Gen Con 2019 was once again a big success, drawing a record attendance of nearly 70,000 people, even with the main road from the airport to the Indianapolis Convention Center closed for the first two days of the con. Well over 600 new games were released at the convention, and there were two common themes among the more than 100 games I saw, demoed, or played at the show this year: Roll-and-write (or their sibling, flip-and-write) games are the flavor of the moment, and so are games that ask players to place polyomino (think Tetris) shapes on a board or to fill in those shapes on their pads.
Before we get to an overview of every game I saw or played, here are the ten best new games from Gen Con 2019.
1. Hadara (Z-Man)
Think 7 Wonders, but with a lower ramp-up for new players. You’ll build your collection of cards from a rondel, with two clever mechanisms in the card drafting process, and then use those cards to gain money or move up four different tracks (income, military, culture, food) that can lead to bonus tiles, colonies, and statues. The three-epoch structure and layered effects of the cards both call 7 Wonders to mind, but the card drafting mechanic is completely different and there’s no direct conflict between players.
2. Silver and Gold (Pandasaurus)
Phil Walker-Harding (Gizmos, Bärenpark) joins the parades of flip-and-write games and games using polyomino shapes with this upcoming title, where two to four players try to use shapes revealed from a common deck to fill in the two cards in front of them, using dry-erase markers. You select a new shape every time you complete one, and can gain bonuses from filling in spaces with coins or palm trees. It plays very quickly, with all turns simultaneous, and I really enjoyed the mental gymnastics of trying to fill in my cards while considering what shapes were left in the deck in that round.
3. Ragusa (Capstone)
A worker placement game set in the city of Dubrovnik, known as Ragusa until 1808, Ragusa has a subtle economic element where players build engines of resource development but simply gain those resources rather than collecting/spending tokens. When someone builds on a tile where you’ve already built, it reactivates your building, so you gain benefits regularly throughout the game. It’s a medium-weight Euro with more elegant rules than most.
4. The Taverns of Tiefenthal (North Star)
Wolfgang Warsch (The Mind, That’s So Clever) is back with a spiritual sequel of sorts to the also badly-named The Quacks of Quedlinburg, but this time with much better art that reminded me of classic RPGs—imagine playing a game where you’re running the Friendly Arms Inn. You’ll try to brew beer, upgrade your tavern, and convince royals to visit (they’re worth points, but they’re tightwads) to gain more points, with a modular board you can upgrade in myriad ways as you play.
5. Res Arcana (Sand Castle)
I would guess, if you polled Gen Con attendees, this might have been the biggest hit; it’s a magic-themed card management game with almost no luck involved after the initial deal (and you can replace that with a card draft). The game moves quickly as players build their engines with just eight cards; the puzzle is figuring out how best to deploy the cards you’re dealt or that you drafted.
6. Ishtar (iello)
I probably would have chosen a different name, but then again, I’m old enough to associate this title with a certain movie flop from the 1980s. From prolific designer Bruno Cathala, who seemed to have two dozen new games at the Con this year, Ishtar asks players to collect gems they can spend to upgrade the gardens of Babylon in a pretty tile-laying game with a modular board.
7. Periodic (Genius)
Genius Games produces light to midweight titles that aim for scientific accuracy so they can educate while still being fun to play, and as someone who memorized the periodic table when I was still a kid, Periodic is right in my wheelhouse. Players move around the periodic table to gather elements to satisfy objective cards that might ask you to collect the two elements used to make bronze, or three elements used in radiotherapy. You score from objective cards and from gathering from all six element groups shown on the table.
8. Realm of Sand (Deep Water)
The best-looking game I saw at Gen Con, with art from designer Maisherly Chan (whose distinctive style appears in Shadows of Kyoto and Mysteries of the Temple as well). Deep Water Games describes this as Patchwork meets Splendor, and it’s an apt summary of the game, which plays quickly and indeed has the polyomino pieces from the former game and the light engine-building mechanism of the latter.
9. Watergate (Capstone)
This feels rather timely, doesn’t it? An asymmetrical two-player title from Capstone Games, Watergate lets you play as Nixon (boo) or the Washington Post (yay), the former trying to complete his term before the scandal destroys him, the latter trying to uncover the truth about the administration’s activities. I got a Twilight Struggle vibe, but the turns and the game itself are much shorter and you don’t need to learn the entire deck to play this one. There’s a lot of obstruction here, just like in real life.
10. Anomaly (Starling)
A dark one-versus-many game from Starling, Anomaly reminded me a bit of Scotland Yard, with an additional layer of complexity on top and a sci-fi theme. Players on the team side work together to try to stop the creature known as the Anomaly, but can’t tell each other their positions on the board and thus are at risk of injuring each other with friendly fire. As the game progresses, the Anomaly player can become stronger, while the entire board becomes more dangerous for the team side.
Honorable Mention: Chocolatiers
Osprey: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the board game edition of the amazing, Hugo-winning novel by Susanna Clarke, which was also adapted into a mini-series a few years ago. Players are magicians in 19th century England and gather magic points and prestige points to ultimately try to be the first to defeat the novel’s villain, the man with the thistle-down hair.
GameSalute: In addition to Anomaly, the Starling imprint of GameSalute had the Pearlbrook expansion for Everdell, my #1 game of 2018. Pearlbrook expands the board and adds a lot to gameplay, with four new reward spaces, four high-point wonders to build, new building cards, and an entirely new deck of adornment cards for more points. Their Sparkworks imprint had Penny Lane, a small-box worker placement game where players try to build the best city street by building a tableau of cards.
Quined: Terramara is a new point salad-y game from the Italian designer collective behind the outstanding worker placement game Egizia. Terramara looks similar, with multiple tracks for players to choose for their progress, although it looks like it might have too many ways to score for relative newbie gamers.
Stronghold: Stronghold was the king of roll and writes at Gen Con this year, including Dizzle, where players roll dice on each turn and draft them to fill in their boards one space at a time; Second Chance, a flip-and-write polyomino game from Uwe Rosenberg (along the lines of his Patchwork and Cottage Garden); and Encore!, a new edition of the roll-and-write title from Inka and Marcus Brand (Village, the Exit games). They also had demo copies of the upcoming game Amul, and announced an upcoming English edition of the revered but out-of-print Japanese solo game Coffee Roaster, which should hit stores in Q4.
Dire Wolf: Eternal, Dire Wolf Digital’s free Magic-like deckbuilder app, is now a tabletop game, playing two to four players, and just went on sale at Gen Con. Their upcoming collaboration with Penny Arcade, Clank! Legacy Acquisitions Incorporated, comes out in September, a legacy game that will still be fully playable once the campaign is over. They’re very busy on the digital side as well after the July 30th released of their app version of Raiders of the North Sea; upcoming titles include Sagrada, Root, Yellow & Yangtze, and Mage Knight, with Yellow & Yangtze available to demo at Gen Con.
Iello: In addition to Ishtar, iello had Decrypto Laser Drive, a thematic expansion for the part game Decrypto that asks players to give clues related to specific themes on cards; and Little Town, which I demoed at Origins, a very quick-playing resource management and tile-laying game that distills those collect-wood-and-stone games to the simplest possible experience. They’re also one of three publishers I saw with new games for younger kids than the tabletop world typically targets through their new Loki imprint, with three games out now in SOS Dino, Farmini, and the press-your-luck die game Troll & Dragon.
Plan B: Era: Medieval Age, a competitive title from Matt Leacock (Pandemic), is a new roll-and-build title that’s a midweight game in a heavy box (trust me, I lugged it home from Indianapolis), where players build cities on their boards using detailed 3D components, but with more interaction than you get in most city builders. It’s out now, as is 5211, a new English version of the Japanese card game 5 Colors, a quick-playing game with scoring rules that seem sort of arbitrary.
Pandasaurus: Passtally, a path-building game like Tsuro and Metro that lets players stack their path tiles, and Arraial, a polyomino-based game, are both out now. Machi Koro Legacy was on sale at Gen Con with retail release on 9/1. It’s a legacy title, taking the dice-rolling card game into a very light, quick-playing campaign, with individual games taking 20-30 minutes and a playable title once it’s finished (you’re not destroying components as in some legacy titles). Wayfinders, a new worker placement game with some route-finding aspects that plays in 20 minutes, was here to demo and will be out at Essen, as will Silver and Gold.
Board and Dice: Sierra West is a medium-heavy game with a modular board and a lot of moving parts, with players placing workers, managing hands of cards, and moving along multiple tracks, with four modules included in the game to alter play. Inuit: The Snowfolk looks gorgeous, although I couldn’t get past the theme—the Inuit are a culture, not a game. Board and Dice also had the Teotihuacan expansion Late Preclassic Period on sale; Teotihuacan is the follow-up by the designer of T’zolkin, one of the most popular heavy games on the market.
North Star Games: In addition to The Taverns of Tiefenthal, North Star will bring out Oceans, the standalone sequel to Evolution, very soon, and also had a massive Quacks of Quedlinburg expansion for sale (but it sold out very quickly). The expansion lets you add a fifth player, adds more spell books, an additional ingredient, and new witch cards that significantly alter game play. Paint the Roses is an Alice in Wonderland-themed game where players work together to try to satisfy the Red Queen’s demands for the design of her garden, but can’t communicate what’s on their own cards to other players as they lay tiles on the board; it’ll hit Kickstarter in 2020.
Asmodee: Once again, Asmodee was all over the place, with more imprints under its umbrella than ever this year. They have a big push into Marvel-themed games, including the Fantasy Flight Living Card Game™ Marvel Champions, where you play as a hero and their alter ego at once; a miniatures game called Marvel Crisis Protocol; and, most interesting to tabletop players, a new version of Splendor with a Marvel theme, where players collect Infinity Stones and try to be the first to match everything shown on Thanos’ gauntlet.
Asmodee’s series of games using their Storybook platform, which started with Stuffed Fables and Comanauts, continues with three new titles, including the fun route-building game Quirky Circuits for younger players; the miniatures game Aftermath; and the competitive monster-building game Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein. The latter two are on the longer, heavier side.
Players looking for classic Euro titles had plenty to choose from in the Asmodee area, with two standouts that I saw in Ceylon, where players compete to build tea plantations on the island now known as Sri Lanka in the wake of the coffee leaf rust epidemic that wiped out its coffee exports in the late 1880s. (That’s a true story: the island went from exporting over 100 million pounds of coffee per year in 1869 to just 20% of that by 1886, according to NPR’s The Salt.) Naga Raja is a two-player Euro where players bid on tiles by rolling “fate sticks” and can use certain wild symbols to play cards from their hand to beat the other player for desired tiles.
Asmodee is big on brand extensions, and had at least three here in the flip-and-write Patchwork Doodle, which takes the two-player Patchwork and lets you play with up to six players; Ticket to Ride London, a smaller, shorter Ticket to Ride in the vein of their New York release; and the reworked T.I.M.E. Stories, which streamlined the first edition’s rules and functions like a second season for folks who played and enjoyed the earlier version. (Ticket to Ride London is starting out as a Wal-Mart exclusive.)
Obscurio had a lot of buzz as the spiritual sequel to Mysterium; both have one player trying to communicate something to other players via images, but in Obscurio, the images are a bit less abstract, and one player is a traitor working against everyone else. Destroyer of Words, an upcoming Amazon exclusive, has players laying letter tiles on the board to form words, but then lets you attack letters in other players’ quadrants of the board; if you remove a letter and what remains isn’t a word any more, all of those letters are removed as well.
In addition to the new edition of Jaipur, my all-time favorite pure two-player game, the Space Cowboys imprint had demos of Ankh’or, a market-based tile-drafting game due out by year end.
They’re also now distributing CMON games, multiple expansions for their massive Game of Thrones-themed game A Song of Fire and Ice and an adaptation of the videogame God of War. They also had Foodies, which seems rather in my wheelhouse, as players work to build menus and recipes while hiring chefs for their restaurants. It should be out to retail soon. Asmodee is also distributing Cranio Games, including Mystery House, a game where players work together to escape a haunted building, but each player sees a different perspective while looking through the 3-D board. And they’re yet another tabletop publisher moving downmarket into games for younger kids, distributing titles from the 65-year-old French publisher of kids’ games Djeco.
Bézier: Silver is a new title in the same thematic universe as the One Night Ultimate Werewolf series of games, with each player starting with five cards they can’t look at. Over the course of the game, you try to work your hand of cards down to the lowest possible values, using very strict rules on how you can exchange or discard your cards. It was on sale at Gen Con, and the related Silver Bullet will be out in November. They’re a retheme of the 2010 game Cabo, which Bézier also brought back this year in a new second edition.
Genius Games: Genius just purchased Arcana Games, bringing together two of the main publishers focused on games that are scientifically and/or historically accurate. From Genius’ line, Cytosis, which has a seal of approval from the Journal of Cell Science, is out now; Periodic just came out; and they had a demo of the forthcoming Genotype, a game of Mendelian genetics and breeding pea plants (everyone was calling it the “pea game,” but there’s got to be a better way to say that). From Arcana was the small-box Lovelace and Babbage, about the woman who may have invented the first computer programming language and the man who was there to take the credit. It was on pre-sale at Gen Con.
Daily Magic: The publisher of Valeria had two new titles, including the cute but elegant tile-laying game Chocolatiers (my #11 game from the con, if we’re counting), with just two main ways to score, a welcome break from the industry trend towards point salad games with eighteen different scoring methods. It’s out to retail now. Thieves Den is a card-drafting game with worker placement elements that’ll be out to retail at the end of the month.
Restoration Games: The people who bring back the games of your youth, or your parents’ youth, have updated the 1973 title Conspiracy with a fresh coat of paint. Conspiracy: The Solomon Gambit is a bluffing game where players try to move a briefcase around the board to their home bases by using neutral ‘agents,’ but other players can ‘burn’ an agent you’re using and remove them from the game.
Deep Water: In addition to Realm of Sand, Deep Water announced the upcoming Floor Plan, a thematic sibling to the flip-and-write hit Welcome To. Floor Plan is a roll-and-write game where you’re trying to fill out the floor plan of a prospective house. As someone who’s bought new construction before, I wish it were as easy as rolling dice. They also had four different specialized Welcome To pads for sale, including a Halloween version, a winter holiday version, and, of course, a zombie apocalypse version.
B&B Games: Folded Wishes was here for pre-order; it’s an origami-themed game that comes with papers you can fold into swans to use as your meeples. It has players taking tiles from a 4×4 grid and plays in just 15-20 minutes, for ages 6 and up—younger than just about all of the games I saw other than those explicitly aimed at younger kids. It should be out to retail in mid-October.
Kosmos: Imhotep Duel is the two-player reimagining of the great game Imhotep, really rethinking the scoring methods when compared to the original (which did play well with two but didn’t have much direct conflict unless you had three or more players). They had several new Exit: The Game titles here, including the longer game The Catacombs of Horror; the series of escape room-themed games asks you to destroy game components as you try to solve various riddles. They’ve also introduced a more story-based set of games, The Adventure series, co-designed by Phil Walker-Harding, where each player gets their own character to play in a cooperative game that will take about two hours per box. The first is due out in mid-September. Tribes and Roll for Adventure were both officially released at Gen Con, while the upcoming Cities Skylines, a tabletop version of a videogame from Paradox Interactive, will be released at the latter company’s PDXCon in October.
Blue Orange: Planet, which earned a Mensa Select nod earlier this year, was everywhere at the con, with its appealing polyhedron player pieces and quick turns. Kingdomino Duel was also out here; it’s a roll-and-write two-player game with a loose connection to the Spiel-winning original, letting players gain powers by collecting certain symbols before the other player does.
Gamewright: Sushi Roll had to be the most obvious brand extension in the tabletop world; Sushi Go and Sushi Go Party are both hits, the latter a great game when you have five or more players, and now they have a dice-drafting variant where players take pieces off a ‘conveyor’ belt. <>Dragonrealm reworks the 2015 title Dragonwood; in Dragonrealm, players collect sets of cards like you would in gin rummy, and then roll dice to place meeples on various locations, which score once they’re full.
Thunderworks: Cartographers had some buzz going before the con; it’s a flip-and-write title with a lot more interactions among players than most x-and-write titles give you. It’ll hit stores in a few weeks. Lockup should already be in stores; it’s in the Roll Player universe, like Cartographers, and has players collecting sets of cards to try to send their gang of minions around a prison, controlling more area and gaining goods to maximize their reputation.
Ravensburger: The Ravensburger adaptation of the movie Jaws was on sale and available to demo; it’s a two-part cooperative game where first you have to try to manage the shark attacks on the island and then go out on the water and try to take out the big bad elasmobranch. Unfortunately, I do not believe you can use one of your actions to get a bigger boat. They also had the latest Villainous expansion, Evil Comes Prepared, adding three more villains for players to portray: Scar, Ratigan, or Yzma.
Ravensburger also announced the new standalone expansion to The Quest for El Dorado called The Golden Temples; the 20th anniversary big box edition of Castles of Burgundy, containing all ten existing expansions plus one more (so, yes, it goes to eleven); and the fall 2020 release of their next celluloid-to-tabletop title, Back to the Future, flux capacitor not included. They also have a slate of board games coming for younger players, some aimed at ages three and up, including Mickey’s Snuggle Time, Friends of a Feather, Five Little Fish, and Inchworm.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.