The Seven Best Prototypes of SaltCon 2019

My annual grouse: The SaltCon people didn't let me have a press badge. What. Didn't you know this is the only coverage of SaltCon in the universe? Who else is the only coverage of SaltCon in the universe? Nobody, that's who.

Ah, SaltCon. Not only is it the third-best Mountain-West Board Gaming Convention in the Mountain-West, but it’s also where designers congregate from far and wide to compete for the prestigious Ion Award. Although I was barred from participating as a judge thanks to an embarrassing event which I’m currently appealing with Chili’s corporate headquarters, I still managed to swipe a badge from reception and take a close look at almost one dozen prototypes. What follows are my own personal awards for the top seven contenders of the convention.

Take that, Dr. Ion, whoever you are.

SALTCON SECRETS: We were a bit late to learn Chrysopoeia, so I mentioned to Rick that I only had an hour or so before my next appointment. He said we probably couldn't finish in time. And we didn't. SALTCON SECRETS.

The Handsomest Game Award:
Chrysopoeia: Lords of Alchemy — Rick Lorenzon

Most prototypes look like they were made out of the comfort of their designer’s own home. How gauche! Also pajama-cozy! Not so for Chrysopoeia. This baby features stylish hand-drawn art, chunky metal components, and gears. So many gears. You could lose yourself in those gears.

In addition to being the handsomest thing at the entire convention — and that’s an even split between designer Rick Lorenzon and Chrysopoeia — it also seems like the start of a weirdly compelling game about resources, the golems that collect them, the alchemists who upgrade the golems, and the other alchemists who compete against those alchemists to repair the world before it’s consumed by raw chaotic energy. That’s a lot, and the game is still very much in development. But from my early look, it seems like Rick might well be onto something special, tasking players with balancing their time, resources, and upgrades.

SALTCON SECRETS: The Jeffs confided in me that they might not be able to afford any Space-Biff! branding, even though I cut them a deal by saying I would only claim 50% of their profits. If they don't take this absurdly good deal, their working title is "We Have a Problem." Lame. SALTCON SECRETS.

The Most Likely to License Space-Biff! Award:
Space-Biff! The Dice Game — Jeff Beck and Jeff Krause

Okay, so it isn’t officially branded with the Space-Biff! name. Yet. That’s still in talks. But this dice game by Jeffs Beck and Krause is easily one of the slickest ideas at SaltCon, capitalizing on the recent asymmetry craze in a surprisingly fresh way.

Picture this: you’re on staff aboard the International Space Station when some disaster goes down. In our playthrough it was a protracted storm of micrometeorites, but other scenarios apparently include hijinks like a rogue A.I. or clogged vacuum potties. Terrifying stuff. The twist, though, is that each player commands a different contributing nation, each with their own modules, abilities, and limitations. One nation needed to hit a particular range of dice results, the guy across from me was really good at keeping our climate topped off, and my Brazilians boasted spectacular modules that started each round unpowered, forcing me to juggle between rerouting energy and actually keeping the station flying. Falling forward. Whatever.

With a whole bunch of nations to choose from, Space-Biff! The Dice Game looks like it’ll make its papa proud.

SALTCON SECRETS: The designer who demoed this one for me — no telling which of three he was — came to dinner with us afterward. He was entirely pleasant. SALTCON SECRETS.

The Ion Award Winner Award:
The Night Cage — Chris Chan, Chris McMann, and Ross Saunders

Of all the games submitted for Dr. Ion’s crotchety approval — which wasn’t many of the titles listed here, actually — apparently this was the old goat’s favorite.

It’s easy to see why, because The Night Cage plays very much like a finished product. As little naked dudes thrown into a purgatory of darkness and cramped earthen tunnels, your goal is to uncover four keys and reach the exit. The problem with this heist of souls is manifold. For one thing, the glimmer cast by your tiny candle is barely enough to illume the tiles immediately surrounding you. Even worse, those tiles transform whenever they fall beyond your reach. Want a particular room to continue existing? You’ll have to remain nearby, never letting it leave your sight. Hopefully a monster won’t snuff out your candle. When that happens, you’re left to grope in darkness, doing your utmost to reach a friend to rekindle your wick.

But don’t think for a moment that The Night Cage is a complicated game. Its focus is on counting tiles, parsing risk, and hopefully placing monsters in spots where their lashing tendrils can’t reach you. Simple and gloomy.

SALTCON SECRETS: Rob told me that he has no idea where or how to publish this game. Mostly, though, I used my powers of psychoanalysis to deduce that he knows it's a good game, but he's afraid of unleashing it upon the world and making every other museum game look bad by comparison. Rob, just pull the trigger. Nobody cares that much about all these museum games. Next you can kill train games. SALTCON SECRETS.

The Dan Thurot’s Favorite Prototype Award:
The Grand Museum — Rob Cramer

Museums frighten me. My oldest enemies are neanderthal mannequins and stegosaurus skeletons, and I don’t understand anyone would house those under the same roof where they might strike an alliance. Fortunately, The Grand Museum is a total delight, in part because I’m in charge of the layout for once.

First of all, the action system is straightforward but multifaceted. Choose a number from one to five, lock it off to preclude its use until the other numbers are filled, and then take an action with your chosen number. Those actions are similarly uncomplicated: build a floor tile, place an exhibit, or move your patrons forward. They’re all important in their own way, creating walkways or traveling them, marking space for exhibits and then curating matching sets, rushing from entrance to exit in order to score sweet, sweet points.

But that simplicity is the selling point, getting out of the way and letting you focus on optimal tile placement and action selection. The result is a tidy little package, both sweet and compelling at the same time.

SALTCON SECRETS: This tower was rickety and doubled as a dexterity game every time we brushed against it. SALTCON SECRETS.

The Platonic Ideal Award:
Burgle Bros 2: Electric Burgleoo — Tim Fowers and Jeff Krause

“Brock brought back Burgle Bros” is still a mantra in my home, sparked by that thrilling moment when — well, you can figure it out. To this day, Burgle Bros is one of those games that I wanted to love but only liked, let down by one or two peccadilloes that prevented it from truly becoming the best heist game ever made, despite being one of the only heist games ever made.

Although the basic premise is the same, the sequel looks to rectify that. It’s still a tower three stories tall, you’re still hunting safe combinations across a 4×4 grid, you’re still dodging security systems and patrolling guards. This time around, however, the entire chase has been reconfigured. Over time guards grow more suspicious, eventually ditching their patrol pattern for “hunt mode” and beelining toward the nearest burglar. Even better, this change jettisons the oddball event system that penalized players for skipping actions. Now the ability to press up against a wall and wait is once again a feature of the heist genre — but dally too long and you’ll be on the run rather than skulking around.

There are other details that have been improved, but I’ll leave that for the preview. For now, this promises to be the game that Burgle Bros always knew it could be.

SALTCON SECRETS: Popeyes Chicken is gross. Never go there with Taylor Shuss for lunch. Not because of him, though. Just go to Panda Express or something. Even that would be better. SALTCON SECRETS.

The With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility Award:
Tetraforming — Taylor Shuss

Not every prototype on display could rightly be called a “game.” That’s the case for Taylor Shuss’s Tetraforming, a concept still searching for the glue that could hold it all together.

But the concept — yeah, it’s tantalizing. The idea is that you’re “building” a worker placement game. Every round, you add new Tetris blocks to a sprawling grid; later, you populate those spots with workers to collect the resources underneath. You’re free to occupy anybody’s spot, although you’re doling out spare resources as a byproduct.

Even cooler, the available play area shifts over time, opening new territory and leaving previous worker camps in the dust. There were other game trappings, like upgrades and victory cards and smack talk. But the real draw is the way this system presents a dynamic take on worker placement, a scrolling map, and the potential of what it might become when Shuss gets around to developing it further.

SALTCON SECRETS: I once took a class on manuscript illumination, and after playing this game I think I know more about it than Alf does. For instance, angels don't literally war against demons on the page. That doesn't happen. SALTCON SECRETS.

The Most Alf Seegertish Game Award:
Illumination — Alf Seegert

An illuminated manuscript as the battleground for a medieval monk’s soul. Rabbits and angels warring in the margins. The ability to abolish opposing figures and consign them to text. Yeah. Alf Seegert has my attention.

Fans of Seegert’s work will find a lot to like about Illumination. It has that puzzle box feel, everything wrapping back on itself, sometimes even warring with itself, demanding to be employed in ever-cleverer ways. Blocks of illustration are penned onto the page with all the solemnity of soldiers marched into battle. The headmaster abbot walks rings around the monastery, trading bread and chalices for absolution. Conflicts spark across the page, coins exchanged for the ability to manipulate your available figures.

It’s nearly complete, and already feels worthy of attention, every bit as defiantly idiosyncratic as it is fascinating. And I’m not only saying that because it features a bunch of tiles that look like my online avatar.

And that’s it! Congratulations to the winners of the Dan Thurot Awards for SaltCon 2019. Way better than an Ion Award!



(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on March 5, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Obligatory reminder:


  2. “Third-best Mountain-West Board Gaming Convention in the Mountain-West,”?
    Why aren’t I at the first and second best?!

  3. Burgle Bros 2 looks great! A must try game.
    Shameless self promotion: try my print and play game on BGG – Access Denied.
    A stealthy heist game, and my entry in the 2018 print and play solitaire games contest.

    • Sounds nifty! I don’t assemble PnPs, actually — whenever I’ve reviewed them in the past, it’s because somebody sent them to me. If that’s what you want to do for some coverage, I’d be happy to give it a shot.

  4. Loved these, Dan, and especially impressed with Lorenzon’s handiwork…

    • I’m glad to hear that! It’s always a bit of a risk investing in an article like this — I’m barely getting any hits on this one so far — but I love being able to highlight interesting work, even for games that maybe need some extra attention to nudge them across the finish line.

      • As a game designer myself, this sort of attention is valuable exposure. I’d love to see the Unpub guys bring one of their Cons over here to the UK…

  5. Thank you for the offer to try my humble game, Dan, I will be in touch via BGG Mail.

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