The monolith of Gen Con just keeps growing. In 2012, the games convention attracted more than 41,000 attendees to Indianapolis for a four-day weekend, which was a record—at least until the 2013 Con was attended by 49,000 people earlier this month. Attendees come to play board games, video games, role-playing games, and family games. They dress up in elaborate game-inspired costumes; they run through live-action combat simulators. They build elaborate towers of Magic cards and knock them down with coins that get donated to charity.
And they examine games, toys, books, miniatures, dice, costumes, and tons of other paraphernalia in the immense dealers’ room. Some companies use the dealers’ room to playtest upcoming games to see whether they work in the field. There’s also the First Exposure Hall, which this year featured 55 different pre-release games, rotating through two-hour playtest slots from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day of the convention.
The First Exposure Hall is a popular stop for indie game designers, who shake out the kinks in their games and ask for feedback from playtesters. They also spread the word about their funding efforts: Virtually every game we tried at Gen Con was running a Kickstarter campaign or planning one in the near future. We played games that are just about to hit the market and games in the earliest stage of development that may not be released for a year or two, if ever. We tried simple games that could be played over and over in a two-hour slot, and complicated ones where a single timeslot was only enough time to muddle through a single round of combat. And we talked to the designers, who were usually on site, eagerly showing off their games and fielding questions. Here are the 12 that interested us most.
The gist: Come up with a film to match the elevator pitch.
How it’s played: John Kovalic earns a good bit of hero worship at Gen Con, as he’s illustrated dozens of games, including Apples To Apples and Ninja Versus Ninja, and his popular, long-running comic, Dork Tower, is a font of humor about games. This year, he was at the Cryptozoic booth demoing his recently released party game, ROFL!, but he took a break to show us something else he and a few friends have designed: Double Feature, a film-trivia card game with a simple but grabby conceit.
There are six decks: characters, props, scenes, production, themes and genres, and settings. Players flip up two cards and then race to come up with a film that unites them. “Characters” might be something specific like “a hit man” or a concept like “changes identity.” “Production” might be “not always in English” or “animated.” If the two cards were “a hitman” and “not entirely in English,” players might say “La Femme Nikita,” “The Professional,” or even “Kill Bill 2,” which has some scenes in Mandarin.
Whoever gets out a plausible answer first—and can defend it if necessary—earns a point. There are just a couple more rules—the two cards must be from different decks, and it’s legit to re-use films or name prequels or sequels, but not back-to-back—but mostly, it’s that simple. It’s a fast-paced, easy, addictive game for film fans, and it’s extremely flexible as a trivia game, since its tropes are broad enough to apply to any generation.
Release status: This was one of the few pre-release games at Gen Con without a Kickstarter planned, since it’s coming from an established company. Kovalic said, “Cryptozoic bought the game concept after a 10-minute presentation. Those are the kinds of meetings I love.” Double Feature’s release is tentatively scheduled for the second quarter of 2014. While the demo deck we played with solely features text layout, the final versions will have Kovalic’s art. [Tasha Robinson]
Mazaki No Fantaji
The gist: A fantastical role-playing game that welcomes variations on a theme.
How it’s played: A liberal, enthusiastic gamemaster is an absolute must for Mazaki No Fantaji, Anthropos Games’ collaborative storytelling game. Each encounter starts with a handful of themes and conditions, and players are invited to draw on them in order to do amazing things. The aesthetic is pure over-the-top combat anime: Players might describe themselves as breathing fire, bouncing rapidly off walls, or disappearing into shadow, and if they can justify it within their character paradigms and the battle’s established themes, they not only get away with it, they get a bonus for their dice rolls.
Other games use the “Describe something really cool and you’re more likely to succeed” idea, but Mazaki No Fantaji codifies it with a flexible system that encourages creativity. During each round, players can “make a move” by playing to a single theme or trait in order to gain tokens that can unlock tremendous powers. Alternately, they can “make an attack,” which can play to any number of themes and conditions on the table, or create new ones. The result is a freewheeling, over-the-top game of pretend, with everyone describing increasingly wild and dramatic feats, akin to a multiplayer version of Axe Cop. It’s up to the gamemaster to both encourage players’ imaginations and match them with equally colorful villain actions, but the system’s energetic tone helps.
Release status: A Kickstarter is currently running and wraps in early October. If funded, the game is scheduled for release in June next year, although the basic rules are already available for free download on Anthropos’ website. [TR]
The gist: Werewolf without the waiting.
How it’s played: The way Orkshop Games’ Joe White tells it, he enjoys playing Werewolf (the Mafia-style party game repackaged for a new generation by Looney Labs and Bezier Games, among others) but got frustrated by the way players are eliminated from the game and have to sit out, isolated from the fun. So he refitted another popular, been-around-forever party game, Pit, into a werewolf game with no eliminations. (“I could have gone with zombies,” he says, “but those are so overdone right now.”) Where Wolf? operates in trading rounds, during which each player tries to build a nine-of-a-kind hand of a resource useful for fending off a werewolf once the sun goes down: wolfsbane, dog food, pitchforks, torches, etc.
There are only nine of each suit—the dealer can easily scale the game between three and eight players by building a deck with one suit per player—so frantic trading is in order as each player tries to exchange unwanted resources for desired ones by offering blind trades of matching cards. Players shout what they’re offering—”One card!” “Three cards!” “Four cards!” and trade across the table with people making matching offers; meanwhile, everyone tries not to get stuck with the werewolf, the wild-card equivalent of the Old Maid. A trading round usually takes about 90 seconds. Whoever collects nine of a kind first (and howls like a wolf to end the round) gets points, and the dealer gets a chance to earn more by figuring out who has the Werewolf card. (The person who has it is docked points.) It’s a simple game but a fun, frenetic one, with players perpetually invited to feel that it doesn’t matter if this hand went badly; the next one will be better.
Release status: White had a fully finished sample deck for the game, with art by d20monkey’s Brian Patterson, but the rules were still a bit in flux—the cards also had point values, and he’s trying to decide whether to eliminate those, or use them in a variant. He also ended Gen Con with a drinking version of the game, which he said went “stunningly well, almost too well.” He’s planning on a mid-September Kickstarter, “with shipping by Christmas, crossing fingers.” [TR]
Fate Of The Norns: Immortals
The gist: A Norse-themed game that tinkers with role-playing game tradition.
How it’s played: Andrew Valkauskas’ Norse-mythology RPG Fate Of The Norns has been around for decades in PDF form, but it’s experienced a resurgence after a successful 20th-anniversary Kickstarter. Now he’s expanding it further. In the core version, players are Vikings, fighting mythic battles and becoming mighty warriors. In the latest expansion, those characters can end their mortal growth by dying in glorious battle. Then, if fate and the dice approve, they’re carried to Valhalla to become epic-level supernaturals, honing their skills while waiting for the final battles of Ragnarok.
Fate Of The Norns has a unique, immensely complicated system, and trying to grasp this expansion as starting players was like launching a high-level Dungeons & Dragons game with a bunch of first-timers—in a two-hour playtesting slot, at that. But while the brief playtest blurred by, some things stood out, like the combat system based entirely on Norse runes.
The art of Fate Of The Norns is all stylish and striking, with a Nordic aesthetic and an autumnal color palate. Nothing about the game is standard or intuitive, from the character-creation system (which involves working your way outward on a grid from a central block, picking up skills as you go) to the battle tracking, with its flowing, mysterious, treelike grid. But its sheer artistry is appealing, and the setting is rich. It’s a break from standard RPGs and an attempt to grasp something different. Also, Immortals players get to experience ridiculous powers—for instance, by stomping around as a 21-foot giant whose footsteps cause earthquakes and stun enemies. It’s enjoyable both on a story level and on a wish-fulfillment level.
Release status: Valkauskas is currently running a sadly underfunded Kickstarter to produce Lego-esque terrain blocks for tactical games. Once that ends, the Immortals Kickstarter is scheduled for October. [TR]
Who’s Your Heavenly Father
The gist: Players vie to please a god whose values are shrouded in mystery.
How it’s played: There is only one true god. But who is he, and what does he want from his followers? That’s the open question in Who’s Your Heavenly Father. At the beginning of the game, one card is removed from a deck of 10 possible deities, and each player gets to peek at one of the remaining “false gods.” Each god assigns different values to the game’s four attributes: justice, benevolence, selfishness, and xenophobia. If God is a cat, you’ll be rewarded for selfishness, while the divine version of Batman values justice above all else.
You play by drawing and playing cards, some of which let you reveal more false gods as you try to figure out what attributes you should pursue and which should be avoided. Most of the cards let players target each other with “moral dilemmas,” which include classic ethical questions like the trolley problem and common religious quandaries like whether to obey your faith’s dietary restrictions. There are also goofy scenarios, like one that asks how you react when an extraterrestrial shows up at your doorstep.
Stentor Danielson, the game’s developer, said that the structure of the game is locked in, but he’s working on punching up the humor in the moral dilemmas. He also wants to add more material to keep long games fresh and cull the dilemmas based on current events. One nice element of the game is that players determine when it ends, calling for Judgment Day when they feel like they’re in the lead, and preventing the all-too-common problem of slogging through turns when the outcome has already been determined.
Release status: Gen Con marked the first major playtesting for Who’s Your Heavenly Father, along with two other games Danielson and his partner Jasmine Davis are developing under the name Glittercats. While they’re still trying to figure out the best way to sell and market their products, they’re considering a Kickstarter in spring 2014. [Samantha Nelson]
The gist: Space-based tactical warfare with a rich story.
How it’s played: Ed and Adam Coles, a father-and-son team, designed eXnilo as a game to play themselves and with the rest of their family. But when they got the idea to bring it to Gen Con, they spent 45 days working on a sharp-looking version of two decks they’d been using. The play of this sci-fi themed trading card game will feel familiar to fans of Starcraft and other real-time strategy video games. Players have two decks, using one for random draws and card plays. Playing resource cards like the “supply depot” lets you produce one of the core building materials, such as metal or energy, which are in turn used to build production facilities. Once you have these, they can be activated to make units from a separate deck. The goal is to destroy the other player’s command station, and while you can ignore their units to go straight to the base, you’ll often need to attack them to keep them from blowing up your own stuff. Games are quick—one playthrough takes about 20 minutes with practiced players, though an imbalance in luck or skill can make things go even faster.
Story is important to the Coles, and they were excited to talk about their world, where humans living on the moon come into conflict with intergalactic liquid aliens and artificial intelligence acting on the last mandates of its long-dead creators. They imagine expansions to the base game moving the plot along and even determining story elements based on tournament outcomes.
Release status: The positive response at Gen Con was encouraging for the Coles, who are now seeking investors and trying to determine the cost of producing eXnilo. [SN]
The gist: Hell is other people, but you have to feign interest.
How it’s played: It’s hard to explain the appeal of What?!? Oh…, a card game about trying to avoid getting caught while you’re ignoring a partner during a boring conversation. Suffice to say that it’s a hypnotic, addictive game that operates at roughly the speed of Uno, with a lot of sly humor built in. Players flip random cards to establish an emotion (dejected, jubilant, and so forth), a setting (at the gym, on a roller coaster) and an opening remark. They continue the conversation by reading and tossing in face-down conversational cards. Some feature noncommittal responses like “Anything you say, honey,” or “Whatever.” Others are generic compliments, non sequiturs, or passive-aggressive accusations. (”This isn’t getting us anywhere.”) But some cards change the subject, and others are challenges, like “What did I just say?” Players win the round by throwing in a question that other players neglect to register and answer because they get caught up in their own side of the conversation.
Sharp players out to win could presumably hang onto their cards, ignore the flow, and just listen. But it’s necessary to cycle through the cards quickly to find the round-winning question cards, and fun to try to keep the conversation relevant and cogent, based on the cards in your hand. It’s a silly, quick game. The free print-and-play PDF that designer Chris Henderson set up on his website, linked above, gives a sense for the basics. What?!? Oh… can be played in about 15 minutes, but it’s easy to hit a rhythm and play over and over.
Release status: Henderson says the Kickstarter will be out in “about a month.” [TR]
Super Turbo Bit Crawl FX Alpha Xtreme
The gist: Like a boss fight.
How it’s played: Inspired by 8-bit role-playing games, Super Turbo Bit Crawl FX Alpha Xtreme players explore a randomly generated dungeon to reach a final boss. The dungeon expands as players flip tiles each time they move into a new room. Splitting the party isn’t advisable, because once all the players have acted, a die roll determines where monsters pop up, and their power and numbers are determined by how many players are in the game, not how many are in place to fight them. Battles are simple, with players rolling their attack dice while someone rolls for the enemies’ defense. Each class is equipped with cool, though not particularly balanced, special powers that can change things up, whether it’s the paladin healing or the beastmaster granting extra turns.
When the tile representing the lair of the final boss is flipped, everyone is teleported there for the battle. But at the end, things tend to fall apart. In our playtest, table talk let us plan a way to kill a dragon by using special powers on her before she could even breathe fire. The developer running the game said he saw groups fail because they were obsessed with their final scores, rather than actually beating the boss, so they wouldn’t share buffs or items. But it’d be hard to lose this game if the players take even a mildly cooperative approach.
Release status: A Kickstarter is planned for January. [SN]
Thunderscape: The World Of Aden
The gist: A strange, venerable RPG world returns in need of some tweaks.
How it’s played: Aden first appeared in the ’90s as the setting for a fantasy trilogy, two computer games, and two tabletop role-playing-game supplements, but it has been dormant since then. Kyoudai Games acquired the rights to the game this year, and is developing Thunderscape: The World Of Aden as a campaign setting for Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder RPG.
It’s definitely a fun world to play in, combining sword-and-sorcery with steampunk. The premise: A once-peaceful fantasy world has turned to machine-based magic. This desperate measure is an attempt to ward off the threat of the Darkfall, which has ripped apart nations and brought local horror stories to life. Thunderscape would be a good pickup for fans of the Eberron setting of Dungeons & Dragons, since it shares some of the same themes and bizarre campaign possibilities. For instance, our playtest included an elf that let spirits possess her, a rhino-person seer, a warrior with a bionic arm, and a gun-toting lizardman who tried to get an ice-breathing bear-monster out of a gnome’s library and back in its magical enclosure.
Even for those not interested in the setting, the book provides new classes, races, feats and monsters that can be incorporated into existing Pathfinder campaigns without eclipsing the core content. Unfortunately, they’re not all created equal. The entomancer seems like an underpowered bug-themed druid, while the steamwright, an engineer who makes items for the party, had to be reined in by interventions from the developers several times during Gen Con. The seer, who provides some clever party-support effects, like preventing enemies from sneak-attacking, got the mix right. The developers said they’d be taking suggestions seriously to tweak their rules, so the classes will hopefully be more balanced by the book’s release.
Release status: Thunderscape’s Kickstarter was fully funded in April—the Gen Con playtesting was actually an additional “stretch” goal. The book is expected to be released in October in hardcover and PDF form. [SN]
The gist: A superhero card game series gets head-to-head action.
How it’s played: For cooperative fun and sheer replayability, it’s hard to beat Sentinels Of The Multiverse, Greater Than Games’ successful superhero card game, in which players pick pre-built hero decks and take on one of many cleverly designed villain decks. After a series of popular, overfunded Kickstarters for Sentinels expansions, Greater Than Games is now branching out into new works—Galactic Strike Force was funded on Kickstarter in May, along with the latest Sentinels expansion/spin-off, Vengeance. Sentinels Tactics, a new spin-off that takes the game in an entirely new direction, was announced in August and is just now in the testing phase.
At a Gen Con booth with row upon row of play tables for Sentinels, co-designer Luther Hendricks was relegated to a lone table on the edge, showing off a handmade series of foamcore boards with little paper standees that represented existing Sentinels heroes divided into battling teams. Like the art, the rules are in flux, but the basic structure gives each character a movement, attack, and defense score, along with a small deck of powers. Players take turns stepping around the board, dealing with terrain, and making dice rolls to pound on each other. All the while, they’re accumulating (and using) extra attack and defense bonuses, and deciding which powers from their deck to keep active. The attack-and-defend setup is simple, repetitive, and a bit draggy—in a six-player game, an average turn involved one attacker, one defender, and four entirely uninvolved players patiently waiting for the game to get around them.
But Hendricks’ description of the eventual plans for the game were more exciting. Ultimately, he said, Sentinel Tactics should involve a variety of scenarios, where heroes face off against each other, or fight a player representing a villain (“A competitive scenario is one of the things people keep telling us they miss in Sentinels,” he said), or cooperatively fight an environmental scenario, like a malfunctioning monorail about to crash. At the moment, Tactics could use more polish and more variability, but the basics of the game suggest something entirely different from Sentinels, while drawing on a rich existing universe.
Release status: Hendricks said Tactics’ Kickstarter is due by the end of 2013, with the game release in early 2014. [TR]
Incredible Expeditions: Quest For Atlantis
The gist: A deck-building game that overwhelms players with choices.
How it’s played: Deck-building games like Dominion and Ascension are popular right now, and understandably so, since the framework is equally appealing to players (who can get a lot of variety and replay value out of even a basic set) and profit-minded designers (who can pump out expansions at a rate to rival Magic). Liz Spain’s first solo game, after a number of collaborative credits on Flying Frog games, crosses the deck-building system with resource management and exploration. Players venture into a Lovecraft-inspired steampunk world of horrors on their way to the recently discovered island of Atlantis. Up to five players start with an empty ship, a specific character who comes with a special power, some starting resources, and a limited but expandable deck of cards. They take turns going to market to buy better cards and hire crew members. When they’re ready, players set out for Atlantis, hitting dangerous encounters along the way (“Factory Of A Forgotten Age,” for instance, or “Desolate Plateau”) and struggling to muster the resources to keep going.
Quest For Atlantis’ primary downside is that individual turns can take a while, as players experience what Spain calls “analysis paralysis” while examining all their options and figuring out how to use their crew abilities and their supplies of money, heroism, and skullduggery. There are occasional opportunities for players to sabotage each other, or to be forced to help each other. But mostly, each player races to the finish line in isolation. The upside, though, is that the competition forces hard choices: Do you hang back to marshal resources and risk falling behind, or do you press ahead with an incomplete hand or limited crew? With a limited number of berths and few ways to dispose of non-optimal crew members, crew decisions are particularly crucial, but the overarching race encourages everyone to press forward, guaranteeing that a game can be played in a few hours. Gorgeous, sometimes funny art and a lot of variable options add to the impression that this is a carefully designed, smartly realized game with depth.
Release status: The initial Kickstarter is fully funded and heading into stretch goals, with some time left to run. The game release is planned for March 2014. Spain confirms that she’s already planning the next Incredible Expeditions game, which will be set in a completely different era and a different genre (still to be determined). She also says the final version of Quest For Atlantis will have alternate rules for cooperative play, which could alter the flow of play substantially. [TR]
The gist: A complex, vicious fight for territory in a small realm.
How it’s played: Much as Quest For Atlantis does, Mayfair’s latest game from designer Morgan Dontanville combines game types for a complicated, deep experience. Asgard’s Chosen has less humor, though, and less forward momentum. This is a game that could easily take four hours to play, and players might well approach it with the gravity and focus of professional chess.
Players take turns claiming land on a small modular board where each controllable space has a land type: hills, lakes, scrub, bogs, and so on. Players who control a land type can also seize control of the relevant creatures who live there, essentially buying the animals for use in their deck. You can also control towns, which make it possible to buy items that offer combat bonuses. Eventually, everyone ends up fighting each other on the small board, grappling for the limited lands and taking dramatic actions to placate the Norse gods. Each god is represented by a card that grants favors, until victory conditions are met, which removes the god from the game and turns it into victory points.
There’s much more competition in Asgard’s Chosen than in Quest For Atlantis, as players fight over resources and placement, or sometimes fight just to please the gods. You have to keep your eye on the long game as opposed to a sprint for the finish line. Players must be prepared to settle in and build deep, diverse decks of creatures and control as many types of land as possible, while fending off competition. It’s sometimes frustrating, since there are many choices in play style and strategy, and all of them could be wrong based on the luck of the draw, but overall the game rewards careful patience and planning.
Release status: Asgard’s Chosen would be on the market now if not for a shortfall at the printer, which left Dontanville’s game without boxes. He expects to see it on shelves in September. [TR]