LOU'S VIEWS: The playing's the thing at GenCon

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Lou Harry

If you’ve only gawked but have never actually set foot inside Gen Con, it’s perfectly understandable how you might believe it consists entirely of costumed geeks rolling 17-sided dice in an attempt to escape from fictional castles and find imaginary treasure.

The reality, though, is that while fantasy role-playing games form the core of this four-day Indy economic boom, the convention has a lot to offer casual game players whose comfort zone is closer to Yahtzee and Monopoly than Wizards of Warcraft. During this year’s event (which ran Aug. 5-8), I once again set out to find top-quality games that don’t require the reading of a massive dungeon master’s guide.

Here are some recommendations.

• Wits & Wagers Family. Just when I thought every possible trivia game had been created, North Star Games came up with a terrific variation a few years ago called Wits and Wagers. The game involves questions whose answers are all numbers. The gimmick: Players speculate on what a question’s numeric answer could be. When all the guesses are revealed, each player bets on which answer he or she believes is closest to the correct one. In other words, you could win the game without actually knowing any correct answers. You just have to know who else might know.

This year, North Star returned to Gen Con with a family edition of

A&E(Photo courtesy North Star Games)

Wits & Wagers that minimizes the betting complications and offers questions that are at least in the frame of reference of most 8-plussers. Sample: How many minutes of music can fit on a standard CD? Note: The family version is very playable for grown-ups—and most kids could play the original version as well.

• Settlers of America: Trails to Rails. One of the blockbuster hobby games of the past 15 years has been Mayfair Games’ Settlers of Catan. Who knew that commodities trading and settlement building would have such appeal for the Dungeons and Dragons set?

A&E(Photo courtesy Mayfair Games)

This year, Mayfair offers a new, even more accessible version with a real-world component. As with its predecessors, in Settlers of America you have to bargain for grain, cattle and other necessities while attempting to build settlements and connect them by rail. In this version, though, the setting isn’t a fictional island but the real world. With lots of small wooden pieces, the game may seem intimidating at first for newbies, but one play and you’ll not only grasp the rules, but also start to pick up strategies to try out next time. (Careful about overbuilding on the East Coast, since resources there start to run out mid-game.)

• Lemming Mafia.

With some games, it’s impossible to guess who the demographic target is. And that’s often part of the fun in a specialty market where 5,000 copies can be considered a strong seller.

In this wacky offering, also from Mayfair Games, a group of color-coded lemmings are attempting to get to the sea. Your job is to bet on which will make it first and then do everything you can to keep the others from getting there. It’s easily playable for kids, too; you’ll just have to explain to them what cement overshoes and mob bosses are.

• Duck! Duck! Safari! (Ape Games) If you have smaller kids and are sick of skill-less games like Candyland, here’s a goofy but strategic alternative. Five different games—all but one requiring just two players—can be played with the cards, two-sided board, and six rubber duckies contained herein. My favorite: Hi-lo Hijinks, in which savvy players can change the rules to their advantage and their opponent’s frustration. A bonus: The kids can play with the rubber duckies if they get bored with the game.

There were many more games I didn’t get a chance to sample, including the intriguing Ergo (Catalyst Game Labs), in which players attempt to prove their own existence while disproving the existence of the other players; 10 Days in the Americas (Out of the Box Games), the latest in the terrific series of geographic create-a-route games; and Telestrations (USAopoly), which looks like whisper-down-the-lane meets Pictionary.

One of my favorite acquisitions from Gen Con this year, though, isn’t an actual game. If you are tired of the old games in your closet, I strongly recommend getting your own copy of “Family Games: The 100 Best” (Green Ronin Publishing) edited by James Lowder. In it, game designers and publishers celebrate their favorites—ranging from Scrabble and Blockus to Kill Doctor Lucky and Small World—in short, quirky, fun essays.

Anyone up for a game of Pandemic?•


This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming A&E events to lharry@ibj.com.


  • Great review
    Lou, thanks for the shout out to North Star Games and our games, Wits & Wagers and Wits & Wagers Family.

    But most of all, thanks for pointing out that in the gaming market, particularly with board games, there are so many great titles out there that non-hobby gamers (i.e. the general public), will enjoy.

    And you are right, the old, tired classics are just that, old and tired. Who wants to play Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit for the umpteenth million time? Seems like more and more people are feeling exactly that way, as even the big discount stores like Wal-Mart and Target are beginning to carry some of the 'new classics' like Wits & Wagers, Settlers of Catan, and Apples to Apples.

    Thanks again for the coverage.

    Public Relations Director
    North Star Games

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