Gen Con 2019 Retrospective



My friends Billy and Kasey invited me along to Gen Con this year. I enjoy board games, friends, and questionable financial decisions. It was a moderately easy decision.

The fun started a few weeks before the convention, when 17,000+ events were posted to the worst scheduling website devised by man. Things fill up quickly, but the reservation system is kind of a nightmare. Many events repeated every hour, it’s all sorted chonologically, and it’s very easy to lose your place in the huge list. If you don’t know something exists, you won’t find it. The common advice is to take it easy your first year, so I only signed up for one thing each day and bought some generic tickets just in case.

Initial impressions

It’s huge. My main convention reference point is DragonCon, which is something like five different cons mixed with a frat party and crammed into their venue with such density that someone must be bribing the fire marshal. This is what DragonCon would be if it stopped partying, shaped up and got a job. There were lots of people, but the Indianapolis convention center was large enough to hold us all with room to spare.

That stadium photo? Less than half the con. The exhibit hall was the largest room I’ve seen in my entire life. We spent about a day and a half alone slowly working our way to the back.

I kinda kept a list of things I was interested in, so here’s roughly what we looked at.



It’s a gorgeous bird watching themed engine builder that has a reputation for being hard to find. There were copies at a booth near the back wall of the hall, but by the time I made my way there, they were all sold out. Pity.


Billed as a board game DotA/Tower Defense hybrid, it seemed to live up to the claim. Unfortunately, it also seemed to be targeting lifestyle gamers. There were a lot of fiddly rules that would be hard to teach quickly; I watched the guy explain what amounted to the laning phase for twenty minutes. There were poker chips everywhere, and the (huge) entry-level box cost $130.

If this game is DotA, I’d love a Heroes of the Storm equivalent that costs half as much and can be played in an hour.


An abstract with gorgeous art and a theme of herding units via “bumping.” I was really looking forward to this, but it kinda felt like a movement-oriented Catan. I’m not a huge fan of Catan. The folks I was playing with took a long time on every move and repeatedly forgot the rules; I was getting frustrated. First impressions were soured, but I’d give this another shot with a different group.

Taverns of Tiefenthal

Alright, this is more like it. It’s a deck builder where you can upgrade the board (your tavern) as well as your deck (your patrons and employees). With so many different types of employees and mechanics for generating coins and beer there’s maybe too much going on? But the theme is great and I had fun. If it’d been available immediately I would have picked it up.

Planet Mercenary

Pathfinder Second Edition was the big RPG at the con, but Schlock Mercenary, ya’ll! I love this comic; been reading it for years. I didn’t have income during the Planet Mercenary Kickstarter, and I’ve never seen it at a local game store. But now I have an autographed copy! Howard even sketched Schlock in the back. Looking forward to running some sessions with my D&D group.

Pathfinder Second Edition

The rules are streamlined, but it still feels a lot like Pathfinder. A first level Pathfinder 2e encounter is much more crunchy than a first level D&D 5e encounter. Near and dear to my heart, Alchemists got the much needed overhaul they needed to be playable without reading pages of kludgy errata’d class-specific rules.

We Rate Dogs

This game is very cute and super dumb. If you wish Fluxx was a bidding game with dogs, this might be your jam.


The pitch was “Factorio, the board game.” That’s pretty good! The presentation also looks fantastic. But then you actually play it. My initial impression was that the concept works better as a video game. We couldn’t keep the timing for upgrading and moving items along conveyer belts streight, and there were a number of dead turns where it didn’t seem like there was anything productive to do.

The other big disappointment was that all these modular factory parts look like puzzle pieces, but in our demo version everything fit together loosely and invalidly. I would have assumed that tabs and pockets on pieces had to match, but playing pieces pocket-to-pocket was valid. Don’t make your components look like puzzle pieces if they don’t follow the basic rules of puzzles!


Very quick bid/bust card game. I don’t know if it was just because I was exhausted, but I had to think a lot harder than I thought I would for such a simple game. Weird and fresh.


Set collection and probability management. Outstanding minimalist art. I could see the possibility trees unfolding in a pleasant way during the demo game, so I picked this one up.

Century: Eastern Wonders

I haven’t actually played this yet (oh no!) but I watched a demo and it looks neat. Kinda sorta like Splendor, except that you have to move around on a map to make your trades. You have to leave your wares in each space you travel through, but other players can pick them up behind you. It’s part of two of a trilogy of games. This was at the show because Plan B was releasing part three and a reskinned-but-otherwise-identical Gollum-themed version of part two. The golem version was pretty, but the blue island theme of the original called out to me.

Trogdor!! The Board Game

I’ve been playing my Kickstarter copy for a few weeks, but Matt and Mike Chapman were at the booth! Puppet Strong Bad screamed encouragement at people demoing the game, and it was great.

The game itself is pretty decent. It’s possibly too random to be a great game, but the entire thing is so drenched in Homestar Runner nonsense and nostalgia that I have to love it. I’m happy every time we play it.

Just One

This is a brilliant party game. One player draws a card without looking at it and must guess the word on it. Other players secretly write a one-word clue. If any of the clues are the same word, they’re eliminated and cannot be used. It’s a lot of fun trying to come up with obscure synonyms or descriptions just obscure enough that nobody else would use them. A lower stress version of being the spy master in Codenames.

Tiny Towns

Basically a board game version of Triple Town. Place patterns of blocks in an increasingly small area to build houses and barns and such. Every player has a secret objective that results in drastically different play styles. I liked it a lot.

Rail Pass

This is an incredibly silly and I love it. Every player manages a colored train station with two flatbed train models. Each station is filled with color coded cubes which much be delivered to the correct station. When the game starts, everyone starts loading their trains with tiny colored cubes as fast as they can. Then they must pick up the train (while announcing “Toot! Toot!") and hand it to a person next to them without dropping the train or any of the cubes. You can only hold one train in each hand and there can’t be more than two trains at your station. ALSO each train has a colored peg in them; an engineer who can’t travel beyond neighboring train stations.

If you’ve ever played Magic Maze and had someone slam the “it’s your turn!” market on the table while staring intently at you, this is like that, only everyone is screaming “TOOT TOOT!” 12/10

High Risk

Pass the Pigs with mountain climbers! All the excitement of push-your-luck dice games with the added excitement of pushing other climbers down the mountain.

Truck Off

Roll several dice. They represent the profitability of different locations. Secretly assign your food trucks to locations. Profits are split between each truck that shows up, so you want to go to the places nobody else will select. Then play actions from a limited pool to twist the situation to your favor. Gameplay is fun enough, but the real reason to play this is that every single action card has a terrible food pun on it.

Northern Pacific

We sat down at this table in the Rio Grande room because it was open; I didn’t expect anything out of the game. It has a pretty generic train theme; the board is a mess of cities and arrows. But it’s actually pretty solid! On your turn you can put a cube on a city or build a railway. When the railway goes through a city, everyone with a cube in that city gets their cube back with a bonus cube. But cities max out at three cubes, so everyone is haggling with everyone else, trying to maneuver the train on a route that benefits themselves the most. Everyone also has a jumbo cube which generates lots of cubes when the train rolls through, which is why your opponents will attempt to bypass it at every available opportunity.

Letter Jam

Every player is assigned a a word which is then converted into a shuffled stack of letter cards. Each player displays the first letter card of their word in front of them without looking at it. Players then make new words using other players letters and some wildcards. You deduce your letter from the clues, then flip it face down and display next one. At the end of the game you unscramble your word on paper, rearrange your face-down letter cards, and then dramatically flip your cards to reveal your still-scrambled word!

Keeping your cards in order is somewhat important.

Ship Shape

Very good! This is a “a picture is worth a thousand words” situation; it’s a very visual game. Everyone has a 3x3 deck board, and you bid on several 3x3 overlay tiles at a time, building a stack and trying to get the perfect tile to maximize your visible points. Because the tiles in the bidding stack overlap each other, you may not be able to see all of the tile you’re bidding on. Because you’re simultaneously bidding on multiple tiles at once, you may need to bid between what you think other players will bid. Because every player has a limited number of bid cards, you can card count and try to figure out what each person is likely to bid based on what tiles you think they’d most want.

It’s all very clever and I haven’t played anything quite like it. They sold out fairly quickly, I think.

Special Roll and Write Section

It’s difficult to communicate in words just how many roll and writes we saw.

Roland Wright

Points for the terrible pun. Probably the most board-gamey roll and write we saw; you’re filling in colored dots on a card, and there are various patterns you’re trying to match, and secret objectives and whatnot. Looked solid enough.


This is a perfectly fine, but we’d seen the majority of the game mechanics before; it felt samey. One player rolls a bunch of die, then you draft dice based on what categories they fall into. The one really neat thing it has is “the bazar,” a little maze in the corner of the sheet. If you don’t like any of your drafting options you can use the dice to “wander the bazar” and pick up various items and upgrades in the maze. I kinda wish that the design has revolved around the bazar more; it felt like the most interesting thing going on.

Truck Off RAW

Our prerelease copy was sold to us as, “part of the Truck Off cinematic universe!” We snagged it because it looked like it might be an entire game built around a similar wandering mechanic, but we haven’t had time to play yet.

Patchwork Doodle

This is simple and has zero player interaction, but Tetris-with-pens is relaxing and fun. Plus, you can play with more people than normal Patchwork. Maybe my favorite game in this section.

Deadly Doodles

A “draw and draw” where you draw cards with tile lines on them, and then draw the lines on a dungeon whiteboard. There’s treasure, weapons which must be matched with specific monsters, and Battleship-style traps. Steve Jackson games can be hit or miss, but this was nice. We played several rounds in the hotel room that night.

Welcome To

This is good, and we’ve played this before, but it was at GenCon too, so I’m mentioning it. I think it might have been there because of the upcoming Las Vegas expansion.


It’s four years old, but sure.


This one has flowers.


This one is minesweeper themed.

I dunno, it all just feels like too much.

You: (through sobs) you can’t just make every game a roll and write!
Steve Jackson Games: (points at Deadly Doodles) draw and draw.


There were way more webcomics present than anticipated! I spoke with Howard Taylor (Schlock Mercenary), David Malki (Wondermark), and Phil Foglio (Girl Genius). This was really cool; I’ve been reading their comics for a decade or more. Alas, I was too star struck to even ask Mr. Malki to pun, “check out my stickers, all of them.” But Howard did deface my Planet Mercenary RPG book!

A signed sketch of Schlock


This was an area filled with six foot tall towers constructed from bent cards. It was kind of breathtaking. Anyone could grab cards and start building. It was a charity event; on Saturday night there was an auction for the first throw into the area, and people donated change by pelting the buildings with coins.


cardhalla from above

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