What I love most about Gen Con, the United States’ largest tabletop gaming convention, is the vendor floor. Literally hundreds of developers and publishers are on hand from all over the world, each one looking to draw the discerning eye of more than 60,000 attendees.
This year, it seemed like every booth had a game that I’d never seen before. Unlike in years past, most of them were actually for sale.
With the rise of Kickstarter as a venue to fund and sell pre-orders for tabletop games, the last few years at Gen Con have seemed more about hyping future games than selling what’s on hand. But not this year. My trip was all about great games that were available for fans to take home.
Here are my top picks from Gen Con 2018.
The most eye-popping game on the floor this year was a thematic hidden movement game called Princess Jing. Imagine the classic game Stratego where, instead of moving soldiers around the board, you’re a young woman trying to sneak out of her parents’ castle.
The hook is that one of your pieces on the board is a mirror, allowing you to see behind the screens to find the other player’s pawns. Princess Jing sits two players, and scales well for both young and old. You can find it in stores and online soon. The retail price is $50 and, given the amount of cardboard in the box, that’s an extraordinary value.
The game on everyone’s lips at this year’s Gen Con, both literally and figuratively, was called Dude. This Target-exclusive party game from North Star Games comes with 72 cards with “dude” written on both sides. On the side that faces each player, however, it’s written a whole bunch of different ways. There’s “dewd,” “dude?” and “doode,” just to name a few.
Players all go at the same time, reciting the words on the card that they’ve drawn from their deck and trying to match that card to someone else’s across the table. It’s a cacophony of people saying “dude.” When two players both think they’ve gotten a match, they call “sweet” and lay down their cards. If they’re right, both players score a point.
In action, it looks and sounds completely bonkers. But, in reality, it’s actually a subtle exploration of how we use language. Best of all, Dude is dead simple to teach, and games usually take no more than five minutes. It’s the perfect way to begin or end any night of gaming, dude.
The base game, and the More Dude standalone/expansion pack, will only run you $10.99 each.
Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right
There may have been more intense strategy games at this year’s Gen Con, but there were none more cute than Leder Games’ Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right.
In Root, up to four players each take on the role of a distinctly different faction of woodland creatures. Subjects of the Marquise de Cat rule with an iron fist, while the Eyrie are dangerous birds of prey. Meanwhile, the Woodland Alliance fights using guerrilla tactics, and the Vagabond sits back, waiting to throw in his support with the oppressed.
In practice, each player at the table is playing a completely different kind of worker placement, area control game. The system reminds me of the interlocking complexities of Scythe, but with an art style very nearly as endearing as that of Night in the Woods.
Root retails for $60 and also has an early expansion, called The River Folk, that adds two new factions to the game. If you’ve been intimidated by GMT Games’ counter-insurgency (COIN) series, try this on for size.
Another absolute surprise this year was Devir’s Gretchinz!, a card game about a Warhammer 40,000-themed road rally.
Players take the role of an idiot goblin going up against his peers in a race across the wasteland. As players move their three-dimensional cardboard cut-out cars around the table, they lay down cards representing the roadway in front of them.
But on every goblin car, there’s also a gigantic, poorly made gun. The backs of the cards in your hand show either bullets or malfunctions. You can’t see them, but every other player at the table can. It’s a high-stakes game of chicken with some of the most adorable creatures from the Games Workshop’s grimdark world, and one that I highly recommend.
CMON is well known for its lavish miniatures games, like those found in the Zombicide series. This year the company hit the floor at Gen Con with a number of lower-priced offerings, and none of them were quite as fun as Gizmos.
In Gizmos, players act as mad scientists gathering up interconnected machines in their secret laboratories. The game is powered by a gumball machine-like cardboard contraption that spits out colored marbles. Each marble represents a different type of energy.
Gizmos, in the form of square cards, are drafted or purchased by each player on their turn, who then take those cards and place them below their sideboard. The goal is to gather up enough gizmos to create clever chain reactions that spit out victory points. It’s a quick, 30-minute experience that is easy to teach and looks great at the table.
Specter Ops: Broken Covenant
A direct sequel to the well-regarded 2015 hidden movement game, Specter Ops: Broken Covenant is a brand-new title from Plaid Hat Games. It’s also compatible with the original, and includes revised rules for a wholly improved experience.
In Specter Ops, one player uses a pad of paper to plot their movement off-table while the other players try to hunt them down. The game is heavily influenced by its dystopian cyberpunk theme. The endgame often turns into a bloody gunfight on a smoky neon-lit corner. If you’ve ever enjoyed Nuns on the Run or Letters from Whitechapel, you’ll definitely want to give this one a try.
This new game features nine new miniatures, including five new hunters, four new agents and everything else you need to get started.
Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game
Finally, perhaps the most high-concept board game to get good buzz at this year’s Gen Con was Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game. It’s a set of five ripped-from-the-headlines cases that players must work together to solve at the table.
What makes the game so interesting is that the clues needed to solve cases can often be found online. From the description on the official website:
Detective is set in modern times and you, as the protagonists of the game, have access to all data that can be found on the Internet. You can use Google Maps, Wikipedia, or any other source of data you may need. We call this mechanism “Breaking the Fourth Wall.” General Knowledge is identified with the WiFi icon. When you see this icon, you can browse the given topic on the Internet to learn more about it. If there is a certain phrase underlined before the wifi icon, you should run it through the search engine of your choice to see what comes up.
My experience playing the game this year in private, after the convention closed, was a bit of a mixed bag. The case that we played suffered, I think, from a bad translation from the original Polish. Likewise, the assumptions that it made about American policing were also a little odd. But that particular case was a print-and-play con exclusive, and not one bundled with the final game. I was intrigued enough about the system’s online connections to the real world to give it another go.
Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game should be available online from the publisher, Portal Games, very soon.