Games of Gen Con 2021

We’ve never played so many games at a Gen Con as we did in 2021.  Despite the international shipping crisis, some were new, many were old, but many were also new to us or at least, new to me.  It’s been a while now since Gen Con, so let’s dive right in to highlight 3 games that we played:

Ethnos (2017)

This one was super fun, possibly the favorite of our group.  It brought together some elements that are not necessarily my favorite, but put them into a package that I really enjoyed.

It’s a card game, where you’re putting together almost “Go Fish” like combinations, though you want to stack as many as you can, not just pairs.  Each card is a mythical creature or race — Wizards, Elves, Minotaurs — of one of 4 colors, with a special ability that affects the stack under it.  You can stack, say, 4 Wizards together, putting any color on top to make it whichever color you wanted, but you mostly build the really big stacks by stacking a bunch of the same color together, and the creature at the top is the only one whose ability matters.

Then you stack those chips in game of area control, where only tallest stack controls the area, so there’s that area control intrigue that I’m generally not a huge fan of, but liked in this game.

What I Like about Ethnos:

It’s a pretty basic card game, which makes it accessible, but has just enough variants to make it interesting.  We liked it so much, we played it a second time so we could see all of the different races and more of the interactions between them, and we had fun again the second time.  The rules of making a stack are easy to follow, but challenging to meet, and when you start building really tall ones it’s like “whoa!”

What I Didn’t Like about Ethnos:

I personally had a lot of fun both times, but I think one player may have had a bit of a NPE the second game.  I can’t remember what exactly went wrong for him, but I’ve found these area control games can be really frustrating with high player counts if the game evolves in a way that you don’t get to win much of anything, so that’s something to keep an eye on.

Small World (2009)

This was on display at one of the very first Gen Cons I went to, which I believe was 2009, so that would be the year this game came out.  It was considered a hit, with several expansions, and to me it’s something of a classic at this point.  I think given all those expectations, I was a little let down by this one.

What I Like about Small World:

There’s a simple, conflict-free mechanism of taking your stack of tiles and just building out as far as you can go, that I think would appeal to the non-hardcore gamer and could even serve as a gateway game.  You take your stack, and try to optimize your path for the stack by optimizing the race combined with its role.  Every turn, you basically put your footprints all over the map, and it’s fun in that way — it’s something you can do, and everyone sees that you did it, and then they trample right over parts of your path on their turn.

What Don’t I Like about Small World:

Maybe it’s just too simple, but I actually didn’t love the game overall and while I’d be up for playing again, I wouldn’t be in a hurry.  The replay-ability is that there are different combinations of races and abilities that interact in certain ways, some really fun combinations.  And, like I said, it’s good as a conflict-averse, introductory type of game, the type of game my wife would play.  But, for a more serious strategy gamer, I’d prefer other games where my friends and I fight more directly.

Inis (2016)

This celtic-themed game was probably the favorite of our group in total, though I don’t know that I’d say it was a favorite of mine.  You explore new lands, build up your forces and build shrines, but the most interesting part of the game is the choosing of cards each round.  You select an action every turn, but the cards you use are what will drive it.  To win, you have to reach one of 3 victory conditions, but it’s a “perfect information” game so everyone can see that you’re close to one more goals, and intervene to stop you.  The trick is to pursue all 3, so having one path derailed doesn’t derail your entire plan.  That, or be sneaky about it the way I did, with everyone’s attention on one player so nobody noticed that I reached the goal of building temples.  Still, the leader that everyone was focused on ended up beating me in a tiebreaker.

What I Like about Inis:

There are other Celtic-themed games out there, but I haven’t personally played them so this was unique and beautiful to me.  It’s a game of mystery and harmony in that you don’t really directly go to war with your opponents, but you can push them out of your way.  It’s all very elegant.

In terms of game play, each card has its own special effects, and selecting the right ones for the right actions at the right times is the key to the game — this is the heart of the game, and it’s rock solid.  The gameboard, and the way you expand it over time, and the way you fit jagged edges together, is unique and wonderful.

What I Don’t Like about Inis:

Well, the Celtic theme is heavy.  You almost have to be into it or you’d rather play something else.  I’ll take it over another game of Wizards and Elves, I suppose.  I also felt like the victory conditions, at first everyone is on top of making sure nobody achieves them but as the game goes on, everyone sort of gets worn down into taking their eye off.  You sort of just need to be sneaky and outlast everyone else to win the game, but if nobody takes that path, then my guess is the game would really drag out before there’s finally a winner.  One play through, I liked it a lot, though, and would play it again.

Viral (2017)

I mentioned this in my Gen Con 2017 post as one of my favorites from that year, when it was new.  Well, this year I got to play it 2 more times, the only times I’ve played it since that 2017 Gen Con.  It might also be a while before I play it again, because I didn’t like it as much this time around.  The area control deck builder has a lot going on, and it took us almost an entire game to figure out the rules again.  I say this even though we’re a group of experienced gamers who are used to playing games with dense rule sets.  Then the second time, we played it with the The Hive expansion, making it another learning experience.  So it’s like, I’ve played it 3 times, but all 3 times I was learning the rules, relearning the rules, or learning the expansion rules.  Now that I know how to play again, I’d play it without the expansion, but it better be soon enough to remember the rules pretty well.  Because the rules and user interface are a bit tricky, I sort of need a group willing to play it repeatedly just to get into the groove of it.

What I Like about Viral:  The idea of germs around the body, as an area control concept, is still really fun and unique.  It’s a bit of an intrigue or secret action game in the way you move your cards, as you don’t know which organs your opponents will target, and have to place your bets.  The events are funny like “Number 1,” meaning a visit to the toilet, or “Coughing,” each of which cleans a certain area of the body from germs.  Plus you can get into the deck building aspect of it, designing clever germs that act in a strategic, targeted way.  The “absorb” ability is especially interesting, as it counters the way those events “flush” the body of germs.  I need more plays to really play with the effects and see how they’re optimized, but there’s enough meat on the bone that I want to do that.

What I Don’t Like about Viral:  Something about it just doesn’t flow smoothly, though I’m sure this would improve with more plays.  I think the intrigue or hidden action concept is fine for a quick game like Cage Match! but not necessarily for a longer, more complicated game like this one.  As I mentioned, it wasn’t obvious to me, an experienced card gamer, how the card effects work, much less how they’re optimized.  So, anytime I got to add a new card to my deck, it was a challenge to figure out which would help me most, and then another challenge to figure out exactly how to use it.  It was kind of frustrating to realize 3/4ths through the game that I’ve been playing certain cards the wrong way all along.

Then I have to address the expansion.  In the name of making the game asymmetric, each player gets his own pretty unique germ that evolves over the course of the game.  The thing is, these unique abilities are pretty strong, and they work together, so there’s little sense concentrating on anything besides evolving your germ, and just trying to overpower the other germs with your unique abilities.  It’s almost a different game, and one I didn’t like as much.  Maybe if I had more plays to get into the base game, I could then better grasp how to layer in the expansion.  But, as is, the expansion didn’t seem like a layer so much as the new metagame.  Besides, there are plenty of other games out there where I don’t need multiple plays just to get the hang of it.

Lost Ruins of Arnak (2020)

This is a good example of what I just mentioned, a game where there is a learning curve, but I didn’t need multiple plays just to get the hang of of it.  Themed like Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is a game that I loved instantly, and upon more plays, it’s only gotten better and better.  It’s pretty easy to learn to play initially, but there’s definitely a satisfying learning curve as your skill level improves.

You can see that the components are pretty sweet.  I’ll do a full write-up and just leave it with this:  Lost Ruins of Arnak is my favorite game going right now along with Spirit Island.  I like basically everything about it.  I wouldn’t do it justice covering it in this post, it deserves its own, coming soon!

More Games

Onitama (2014)

The classic 2-player abstract strategy game was as good as advertised.  For such a simple game, it has a lot of replay ability, and is the sort of game you want to keep playing in order to master how to use the animal spirits.  There’s nothing like it, nothing I didn’t like about it, and there’s not much more to say other than it’s great.

Custom Heroes (2017)

I loved this one back at Gen Con 2018 but not as much this time around.  I will say it’s a good game for 6 players, and it doesn’t take that long.  But, I think I’d rather play 7 Wonders.  Custom Heroes has strategy, but a lot of it comes down to the luck of the draw.

Windward (2020)

vWith nothing played from 2021 and almost nothing from 2021 appearing at Gen Con, this was considered a “new” game as far as we were concerned.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to get in on it, so I can’t really elaborate, but I like the concept of airships trying to harness the power of the changing wind, less so the concept of using those airships to hunt alien whales called “crestors” but still, it looked like fun.  I hear Docmogs won the game by using the wind for a big, late move.  I’m going to look for a chance to play this.

Sagrada (2017)

Not a whole to say about this already beloved, highly popular, often-reviewed game except that it’s one of those games I’ll play anytime, anywhere, with any group.  This would be a good one for the family, as its easy for kids to follow, and pleasant in a way that wives and parents will get into.  Who can’t have fun building a beautiful stained glass window of dice?

Tapestry (2019)

I can go ahead and put this one on the list of Games I’ll Never Play Again.  I had a NPE.  Though there are many things you can do, mostly it comes down to a race with other players on 3 (or was it 4?) different tracks.  I was the 4th player in terms of turn order, putting me at an inherent disadvantage in a race, and due to certain beginning-of-game bonuses, I literally had no chance to take any lead on any track or do anything remotely fun the entire game.  It was just pushing up a track, only to frustratingly have to watch another player, who went before me in the turn order, just go ahead of me again.  I saw other players doing fun things but did absolutely nothing fun.  I’m sure there are fun things about the game but I don’t care to play again to find out.

Battle Stations Second Edition (2017)

I played a super deluxe, live event version of this game, and it was probably the best time I had at all of Gen Con, though I really should have taken more pictures (what’s new?)

We’re on bad ass battleship taking on another, complete with navigation, guns, and boarding parties.  Of course, all of this is too much for any one person to manage, so you play as a cooperative.  Our little corner of the board, with engineers and scientists, was a party and joke fest.  I was the head engineer mushroom, a real fungi I was told, and had to keep the engines running, along with my assistant, with another human operator, on task.  Then we got hit by boarding droids who knocked me unconscious!  This is the picture I missed, I was so upset over my fallen mushroom.  However, my assistant and the scientist from the lab teamed up to repel the intruders, and the scientist used her medical abilities to get me back on my stem.

Epic Duels

I mentioned Epic Duels to my Terraforming Mars assistant, Patrick and he was like “Oh I love Epic Duels!  Do you have it?”

Yeah.  I have it.

I don’t remember who all played, but Patrick loved Kit Fisto, so I let him have Fisto and some help, while I took my brand new Jedi Exile out for a spin.  I didn’t get to see the Exile “do her thing,” which is FURY, but she still won the game so she looks pretty strong.  Need more experience with her.

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