I love a good game of Settlers of Catan. I am mildly obsessed with Dominion. I have a handful of respectable board games in my den cabinet. I have played a pen and paper RPG exactly once in my life and have only played digital versions of Magic: The Gathering.
That is the extent of my experience with board games and yet, last weekend I found myself falling in love with Gen Con.
As a video game critic, Gen Con was certainly outside my wheelhouse. Interviewing board game developers was something I had never done before. Their development process is quite different—there is no need for programmers, level designers, sound engineers or even graphic designers. All that is needed is a compelling idea.
Board game mechanics tend to be more varied than their digital counterparts. Countless video games settle for derivative mechanics in favor of enhanced graphics and bigger game worlds. Conversely, what board games lack visually they must make up for mechanically. A good board game simply gives us a rule set and sets us loose to interact with fellow players.
Board games ask us to look our opponents in the eye. They challenge us to wisely manage resources, negotiate, influence, observe, and anticipate the thoughts and actions of others. `When you attack another player you have to remain in the same room with them. The fact that most board games must be played with other people changes the way developers approach the design process.
As someone who has been long embedded in video game conventions, I was struck when I went to Gen Con and saw only two booth babes. This perhaps confirms what I already suspected—most board game developers have less money to throw at such things and want their games to stand on their own.
Playing games is really what Gen Con is about. I rarely waited more than a few minutes to play a game at Gen Con and the publishers of these games were extremely helpful in explaining the rules and nuances of their games. I played games about time travel, social change, high school cliques, escaping prison, and zombies battling dinosaurs. I played games that made me hopeful, angry, happy, and excited about the medium. Going to Gen Con was much like, I had imagined, in my childhood, going to E3 would be like—spending a long weekend going from booth to booth playing games I have never played before.
My fellow editor and I graciously received a review copy of Cards Against Humanity. We played it that night and felt appropriately awful about ourselves afterward (imagine a very adult version of Apples to Apples). That same day, I was privileged to talk to and play games with the good people at Tilt Factor. Games like Awkward Moment and Buffalo challenge players to consider the viewpoints of others and interact in ways that reveal our own biases. They have made both board games and video games and Tilt Factor conducts detailed research on how people play them. In their research they discovered that players tend to give less thought to their actions when playing a digital version of one of their board games. I am always slightly skeptical when I hear people talk about “games for social change” but after playing Tilt Factor’s games and speaking with their reps, I wanted to make a game that would change the world.
We continued on to play the new “shuffle-building” card game, Smash Up from Alderac, which turned out to be a simple card game with surprisingly deep strategy elements. In Smash Up players pick two decks to use to battle other players to smash bases for victory points. I was impressed by how intuitive the various decks were—zombies bring cards back from the discard pile and into your hand, pirates can move from base to base, ninjas allow you to play cards when your opponents least expect it, and dinosaurs are extremely powerful. It’s a game about managing your attacks and weighing out when to attack so as to secure more points than your opponents.
We played Rise or Fall: Battle of the Cliques out of curiosity—wondering whether it whether it would provoke memories of high school, turns out it is something of a clever new take on “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” If time had permitted we would have played Alcatraz: The Scapegoat, a cooperative game which simultaneously encourages competition amongst teammates and Seasons, a new card-drafting game from Asmodee.
When we weren’t on the convention floor we were squeezing in extra rounds of the games we had accumulated that day. I was having more fun playing games than I had in a long time. These games represented relatively simple ideas–there was nothing flashy about them. They simply ask us to sit around a table with friends and talk, laugh, plan, and outwit one another—things I too often assume I don’t have time for in the digital world.
When I arrived at home from Gen Con, I found an email with a review code for Papo & Yo, the game I have been most looking forward to playing this year. I logged out of my email and asked my wife if she’d play Smash Up instead.
About the Author:
Drew Dixon is editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about video games for Paste Magazine and Think Christian.
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