I'm somewhat new to board games (I'm deeply invested in my Gloomhaven campaign and games like Dead of Winter), but I'm enthusiastic enough about the hobby to have been thrilled at the chance to go to Gen Con over the weekend. For the unaffiliated, Gen Con is a massive annual board game convention in Indianapolis. And I do mean massive. Huge halls spread across multiple buildings demonstrate board games of mind-boggling variety. I didn't come close to seeing everything over the three days I was there, but I did catch plenty of highlights. Here are my favorites.
After squeezing through the crowd to sit on my stool at the demo table, one of the hosts launched into the instructions, all given in a satirical, post-apocalyptic tone. The premise is that "friendly" robots have pretty much conquered everything but keep humans complicit by giving them "useful" jobs in factories. Your goal is to build a production line for these robot vacuums. If your line is useful enough, the robots will kindly let you live and keep making more robots.
Gameplay involves producing robots to make in-game money, then using that money to buy jigsaw-like pieces to upgrade your factory line and make it produce robots more quickly. The pieces offer an interesting variety of powers. Some help you bank money for the end. Some duplicate or upgrade your robots. Others redirect your pieces to help you make room for more.
It can be tough to keep everything straight at first, but here's where actual tech comes into play (the game is about technology, but you're not actually playing with robot vacuums). The company behind Mechanica is developing an augmented reality app that you'll be able to point at any game piece to see how it works. This should theoretically make learning the game much easier.
An AR instructions app also provides a notable thematic juxtaposition in a game about technology taking over the world. While clearly satirical, the theme of the game paints tech in a negative light as humans succumb to robot overlords, yet the game makes use of tech to help our little human brains learn the rules that much faster.
Mechanica is made by Resonym, a game company with a mission to build socially conscious games. Buffalo, for example, tries to break down stereotypes by challenging social biases. You draw two cards at once, one with an adjective and one with a noun -- multiracial superhero for example. The first person to come up with an example wins. The adjectives keep you on your toes to think creatively about your own assumptions regarding what the nouns might mean.
Mechanica's mission is less clear, but the AR integration is helpful and the game itself is fun, and maybe that's all it needs to be. After a few minutes of playing, I forgot I was in a cramped demo hall surrounded by strangers. I was too busy trying to create the biggest and best robots I could.
Mechanica wasn't the only game at the convention to make use of cool technology. Mattel demoed Pictionary Air, which at Toy Fair. The basic concept will be familiar to you if you've ever played the classic Pictionary. You try to get your team to guess words by drawing them. However, instead of drawing on a pad of paper, you're actually drawing in the air.
Augmented reality shows what you've drawn on a screen, so you're literally drawing on air while the guessers get a view of the pattern on your TV or their cell phone.
Pictionary Air is a really cool concept, but I struggled mightily to be able to draw without seeing my own results. The first image I attempted was the seemingly simple "tablecloth." I was even surrounded by earnest guessers watching the demos, but try as I might, I couldn't get them close to the right answer. In fact, they consistently guessed animals like dog and buffalo. Frustrated, I eventually turned around to see why they were struggling. I sympathized when I saw the scribblings of a madman I had created.
The augmented reality aspect certainly adds a high-tech angle to a classic and can help even the odds among the participants, as I doubt many in your group will be practiced at air drawing.
Augmented reality could theoretically bridge any number of analog games to tech. A company called Tilt Five was showing what could be possible. It had an augmented reality headset, a game board and a controller. With the headset on, the game board comes alive and lets you interact with a deep 3D model of a game world.
I like board games as a reprieve from my normally tech-focused life, but between better instructions and richer interactions, AR and apps could certainly bring a lot of new features to this classic hobby.
That said, many board games still don't need fancy tech to be enjoyable. Klask was the perfect example. Named Swedish game of the year in 2015, Klask is new to most people in the US, and the company behind it showed off a new four-player version of the game at Gen Con.
In a fest filled with complex games that have layers of rules and intricacies, playing Klask was like drinking a cool glass of water. Many of the games on display at Gen Con take a long time to learn and involve multiple miniatures and boards and detailed setups, and I enjoy all of that. Gloomhaven is my current favorite board game.
Still, I appreciated the contrasting simplicity of Klask. The only tech involved is magnets. It's conceptually similar to air hockey. Your goal is to use your magnetic piece to whack a little plastic ball into the other player's goal, but you have to watch out for a handful of traps. If you lose your piece in your own goal, or get stuck on the magnets in the middle, your opponent scores instead of you.
I played more rounds of Klask than any other game at Gen Con. It's quick and thoroughly enjoyable, with enough chaos to be consistently surprising and enough skill required to demand your full attention.
It also provided a great counterpoint to lots of the other games on display, showing that board games at all levels of tech and complexity can still be really fun.
Originally published Aug. 5.