The GenConmen, 2015: Day Two
Another long toiling day of GenCon, from sunup to way past sundown, another seven games to jabber about. Let’s get right to it.
In a process not unlike delving a dungeon, exploring the demo hall can yield all sorts of rewards. Some are gems, some are nuggets; and today’s nugget was Hoplomachus: Origins.
The third in a series of games about ancient gladiatorial combat, Origins is the simplest of the bunch. Two teams trickle in, striving to fulfill arena objectives like holding the elevated terrain at the center or killing off an enemy leader. It’s defiantly simple — deploy, move, attack, turn after turn — and while it isn’t particularly deep, it does manage to feel nicely chunky. Units wear their health on their sleeves, stacked atop chips that gradually deplete as they’re riddled with arrows and hacked with blades, making the strength of both sides apparent at a glance. In the end, I was more intrigued by its older brothers, with their promise of sprawling matches and wider abilities.
Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension
Gravwell isn’t a new game. At two years old, it’s been around long enough for the stiffs at Mensa to have gotten their crabby genius mitts on it, naming it Smartest Game of Ever.
But boy does it show, because this is easily one of the smartest games I’ve had the pleasure of playing at this year’s Generalissimo Convención. Simple as can be, just a quick draft followed by everyone simultaneously playing a card each turn, but where it really shines is how every little action carries enormous import. The idea is that everyone is at the helm of their own starship, caught at the edge of a black hole’s event horizon, and only by using the gravity imprint of nearby ships (as in, the ships controlled by everyone else) can you slingshot yourself forward to escape an inevitable big squeeze.
The result is an agonizing game of tug-of-war as players fling themselves forward only to be dragged back, or, even more embarrassing, try to latch onto the nearest ship only to accidentally grapple a ship behind them, putting themselves in the rear. Excellent stuff.
Game of Crowns
Top on my GenCon list of games with low self-esteem, Game of Crowns is so unsure of itself that its main marketing strategy is to trick your grandma into buying it for you because she heard you liked that popular fantasy HBO series.
More’s the pity, because it’s plenty clever on its own. Everyone starts with an identical hand: knights for attacking, princesses for flirting with said knights, castellans for raising ravens, treasuries for buying cards, and so on. There are many ways to gain points, whether treasurers paired with coinage cards or stacked feuds, but everybody only starts with a few right at first. So with only a few actions each game, players make trades, swipe cards, and occasionally get violent. Most options require a healthy dose of negotiation, and information is often the most precious resource of all.
It’s hard to say whether it will garner wide appeal, especially since it seems like it could have been packaged in a box a quarter the size. It’s lighter fare, but does a decent job of providing about 45 minutes of conniving.
New York 1901
Easily one of the hottest games at this year’s convention, with its limited number of copies selling out within five minutes of the doors opening, New York 1901 might seem easygoing with its vibrant colors and cheerful construction workers, but it’s actually a mean horrible bastard who wants you to feel stupid. Players race to grab land deeds, then race to build attractive buildings on their lots, then race to build even cooler buildings over the demolished husks of their former masterpieces.
It’s probably going to be enormously popular, but it really isn’t my style of game. There’s something sinister about the way it pits people against each other, making snitty comments as they nab land titles that their opponents need to finish ever-grander edifices. If I’m going to stab you in the back, you’ll at least know we’re playing a game where I’m supposed to stab you in the back.
Still, it’s easy to see why folks have been so excited about it. The gameplay is tight, there’s a unique thrill to watching the gradual upwards and outwards expansion of the world’s most iconic city, and even at its meanest it manages to feel friendly.
Above and Below
One of the things we here at SB!HQ most enjoy about Ryan Laukat’s designs is that they so often feel like Ryan Laukat played just one game from a particular genre, decided he could do better, and then did it.
While most of his designs are recognizably his own, returning to similar systems of worker assignment, card drafting, and spending cutely-illustrated resources — and while Above and Below is no exception — this represents something a little different. As players struggle to build a new town for their refugees, they must expand both above and below the surface, seeking out caverns for specialized structures and new resource types. Building underground isn’t quite as simple as just slapping together some wood and nails, however; players must first read an adventure from the game’s book, making simple decisions like whether to help a ghostly woman, open a cursed box, or continue the search for habitable caverns once the tunnel gets bonkers spooky.
The result is certainly interesting, though the game grinds to a halt the moment the adventure book is cracked open, so it remains to be seen how long experienced players will bother to read all the text. The actual gamey portion of the, erm, game was classic Laukat, and I can’t wait to give it another try later this year.
We decided to make some new friends at the Shut Up & Sit Down meetup this evening, but all the cool kids were already engaged in reindeer games of their own. Since the SB! crew has been fastidiously avoiding bumping hands for two days straight, we decided we might as well get all the tension out in the open by playing a game about smacking hands as hard as possible — against the table, against the deck of cards, and most of all against other hands.
The game is Slap .45, about a showdown between cowfolk, Confederates, Union troops, injuns, all of ’em. depending on which card is flipped, players scramble to shoot each other (by slapping the table and pointing their gun-fingers at someone), hide behind cover (by slapping the table), avoid getting kicked by a horse (by slapping the table but not the horse), or grab gold (by slapping the table). The result is red palms and a good time.
Eventually I grew tired of having my fingers broken. Habits die hard though, so I kept slapping the table and yelping loud enough to cause an echo. It’s a classic method of attracting attention known as the Kramer Yawp, and this time my racket managed to bring enough players to our table that we could start a match of Dark Moon, also known as Battlestar Galactica Express v2.0.
What Dark Moon excels at is cramming all the tension of Battlestar Galactica (and most of the gameplay replicated nearly exactly) into a solid hour. So yes, there were swears. There were people put in the
brig quarantine. There were people accused of being cylons infected.
Scratch that scratch. Despite the re-theme, we just called them cylons anyway. And I was one of them.
Of all the games I’ve played at GenCon, this is easily one of the most enjoyable. It differs from most games of its ilk by putting your suspicious activities right there at the forefront. Since it uses dice rather than hidden cards, the game’s bluffs come hard and fast. “Oh no, I only rolled negatives!” you’ll vow as you flub a task, interrupted by a chorus of accusations. If you’re as unpersuasive as one of our uninfected players, you’ll end up quarantined despite your innocence.
And that’s it. I’m too tired to go on.