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Justin Goes to Cannes!

Justin went to Cannes and joined 85,000 gamers for the 2024 Festival International des Jeux, the biggest French tabletop event of the year. Find out what he thinks about the event in this convention roundup!
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During last year’s visit to SPIEL, I struck up conversations with French and French-speaking Canadian partners. What other French conventions should I check out? What are some of the big ones that are also tied to major award presentations in the hobby? And where else can I find an excuse to travel and eat great food?

The most consistent answer: Festival International des Jeux (FIJ), which takes place in the Cannes area of France each February. I started doing some digging on flights and hotels and my media badge was quickly approved, so I set about making arrangements to check out the show.

Upon my arrival at the Nice Côte d’Azur International Airport (it is nice, but it’s also in Nice), I grabbed an Uber and made the 25-minute journey from Nice to Cannes. Most people know Cannes as the host of the international film festival each May where it seems like director Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel) is debuting new movies while movie stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Penélope Cruz stroll red carpets every year.

In this way, Cannes (pronounced “can”, as in “can of corn”) is pretty nice during the month of February. It’s a swanky town with at least two Ferrari dealerships and fancy retail shops everywhere, but it’s not as crowded in February as French gamers descend upon Cannes to check out the new wares coming to the country soon.

There’s lots of great shopping and a wide range of cuisines available for visitors, particularly within walking distance of the Palais des Festivals, the convention hall that hosts FIJ. There’s even some weird-yet-cool spots in Cannes, like the swanky Steak-N-Shake across from the Palais—OK, swanky by Steak-N-Shake standards—and The Hive Bar, a board game cafe with an Asian-themed restaurant upstairs and an e-sports bar downstairs that serves good cocktails and plays top-40 American hip-hop. (Why haven’t I opened a place like this in the US? We’ll save that for another article.)

Day One: The As d’Or

I walked the same red carpet used for the film festival into the FIJ awards ceremony celebrating the year’s best games according to a jury made up of French influencers. That ceremony, which awarded four main prizes broken up by gaming audience, included a really special moment featuring Maximilian Maria Thiel, the designer of La Famiglia: The Great Mafia War.

La Famiglia was, in my view, the surprise winner of the Expert category, against two other nominees: The White Castle and Darwin’s Journey. When La Famiglia was announced as the winner and the publishing/design team made it to the stage, Thiel was very reluctant to say a few words about the game, to the point where the audience gave the man a standing ovation as he quickly became overcome with emotion during the raucous celebration. He made his way to the stage, offered a muted “merci” (thank you) to the audience, then retreated from the microphone.

That gave legs to a game that I thought was pretty good but ultimately very tough to table. 50% of La Famiglia is a Euro-style efficiency builder and the remaining 50% is an area-control wargame, which can only be played in a 2v2 team format by exactly four players. The game is well designed but such a niche product, so it was fun to see the game honored at the ceremony.

The other big one: Trio (which is basically the game nana, but accommodating a larger player count and featuring a few different rules) was the winner of the As d’Or, also known as the Golden Ace, the best overall game of 2023. The large team involved in the game’s design, development, production and distribution appeared on stage and drew a lot of laughs as it appeared that the designer and publisher didn’t remember that there were like ten other people up on stage to celebrate too.

The full convention kicked off in earnest the next day.

Day Two: Watch Your Head

My second day in town was the first full day of FIJ. A short walk from my hotel, the Palais is an older but still handsome property tucked next to a port overlooking the Bay of Cannes. The beauty of the site was hidden when I arrived, thanks to dense cloud cover and a light, steady rain that was falling on the day of my arrival.

Here’s what else was hidden: the expo hall. The expo hall is actually in the basement of the Palais, taking up what looks like an old parking garage, but completely revamped into a village of show booths, gaming tables, and walkways that would feel really tight if the show was too crowded.

The ceilings in the expo hall are quite low. As someone used to hitting shows like PAX Unplugged, Gen Con, and SPIEL, along with big non-tabletop conventions like the Chicago Auto Show, FIJ requires a major mental adjustment. A tall media member (i.e., me) can touch the ceiling at the FIJ expo hall, which I’m sure I have never done before at a major convention.

This didn’t feel claustrophobic on the first day of the convention mainly because the thing wasn’t that crowded. I met with partners at Synapses Games, Gigamic, and Studio H on the main floor, at tables with other demo players nearby, and I didn’t raise my voice once.

The early front runner for my favorite box cover of 2024: Ratjack (Studio H)

In terms of accessibility, those surprises extended into the main part of my show day. FIJ is family friendly, there’s a lot of space to play games with publishers (although no open gaming areas), bathrooms are easy to find, and security is everywhere, doing their best to stay out of the way.

My meetings yielded some tasty fruit. Gigamic showed off its new twist on Quoridor, a Pac-Man variant that was a looker at the fair. Looot is a new tile-laying worker placement game with a modular board, great artwork and a fjord theme. We’ve had the chance to cover a lot of Gigamic games over the last few years, so I’ll be getting these two games to the table soon. Synapses Games has a few products on the way (including Rallyman Dirt and Tanuki), but here’s the headline: there’s a LOT of Yokohama content coming in the years ahead.

I love spending time with Thibault, our partner from Studio H, and our meeting this time was no exception—no less than six games were discussed, including Ratjack (yes, a rat dealer at a casino is featured on the cover), Vampire Village, Middle Ages (a re-release of Majesty: For the Realm), expansion content for Oltree, the Cyclades remake and another Suspects game. I have enjoyed most of the games Studio H has put out since 2021, so here’s to hoping that these next few games make their mark.

How About the Games Overall?

The “worst” part of FIJ, as a person who hits Gen Con and SPIEL each year, is the lack of big game reveals or newsworthy items for gamers in the US market. Many of the booths were showing off games I played last year or that our team reviewed in recent months. I looked at a lot of games that were debuting in France soon, but these were games that had not yet secured distribution outside the country.

As a member of the media and content creator space, that is probably not a big surprise. Many gamers at the show were thrilled to play a new card game called Cat in the Box, a game I first tried two years ago and that was released even earlier in Japan. Disney Lorcana is white-hot in some regions, but one could tell at a glance that many of the players at FIJ were trying Lorcana for the first time. Lots of games that were released in 2022 and 2023 in other markets are just making their way to France, and some games released in France in 2024 are just beginning to make their way to other parts of the world.

(Trio, the Golden Ace winner? BGG lists Trio as a 2021 release; even if it hit France in late 2022, Trio has been available in France for at least 15-18 months.)

It was cool to see what kinds of games populated the majority of the booths at FIJ. My quick read: the French like lighter fare, even with their “heavier” games.

I didn’t even get to play Star Wars: Bounty Hunters (Zygomatic), but the artwork looks really good

This was on display during the As d’Or award ceremony. I wouldn’t call The White Castle an expert-level game, but that term is a moving target depending on the region. I didn’t see as many booths showing off games in the 3.50+ BGG weight class at the event, and lighter games sell better. For the most part, family and lightweight games took up the majority of the space, with medium-weight Euros, TCGs, adult-only party games, and dexterity products available in high volume as well.

A note about shopping: I never buy games at conventions. If you’ve read my other convention roundups, you know that I abhor the practice of “con prices” because they both feel like a con job and the same games are usually available via online retailers for $10-$30 less the week after these shows. But some of the booths at FIJ were doing deals that were shocking.

Some of the larger publishers and distributors were doing wild deals even on day one, like Gigamic (a much larger player in France than they are in other regions) and Asmodee. I bought a copy of Crash Octopus at the Queen Games booth for 17 Euros. But I’m sort of kicking myself for skipping town after only two days at this show, because two different reps shared that the deals on the final day at FIJ are some of the best in the world. If you are only at the show to buy new games—or better, games that are 2-3 years old—stop by the Palais to give those deals a look!

Justin had a lovely time chatting with French designer Christophe Raimbault (Redwood, Colt Express)

Day Three

My final day at FIJ was pretty light, including an unscheduled visit with Ludonaute and three scheduled meetings with Sorry We Are French, Matagot, and Cranio Creations. SWAF showed the next game of the In the Footsteps of Darwin line, titled In the Footsteps of Marie Curie, and I’m already excited to see its final production. Our contact at SWAF, Pauline, set up a game and we played Marie Curie in less than 20 minutes. More content for Gosu X is coming, along with Mind Map, now available in France and coming soon to other regions.

The big highlight at the SWAF booth was the preview of Shackleton Base: A Journey to the Moon. Shackleton Base is the “heavy” release coming from SWAF this year, after IKI and Zhanguo: The First Empire over the last two years. SWAF (which also published the underrated medium-weight Euro banger Galileo Project) has my attention.

What made all of this a highlight? Shackleton Base was designed by Fabio Lopiano and Nestore Mangone…and Pauline asked Lopiano, who was standing nearby as I entered the booth area, to teach me the game. Lopiano was kind enough to give me a 15-minute overview of the game and some chat time as we talked about my appreciation for Autobahn, his 2022 release from Alley Cat Games. (Lopiano has also designed Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road, 3 Ring Circus, and Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa, so he’s found a way to stay busy over the last few years!!)

As a writer, the best moments come when designers acknowledge past reviews. Lopiano remembered my Autobahn review and we had a nice moment when he saw the logo on my business card. I know that our team does great work in the tabletop media space, but the highest honor comes when peers take the time to read our content. Thanks, Fabio!

Fabio Lopiano, showing off his next big game: Shackleton Base (Sorry We Are French)

Anyway, Shackleton Base won’t hit until this year’s SPIEL event in Essen, but I’m already standing in (virtual) line to check this game out for myself. While the game looked like a big piece of chicken, Lopiano assured me that it is not in the weight class of games like On Mars or High Frontier 4 All. Still, there’s a lot going on there.

Auguste, our partner at Matagot, met me for croissants and Coke Zero in the BAR PRO, where exhibitors and creators were doing a lot of meetings to get away from the show floor and, well, enjoy a room with a higher ceiling. Matagot’s wallet game series (designed in the same format as the Button Shy game folios) appears to be doing quite well, and it looks like we are going to be getting a steady diet of these games moving forward. I have played three so far: Le Roy des Ribauds, Pan T’es Mort, and Western Legends: Showdown. For a person looking for 10 minutes of fun on the move—I think these are best as palate cleansers that can be played with a partner or small group while waiting for dinner at a restaurant—these microgames are a great fit.

We also discussed a few more Matagot games coming to the US market soon, and our writers will be sharing their thoughts on these as the games arrive. My final meeting, with Elisa from Cranio Creations, featured discussions of a handful of games, including My Shelfie: The Dice Game (which we played in full, about 15 minutes), Bower (a two-player-only tile placement game), and MESOS, co-designed by Simone Luciani and featuring really distinctive artwork from Chicago artist Kerri Aitken, who also did the artwork for the card game Tichu.

Elisa described one additional, still-secret project coming soon. While I am sworn to secrecy, I think the gaming community at large will be excited to hear more about this one when it is entered into the BGG database soon.

MESOS (Cranio Creations)

Would You Go Back?

No.

That’s not because the Festival International des Jeux isn’t well run. That’s not because the awards show wasn’t spectacular. That’s not because of Cannes either, which is a fun place to host a convention. (Gosh, could you imagine if a show like SPIEL was hosted in a place like Cannes? I would hit that show every year AND consider buying property there.)

I wouldn’t go back to FIJ for one reason and one reason alone—FIJ is 3000% French. It was created by the French, caters to French gamers, celebrates French gaming culture, and almost every spoken word during the show was French. A better name for this show would be French Tabletop Convention because “International” in the current title is wildly misleading.

Everyone I met expressed shock that I was even at this show. The rep at Ludonaute, who scheduled 50 (FIFTY!) meetings across three-and-a-half days, said that I was the only non-French media and content creator she talked to, and we didn’t even do a formal meeting. (However, she was kind enough to send a list of Cannes restaurants, so big ups to Manon for that list!) All the other reps I met with said the same thing—FIJ is a very, almost completely, French-media-heavy show.

This French-on-French crime extended to the attendees. French gamers everywhere. None of the demo tables highlighted other languages available to learn the games. (As an example, SPIEL calls out tables that are German-only versus spoken English, with the occasional third language at some booths.) The games naturally cater to French audiences, but there was not a feeling of warmth towards those who were coming from other places. Even the games I saw for sale were French-only versions; it was very difficult finding games that had, say, German, English, or Spanish rulebooks included in the French versions of the games.

In many ways, I thank the organizers who approved my media badge, because I’m surprised the group was open to having non-French outlets cover the show.

Yes, this is the largest foosball table in the world!

Speaking of the badge, I had an interesting moment when I picked up my media credentials before the awards show. I tried out my broken French on the media team before I flipped to English to get a lanyard for my badge holder. “Will the awards show tonight be simulcast in other languages? Can I grab a headset that features someone translating? As an English speaker, will I know what is going on?”

The questions seemed to surprise the three people working the table. Why would we do that? said the faces discussing my idea.

“No,” they said. “But we will have someone providing sign language interpretation.” I thought this was a great touch from an accessibility perspective. But foreigners, at an “International” show? You’re on your own.

For French speakers who are ideally French natives? FIJ looked like it was a blast. While I had a good time, I will pivot to other international shows in the future, like the UK Games Expo and others recommended by our partners. I’m glad I took the time to see FIJ for myself!

About the author

Justin Bell

Love my family, love games, love food, love naps. If you're in Chicago, let's meet up and roll some dice!

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