get this demo’d. This was one of my highest wants to demo. I went in to their little room several times, lingered around the board, asked if there were any plans to demo it. They just seemed completely un-interested in demoing it. One time Friday they said to come back at noon for a demo of it, which I did, and noone was there. Really annoying.

    • I had almost the same experience as you. I kept asking and asking for a demo. I finally showed up at a ticketed event, and thankfully two people didn’t show up, so I got in. Travis from Indie Boards & Cards said Asmadi had had trouble finding volunteers, and it certainly seemed that way. (I ended up teaching someone Innovation–not as a volunteer, but in their room–as we waited for Impulse.)

  1. I played trains at GenCon and found that the board added some interesting inter-player interactions which I feel that Dominion can lack. But I found that many of the cards didn’t seem to be worth purchasing or only worthy of getting one or two of them.

  2. I’m pretty sure I had the same terrible demo’er as you did for Trains. I feel that playing without her will make a huge difference. She was very distracting.

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