The Seven Best Prototypes of SaltCon 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!