Well, here we are in the post-GenCon after-glow, and I feel the need to write a post about my experiences.
Instead, I decided to be silly and give out my own awards for all the awesome and ridiculous things I saw to the people and games who affected me the most. With further ado, I give you –
The 1st Annual Cephalofair Awards! Awarded completely randomly to different games and people I saw at GenCon.
Most Random Game: All right, let’s start off with something small. Just like at real awards shows, I can’t start off “Best Picture.” You gotta start off with “Best Haircut in an Animated Short” or something like that. So I present this award to a game that was not only incredibly random, but came to my attention in a random way: Bears! I was walking by some booth and an industrious huckster asked me if I wanted to play a 5-minute dice game. I said yes, and the next thing I know, I was playing Bears! It was pretty fun. You can’t go wrong with a game about bears. (Well, okay, you probably could, but this game didn’t.)
Longest Line Ever in the Entire World: Will Call, Thursday, 10 am. Seriously, I don’t remember it being so bad last year. Absolutely ridiculous.
Sweetest Tote Bag: Feel free to disagree, but this has to go to Floodgate Games. I had to make multiple visits to Floodgate’s booth before I got my copy of Epic Resort because I am forgetful, but when I finally did get to talk to Ben Harkins, who is a super-nice, super-awesome guy, and get my hands on the game, I was given this sweet, baby-blue number that my wife immediately stole from me because it was just that slick. Congratulations Ben!
Coolest Person: Could this ever possibly be in question? No one is cooler than Travis R. Chance. The guys at Action Phase Games managed to grab hold of that sweet GenCon buzz and never let it out of their hairy fists the entire time. Plus, he used to be in a band. I hear the chicks love that sort of thing. He has also helped me tremendously with my Kickstarter project, of course, but that’s actually a strike against him. The cool kids aren’t supposed to give us nerds the time of day.
Best Video Game Designer-Turned-Board Game Reviewer: Is there anyone better at playing and reviewing board games than Richard Ham? I don’t think there is. I love this guy’s videos, and I did even before he gave me the most amazing, glowing review possible for Forge War. He is a giant among men, and I was so very happy I got two opportunities to talk to him over the course of the convention. The first was when I rudely interrupted a game between him and a designer (Skyway Robbery – looks pretty cool!), but for the second, he interrupted a conversation I was having, so I felt better. I was always terrified that I had annoyed him by leaning so hard on his review in my advertising for Forge War, but he seemed very happy about the whole thing, so that really put me at ease. Great guy!
Biggest Stalker: I know you’re reading this, Kevin Manning. You want to know how I know? Because you’re a stalker. Seriously, I ran into this guy no less than 6 times over the course of the Con. He even weaseled his way into a game of Five Tribes with me. 60,000 people at GenCon and this guy just kept showing up, often with his cohorts Tim and Carmen Norris. “Coincidence.” Yeah, right.
Nicest Person: Well, of course this award has to go to a Canadian. If you talk to Rodney Smith for even a minute, you will know that he is the nicest person in the world. I got to hang out with him last year and play a game of Love Letter. Somehow, in between then and now, I accidentally made him feel bad that he didn’t take the time to check out an early prototype of Forge War back then. I am just some dude with a small game. He is RODNEY SMITH of WATCH IT PLAYED. He probably had a million things to do at the Con, but he took the time to swing by my demo area and hang out for the entire 15-minute explanation of the game. Most big names in board games would probably just forget that I existed, but Rodney made it his mission to follow up on the game. I am overwhelmed by his kindness.
Most Promising Con Newbie: I ended up going down Thursday (my demo-free day) with two guys who had never gone to GenCon before, Brian and Clinton. Between the two of them, I think Clinton showed more aptitude for navigating the Con and having a good time. First of all, Brian left his phone in the car and quickly got lost in the crowd. While Clinton’s phone eventually went dead, at least he gets points for effort. Brian also slept through the entire DFW Nerd Night party instead of walking around and playing games (though, to be fair, the lighting in that room was more conducive to sleeping than playing games). While, on the other hand, Clinton walked away with a giant new Chessex mat for a game of D&D 5E that he’s starting. A savvy purchase.
Best Interview: So there were lots of people doing lots of interviews throughout the entire weekend, but I’m afraid the best interview given was not broadcast and will only perhaps be recorded anonymously in some scientific journal. I gave the interview to this very friendly guy, Gary, who was working on his PhD in the psychology of digital design (or something close to that). He was spending the convention going around getting interviews with various game designers about their design philosophies and how they got into doing it. Plus he and his wife Vicki sat down to play a full epic game of Forge War with me, so I couldn’t really say no. Not that I would want to, though! I was so excited to answer every one of his questions, because there is nothing I love talking about more than board game design.
Normally I am not a very articulate person when it comes to face-to-face communication. I’ve always been an introvert and just do much, much better when sitting at a keyboard rather than talking in person. I’m getting better, and I think the interview definitely showed that if you give me a topic that I know a lot about and am passionate about, that I can talk your ear off. It was seriously like an out-of-body experience talking with Gary. I didn’t realize that I could talk so quickly and so coherently for such a long period of time about anything. It was the greatest evidence I have ever found that making board games is what I should be doing with my life.
Best Con Presence: I don’t really think anything can top the con presence of Asmodee. Sure other companies might have more hype and bigger games, but the Asmodee booth is where it’s at. Let me break it down for you. There are actually 3 parts to the Asmodee event hall space. You’ve got the retail section where you can buy stuff – it is nicely removed from everything else. Then you’ve got the structured demo area where people get to learn the rules of a game and go through a couple quick rounds to get the feel. The real genius is the third and largest area, though, where people can sit down and play pretty much whatever they want for however long they want – and there are still workers who will teach the games to you. Depending on the crowd, this can just be a very nice, casual area to sit and play games for multiple hours. And casual is the key here because you are right in the center of this crazy, densely-populated board game mad house, and Asmodee makes the whole thing downright cosy. It’s like the eye of the board game storm, and I love it.
Cosiest Spot at the Con: That’s not to say Asmodee Games is the cosiest spot in the entire Con, though. No, for that you’ve gotta leave the exhibition area and go straight across the hall to the setup of Stonemaier Games. I found Jamey Stegmaier at the back set of tables in the Tasty Minstrel Games room, happily demoing his games and chatting with anyone who came by. When you’re in the eye of the storm, you can still see the storm raging around you. But by taking just a handful of steps away from that storm and hanging out with Jamey, you couldn’t even tell the storm existed. I don’t know, maybe I just came by at a quiet time.
Greatest Noise Disparity between Two Games Sitting Side-by-Side: You know what else is quiet, though? Playing Forge War. It requires deep concentration and is certainly made more challenging when you’ve got a group of guys behind you yelling, “DAMAGE REPORT!” every 2 minutes. I’m sure they were having just as much fun as we were, but there was truly no greater noise disparity than Forge War and Damage Report. We did have a runner-up, though, after Damage Report packed up and some weird futuristic chariot racing game started up behind me. Apparently they had to simulate the chanting of the crowd and it too was not very conducive to deep thought.
Best Restaurant: What? I was supposed to eat at GenCon? But while you eat, you’re not playing games!
Worst Game for Learning the Rules at 2 am: Seeing as how I am me, this can’t all be about positive awards. Indeed, the Con did have its share of clunkers. And this first one wasn’t even really a clunker on the whole. It was actually a pretty great game experience…once we spent 2 hours parsing out the incomprehensible rules. For the record, I am a rules sponge. I can skim a set of rules and be ready to play in minutes, but Panamax almost broke me. I was very interested in playing the game and even sat down the week before to watch videos and read the rules PDF, but had to give up because it was a jumbled, unintelligible mess, especially without the actual game to reference. I resolved to let someone else teach it to me and thought I was going to get that when I sat down in the game library to play it. But, alas, that was not the case. The other guys playing it were just as lost – hence the extra 2 hours for rules learning. Quite the pain, but despite that, I still had fun. I think it’s a good game, but Stronghold Games really dropped the ball on organizing that rules translation. More than that, the board itself never got translated and the money tokens are just unmitigated awfulness.
Biggest Disappointment: I had high hopes for Consequential. Admittedly, I didn’t see every aspect of the game, but that’s only because what I did see didn’t make me want to see any more. What I did see was a dull abstract cooperative game of rolling dice and matching them to actions inter-cut with “story corners” (I think that’s what they were called) where players had to break from what they were doing when they accomplished a goal and watch a screen go through the dialogue of characters I didn’t care about. If there’s one thing that Consequential can teach us, it is that engaging players in board game story-telling takes more than pithy dialogue. I believe it requires that players actually make decisions that affect the story in more obvious and meaningful ways (see Dead of Winter or Robinson Crusoe).
I was also a little disappointed with Lords of Xidit. I like the scoring mechanism, but the actual mechanics of the game seemed a little lackluster. I feel like the programming of six moves ahead was needed to spice up the otherwise dull gameplay, but on the other hand, the programming can be very frustrating and is entirely unthematic.
Biggest Waste of Hype and Cardboard: All right, so this last negative award is given to the worst game I played at the convention by far. It wasn’t the biggest disappointment, though, because I really wasn’t expecting much out of XCOM to begin with. Even given that, it was still fairly surprising how bad it was. You have 4 players dealing with a single resource – money – and everything in the game is not resolved by any amount of prowess or skill, but just by rolling these same dice over and over and over and over. I felt like I was playing Chutes and Ladders or something. You basically have four players collectively making the decisions that a single person could easily make, turning the whole thing into an incredibly dull affair. The only thing I liked was the whole app/timer thing, which took care of the alpha player problem in a unique way by not giving the players enough time to discuss what they wanted to do. Whoever was making the decision had enough time to make the decision on his own and that was that – move on to the next thing.
Best Game Played: All right, we’ve wasted enough time with these piddly awards. It’s time to bring out the big guns and end this thing in style. First of all, I’d like to recognize the game that gave me the best board game experience at the Con: Abyss. I wasn’t expecting much from this game. I feared that the fantastic art was hiding a lackluster game, but I was pleasantly mistaken. The whole thing was fresh, flowed really well, and kept me engaged the entire time. And, okay, well, the art didn’t hurt. Seriously, this game is beautiful, but it is also masterfully designed. Maybe it felt so fresh because I don’t play a lot of set collection or auction games, but either way, it was easily the best new game I played.
Highlight of the Con: Oh my gosh, I had so much fun at the Secret Cabal Meetup on Saturday night. I will admit that I was a little apprehensive going into it because I didn’t really know anybody and, as I said before, I am a bit of an introvert. After a few awkward minutes, though, things started to improve. I talked for a while with a guy I had met briefly at the Origins meetup. Then there was the raffle where I gave away a copy of Forge War. The guy who won the game turned out to be the perfect audience for it, which was great, and I ended up talking to him and his friend for a long time afterward about board games and a project he was working on for a digital board game interface where everything is click-and-drag and there is no automation. He was saying that when there is no automation, the interaction with the board and between the players is enhanced significantly. I was very intrigued.
I also played rousing games Camel Up and Ca$h ‘n Guns, both of which I just narrowly lost. Brendon, man, I just gave you a game and you shoot me and take my loot on the last turn. Not cool, man. Not cool.
I ended up getting time to talk to Rodney some more, as well as all the Cabal guys who were there and Rob and Patrick from the Blue Peg, Pink Peg podcast. Those guys are also incredibly awesome. And as if the night couldn’t get any better, I also ended up going with them for some 2 am Steak & Shake. Most of them were “drunk as shit” at this point, but fortunately Rodney didn’t get into any altercations about Kickstarter this year. And to top it all off, Scott from Crits Happen, Lance from Undead Viking and Hunter from Weaponsgrade Reviews all walked in as we were leaving so I got to thank Hunter personally for the review he did for Forge War.
And thus concludes The 1st Annual Cephalofair Awards! All in all, I have learned that if you are willing to stay up until 2 am, crazy-awesome things are bound to happen. I just need to make sure I get a hotel room next year so I don’t have to drive an hour to get back home afterwards.
What have you guys learned from GenCon? Did I forget any important awards categories?