Walking the massive exhibit hall of the annual Gen Con gaming convention this year, you could find dice made out of precious metals, hand-knitted beholders, and an arena for whaling on your friends with foam weapons. But the highlight, as always, was the companies who use the annual event to release their latest tabletop games and preview some works in progress for the more than 61,000 attendees. If you missed it, or spent your time playing an entirely different set of games, here’s a taste of what was demo-ing this year.
The gist: Prove yourself worthy of becoming the queen’s architect by building the best structures.
How it’s played: Players hire workers that they can assign to a variety of tasks: day labor earns gold, repairs give you points that help you win the game, constructing buildings requires a specialized set of workers but awards even more points. However, you can never do the same type of action twice in a row, so you also have to spend turns moving around the board to new projects and paying to let your employees rest and stay effective. There’s always some action you can take, but you’ll want to plot your decisions several turns in advance to make them more effective.
Possible strategies for winning are as diverse as labor policies. I took an early lead by hiring the cheapest workers I could find and literally working them to death before replacing them with fresh faces. The eventual winner of that game preferred saving up to buy highly skilled labor and making just a few highly valued projects. You’ll also have to decide between hiring a diverse workforce, which lets you do everything from masonry to weaving, or sticking to a few specialties and taking advantage of the efficiencies you get from the fact that all your woodcutters can be rested up with a single action. Queen’s Architect employs familiar ideas found in many European games, but it offers such a breadth of possible tactics that it feels like I’d still be learning new things after several playthroughs.
Release status: After a successful Kickstarter, the game has already been distributed to backers and should hit North American shelves later this year.
The gist: Field characters from the books in tests of military might, political power, and intrigue.
How it’s played: The new version of Fantasy Flight’s card game keeps the key mechanics of the original while changing some elements to make matches more stable instead of creating the feeling that one player is way ahead only to have the tides change dramatically after a single turn. Two to four players each have a deck devoted to a single noble house from George R.R. Martin’s series, such as the Starks or the Lannisters, but bolstered by alliances with other houses and various characters with no clear allegiance, like Littlefinger. The goal is to amass the power needed to claim the Iron Throne, represented by collecting 15 tokens won in various challenges.
You fight military, political, and intrigue contest and unopposed challenges reward extra victory. That means you need to field a diverse set of characters, and true to the books, the Starks are great at cutting people down with swords but really need help when it comes to dealing with the more court-savvy Lannisters. Each player also has a separate plot deck and draws a card from it each turn. These plot cards determine your maximum hand size for the turn and give you the resources needed to play characters, but they also have effects that can dramatically change the strategy for the round. Some plot cards are available to anyone, while others are house-specific. You’ll spend a lot of time trying to out-think your opponents, but the greatest fun in the game remains creating narratives that are both different but frustratingly similar to those found in the books, like when I felt very confident I had the Lannisters on the ropes only to have them drug Lord Eddard Stark with the milk of the poppy and leave me vulnerable to a devastating assault from Jaime Lannister.
Release status: The game was launched at Gen Con and is now available to purchase in stores and online.
The gist: A quick to setup, quick-to-play game of galactic conquest.
How it’s played: Create your game map in seconds by setting down a set of random tiles showing a mix of planets and empty space. Each planet has between one and three dots, indicating its value, and players start out controlling four ships placed on one-dot celestial bodies. During your turn, you choose whether to “explore” and move your ships around the board, “expand” and build up your fleet, or “exterminate” and blast any opposing ships near you.
All players reveal what strategy they chose at the same time. When fewer people choose the same tactic, it’s more effective. If none of your neighbors picked the same action, you can perform your strategy three times; if everyone picked the same way, you’ll only do it once. There’s an interesting layer of tactical reverse psychology here, as going against the flow might prove to be the more beneficial move. At the end of the round, you choose a single occupied tile and give each player points based on the planets they control. If another player is in the process of edging you out of a territory, you might be stuck giving them more points than you’re getting yourself. As an added bonus, as the game’s name implies, it’s highly portable. Considering how many games at Gen Con were either extremely complex or so simple as to only really involve one mechanic, it was a refreshing to find a something that straddled the line.
Release status: Passport Game Studios released Pocket Imperium at Gen Con, and its available now at retail stores.
The gist: Investigate a mystery in Victorian London before time runs out.
How it’s played: Four players each control a different investigator, ranging from a charming showgirl who’s looking for her missing sister to a tough German soldier, and race around London working together to uncover a mystery. The game comes with its own soundtrack, which explains the plot of a given scenario, provides atmospheric music and, most importantly, limits the time you can spend planning—a surefire way to ramp up tension and test your group’s ability to weigh risks and rewards on the fly.
Each location has a card that houses a challenge players can complete. The group has 12 minutes to flip cards and plot out how each player’s investigator will move around the board to deal with the challenges, using a second clock-shaped board to track where the characters will be at every hour of a single day and night. A card that calls for a mix of fighting prowess and guile might require both the soldier and showgirl to overcome, while the nun might be able to handle a test of knowledge and faith all by herself. You don’t want to rush to flip all the cards because revealed challenges that aren’t dealt with will make it more difficult to finish the final conflict. When Big Ben chimes, the planning phase is over and you execute all the moves.
Completing a location’s challenge gives you access to cards you can use to push your luck should you get stuck or want to try for a better outcome that might help you later in the game. Each character also has their own deck and can randomly reveal cards that might make a challenge easier if they can bring some relevant skill to bear or more difficult if they’re stricken with a personal trauma. If you’re able to survive the night, the scenario links to other chapters in the game and form an extended horror story.
Of all the games I tried, London Dread was the most exciting. It takes the feel of Arkham Horror but makes it much simpler, adds to the enjoyable trend of technology-enhanced board games, and promises to provide some narrative depth by taking your characters through multiple plot arcs.
Release status: Plotmaker Games plans to release the game late this year or in early 2016.
The gist: Rescue art from Nazi occupied France through lies and bluff calling.
How it’s played: Combining the bluff-calling drama of Coup with the plot of The Monuments Men, Operation F.A.U.S.T. has three to eight players competing to be the first to save $1 million worth of paintings from Hitler. Players have a hand of role cards each with their own abilities, such collecting intelligence (the game’s currency) or confiscating art from another player. Like in Coup, you can lie about the cards you have and use any role’s specialty at any time. The penalty for being caught lying or being wrong when calling out someone’s bluff is handing over half your intel to your rightful accuser or the falsely accused. Players can never be eliminated from the game, meaning Operation F.A.U.S.T. is much longer than your typical bite-sized game of Coup.
The lack of elimination also fundamentally changes the nature of the bluffing and calling. At times, it’s best to avoid calling anyone out, so you can keep your intel safe as you gradually build up the reserves to acquire paintings and put yourself closer to victory. Other times, because making an incorrect challenge isn’t so costly a mistake, it’s prudent to call someone out after they used their best card, even if you know they’re telling the truth, just so it’ll force them to discard that powerful ability. When you’re short on intel, you’re effectively immune to having your bluff called, but you also can’t accuse anyone else of lying if you don’t have at least two intel to wager.
You can also take turns to draw more role cards instead of taking an action, making the game slower while also reducing the importance of bluffing as you’re more likely to just be the role you’re claiming if you have five cards in your hand. It doesn’t take long to pick up the rules and possible strategies, but I felt the game drag on until someone could come up with the $1 million worth of art needed to win after my early, aggressive bluff calling put me hopelessly behind. Unless I was playing with a serious history or art buff, I’d probably just stick to Coup for my bluffing fun.
Release status: The game had a successful Kickstarter and has shipped to backers. A retail release has not been announced.
The gist: Be the most duplicitous person vying for a dead billionaire’s fortune.
How it’s played: Like Operation F.A.U.S.T., Hoax also lets players pretend to take on various roles with unique abilities, such as the dead billionaire’s gardener or lover. In this version, though, players are only assigned one true character, and you can only call someone out for lying with the table’s majority support. Because the roles are set, if you catch someone in a lie, they’re never allowed to claim to be that person again. But if you’re wrong and they really are the person they claim to be, the falsely accused wins the game.
You can also collect resources—cash, evidence, and prestige—that are used to pinpoint who a player is without risking the possibility of an instant loss that comes with calling bluffs. If you identify them, they’re eliminated from the game. But if you guess wrong, you’re knocked out instead. We never really got to this phase, as it’s pretty easy to get over-eager about calling players on their lies and have the whole table lose when they vote wrong. That’s actually a saving grace; it keeps the game from getting bogged down the way Operation F.A.U.S.T. does. I also enjoyed the goofy premise, which encourages players to talk a little about their experiences with the deceased when claiming to be a role, like the gardener complaining about their lack of pay.
Released status: Fantasy Flight plans to release Hoax by mid-November.
The gist: Lead your army and plunder the resources of a fantasy land.
How it’s played: Players lead one of four factions vying for control over cards representing mountains, forests, oceans, swamps, and artifacts. During their turn, each competitor chooses one of the eight lands in their hand to place on the board. Then, they take turns placing little minion figures onto the lands or artifacts they want to conquer. When you have claimed the majority of a card’s slots, you’ve successfully seized it and remove it from the center of the table, but your minions stay on the conquered territory. You’ll get points at the end of the game based on each captured card, the number of minions you’ve deployed, and whether they’re on your faction’s favored terrain. More points can be won if you collect a full set of the game’s resources—iron, gold, and crystal—from the board’s artifact cards. Once someone has deployed all of their minions, everyone else gets a last move and the game ends.
Play is quick but involves plenty of strategy. Each turn you start by discarding one of the cards in your hand, triggering its advantageous effect, like moving an opponent’s minion off a territory. But since these are same cards that you’ll be playing later in the turn and attempting to conquer, you’re trading off between an immediate benefit and the possibility of future gain. Some card effects are just great, so luck of the draw can also play a major role in your success.
The game draws on players’ experience with fantasy tropes to build its world and a connection to its forces, whether its dwarves colonizing mountains or merfolk ruling the seas, and each faction leader’s special ability helps add a jolt of flavor. Add in some lovely art, and you have another great example of a simple game that offers plenty of replay value.
Release status: Kickstarter backers received the game in August. A retail release has not been announced.
The gist: Prove your supremacy over other witches by wreaking havoc on a village.
How it’s played: Each witch has a number of familiars that she deploys to help perpetrate her schemes, gathering up ingredients from around the village that are needed to cast a wide variety of spells. Schemes are worth one to three points depending how complicated they are, and the first witch to reach 13 points wins. Some schemes require you to complete every component yourself, such as using a spell to make a specific pair of villagers fall in love, while some can be triggered by other players’ actions. Most of the schemes require specific spells, but you can also use magic to summon additional familiars or move villagers where you want them and make your dastardly deeds easier.
There are plenty of ways to mess with your opponents, from stacking your familiars in a location to shut them out to binding their familiars to a location that they can’t leave until their owner counters your spell. It’s easy to get caught up planning your machinations several turns ahead only to get stymied by another player putting a stop to the love triangle you’ve been carefully cultivating by turning some key villagers into frogs, which may not even be a purposeful sabotage but just them fulfilling their own scheme. It’s also a truly all-ages game—easy enough for young kids to grasp but with enough strategy that adults won’t be bored. You can make it even goofier by forcing everyone to read the rhyme that goes along with the spell they’re casting. Considering it teaches a lot of the concepts you’ll need a grasp for more complex board games, The Village Crone may even be a great way to start building your family game night into something more satisfying.
Release status: Fireside Games is taking pre-orders now, with a retail release planned for fall.