Justin Goes to Gen Con 2021 – A Roundup

Join Justin as he braves Gen Con 2021, the largest board game convention in North America, during COVID, and comes out unscathed and happy.

“Was Gen Con safe?”

This was the question asked by basically every gamer I know. In my humble opinion, Gen Con was as safe as it ever was; it was just harder to hear everyone because it’s tough to interview publishers through surgical masks!

Many people felt gathering thousands of people in a convention hall could not be safe, no matter the circumstances. Luckily many others disagreed, which resulted in Gen Con 2021, the first large-scale gaming convention since the beginning of 2020.

Gen Con event organizers took a firm, sometimes aggressive stance to ensure mask wearing was legitimate—and as a person who was on the ground, I’m happy to share that proper masking was almost everywhere.

This led to possibly my favorite Gen Con ever. How was this possible?

Getting back to Coney Island is going to be interesting! (The Warriors: Come Out to Play, Funko Games)

“I Haven’t Thrown an Elbow All Day”

Mask coverage was such a non-issue, with sanitizer stations positioned just often enough throughout the convention hall, that this is the last section in the article where I will address masking. Inside the Indiana Convention Center, attendees took masks very seriously and even now I’m surprised how well guests adhered to “the rules.”

Here’s what really trumped the masks: the crowd was half the size of recent Gen Cons, especially on Thursday and Friday.

Imagine being able to walk around the main exhibitor hall with your kids, and not having to worry about losing sight of them.

Imagine being able to walk right up to a demo table and sit down, even at one of the “hot” game demos. (I literally did this: I walked right up to the demo for Return to Dark Tower, the $4 million Kickstarter campaign by Restoration Games, designed by Rob Daviau, Isaac Childres and others.)

You know the big gold rush that happens at 10 AM EST on day one of Gen Con, when everyone pretends to not run, but then starts running, to their booth of choice to buy a game? There was none of that to be seen because the “crowds” to get in were moving at such a leisurely pace.

Not once during this convention did I get bumped by a stranger, or have to politely shove anyone out of the way to keep the traffic moving, or stand in a demo crowd 10-deep to try and hear a rules overview. Those food trucks near the Pan Am Tower, outside of the convention hall? At 6 PM on day one, there was no line at 75% of the trucks.

You get the point. For Gen Con, the place was dead. And I absolutely loved it! Or, maybe more accurately, I hate much of the jostling that takes place each time I come to Gen Con. Usually, after even one day of it, I loathe having to navigate a large crowd or the choke points at some of the busier conference floor intersections.

The running joke for the people in my group? “Man, I haven’t had to throw an elbow all day!” Clearing space is unnecessary if there’s never an issue getting around. I sort of feel bad for the people who attended their first Gen Con this year; now, those people believe this size of crowd is normal. Ha!

Oh, it was “juicy” alright. (Juicy Fruits, Capstone Games)

How Was the Space?

Gen Con’s exhibition team did a great job of spreading out the vendors in attendance, as well as setting up intentionally dead areas of the show floor. There were spots to sit in the middle of the action, plus many benches available to take a break throughout the convention hall.

However, there were also fewer games being marketed throughout the Indiana Convention Center. Usually there are hanging banners, standing banners, temporary floor ads, and just a ton of ads EVERYWHERE in the main walking spaces. But there was much less of the over-the-top nature of the marketing at Gen Con 2021.

While there were fewer of the big publishers this year—and fewer of the mid-sized publishers too—there was still plenty to see and do with the publishers who did come to Gen Con.

The buzz among people in my game group and other attendees I spoke with confirms that the game business is still booming, even if heavy hitters like Asmodee (which includes Fantasy Flight), Paizo, CMON, Z-Man and others decided to skip this year’s convention. That’s because so many great publishers did make an appearance with plenty of games to show off.

Ravensburger was there. Pandasaurus Games was there. So, too, were Renegade Game Studios, Czech Games Edition, Goliath Games, Kosmos, Games Workshop (Warhammer), and many more. Plus, there were dozens of smaller publishers present; this gave me the chance to take a closer look at games I might otherwise skip in a busier year.

And boy, were all of those publishers, designers, marketing teams, and volunteers excited to talk to the media and general attendees about games! A number of them spoke specifically about being done with marketing a new game through Tabletop Simulator or another digital medium. After 18+ months of trying to win our hearts by asking players to click on the “roll dice” feature, putting meeples, cards, miniatures and player mats into the hands of end users was priority number one for the hobby-producing business.

Speaking of which: how were the games?

Gridopolis will be featured in an upcoming review; the game was just named a Mensa Select winner for 2021

The Games (and the Global Shipping Crisis)

I only played one full game during Gen Con this year: Brick and Mortar, which my colleague Brody previewed last year. The designer, Nick McCollum, came to Gen Con and gave backers the chance to see the finished product while playing in a game with him. And, as he promised, this “cutthroat” game of market manipulation was certainly cutthroat; I got demolished in my first playthrough. (Thanks, Nick!)

I spent the rest of my convention demoing games, talking to other gamers, speaking with other content creators, and getting the scoop on what’s ahead. All of this was framed by the global shipping crisis, in part because so many of the exhibitors who did come to Gen Con came with less stuff than normal. Fewer games, sure, but in some cases no supply of upcoming games, fewer prototypes than I am used to seeing, and fewer accessories. (Although, not Wyrmwood, quite possibly the premier game furniture and accessories line in the business; I swear they brought almost every game table they have ever designed to Gen Con this year.)

I got my hands on quite a few games, and I got my eyeballs on quite a few more!

Furnace, designed by Ivan Lashin (Smartphone Inc.), is out now from Arcane Wonders and I saw a consistent crowd at the demo tables throughout the weekend. Furnace lands somewhere between Splendor and Gizmos in terms of complexity and design, with an engine builder built to end the game with the most cash.

I visited the CGE space to try out Expedition Leaders, the upcoming expansion for Lost Ruins of Arnak, and while demo copies were limited to just one available to play (one, total!), I was able to watch part of a playthrough with the new player powers and asymmetrical starting decks. A friend of mine has played the base game over 70 times, so there are clearly players out there looking for expansion content; clearly, this expansion is the one to beat when it debuts at Essen next month. CGE also provided a copy of the updated version of Galaxy Trucker for review; be on the lookout for that review in the coming weeks.

Goliath Games is looking to compete in the Cold Case/Exit/Unlock! space with Unsolved Case Files, a new series where players can team up to tackle one-time mysteries solo or with a small group. We’ll have an upcoming review of their Rummikub 6-Player Special Edition, plus a couple of other party games due to hit late this year and early 2022.

Deep Water Games (Fantastic Factories, Welcome To…) has a full slate of games coming in 2022. Rat Queens: To the Slaughter is high on everyone’s lists, but I think the sequel to Floor Plan, Floor Plan: The Winchester Mystery House, and Sovereign Suns, the sequel to Sovereign Skies, will both be winners. I’ll also be reviewing their new release 7 Summits soon!

Keep ’em coming, Pandasaurus Games!

We are big fans of Pandasaurus Games here at Meeple Mountain (The Loop, Wild Space, Umbra Via); one of their upcoming releases is That Time You Killed Me. The combination of a designer who is a screenwriter—Peter Hayward—with the cool time-travel elements in the game have me very excited to see where that one will shake out. In addition to expansion content for The Loop due next year, Machi Koro 2 and Dinosaur World had significant energy from attendees I spoke with on the second day of the show.

IELLO is debuting their IELLO Expert line of games with Khora: Rise of an Empire. I watched part of a single round during a demo playthrough and I’m already excited to put that one on my table later this month. While IELLO has mainly served the casual and family gaming space, IELLO Expert promises to diversify the catalog with some interesting mid-weight entries. IELLO also previewed the retheme of Biblios, called For the King (And Me), and if you are a fan of Biblios you are already clicking somewhere to pre-order!

One last note from IELLO: King of Tokyo is turning 10 years old, so King of Tokyo: Monster Box will arrive in time for the holidays.

The Adventures of Robin Hood and Anno 1800 were displayed at the Kosmos tables in the open gaming halls; the former has already won or been nominated for many different awards, so the buzz on that one continues to skyrocket. Anno 1800 has a rather intimidating market board, but once the gameplay gets rolling, rules and actions are very easy to fathom and execute.

One game from Kosmos we were not able to demo: The Crew: Mission Deep Sea. The base game of The Crew is the greatest “filler” game of all time, so we are very excited to provide more information on the sequel soon.

Meeples vs. Monsters, from AEG

AEG gave content creators the chance to preview four games in physical form at Gen Con; I’ll comment on 3 of them here:

  • Meeples vs. Monsters, which uses an Orléans-style bag-building mechanic to trigger actions around a shared game board while players upgrade their starting characters to become powerful enough to help slay four different enemies to win. This has a more classic Euro feel while featuring a silly, approachable art style and quick playtime.
  • The Guild of the Merchant Explorers: I’ll admit, when the AEG marketing team did a brief overview of this game, it did not sound interesting. Then I played two rounds and did a complete 180; I want to play a full game but this very light design seems to have a lot of ways to change tactics to build trade routes across a map to score points, discover treasure and build villages and monuments to win. I had thoughts about how a game like Hansa Teutonica influenced the design of this game; The Guild of the Merchant Explorers is in prototype form, but the guts of a very interesting game are there. This game seems like it will play just as well solo as it will against other opponents.
  • Rolling Heights: collectively, Meeple Mountain was not a fan of the game Quetzal, in part because of a mechanic tied to rolling wooden meeples. In Quetzal, this did not work. When AEG’s team began to discuss Rolling Heights, which also features rolled meeples, I was pleased to learn what these meeples are made of: acrylic! Rolling Heights is a city-building game with elements of scoring and physical appearance in line with games like High Rise and Embarcadero. I did not play Rolling Heights but the table presence is excellent.

I got to watch a few turns of the new game Caesar!, from the same designer and publisher (PSC Games) as Blitzkrieg!, an excellent game which I previously owned. Caesar! looks like it will be just as strong as Blitzkrieg!, with area control mechanics still at the core of the victory conditions.

I just hope Funko Games captures the soul of Jeff Goldblum for the Jurassic World legacy games!

“We are WAY more than POP!” And so began my meeting with Funko Games, the former Prospero Hall label, and I’m starting to see why. Funko is more than just toys, and in the last 2 years, they have absolutely crushed putting out well-received, movie/TV/comic-licensed game content (Groundhog Day: The Game, Pan Am, Funkoverse Strategy Game, Fast and Furious: Highway Heist) and that trend looks like it will continue.

Funko’s hottest Gen Con release was The Rocketeer: Fate of the Future (I mean, The Rocketeer!!!) and the game seemed to be selling like hotcakes at the booth. I’ll be writing a review of The Rocketeer: Fate of the Future soon, along with The Goonies: Never Say Die, because I want to find out for myself: is Funko Games for real? (We may produce a separate piece only on Funko Games; they will be releasing at least 40 games in 2022, an eye-popping number. That will include two of their biggest games: The Warriors: Come Out to Play, and a legacy game based on the world of Jurassic Park movies. Also, apparently a game with tie-ins rhyming with the word “schmarvel” might be in there too!)

Return to Dark Tower was on display at the Restoration Games booth, and the physical components look excellent. Co-designer Isaac Childres (Gloomhaven) was in attendance, which added to the buzz. And while it wasn’t shown at the Restoration booth, I’m very excited to hear that Restoration is working on a Crossbows & Catapults reboot; TBD on release date.

One of my hot picks in our Gen Con preview was Velocity: Vanguard, the first game from Precarious Games. Now that I have seen it, I know the game will be gorgeous and the ship movement elements—mixed with space combat, ship upgrades, and various solo, co-op and competitive missions—have me pumped to see what is next. Velocity: Vanguard (which certainly has elements of other massive-scale space operas like Eclipse: Second Dawn for the Galaxy and the upcoming Voidfall) won’t release to Kickstarter backers until 2023, but I’m kicking myself for not backing it already!

Although it is not new, I spoke to multiple Gen Con attendees who have never played Cosmic Frog; Devious Weasel Games is on its third print run of the game and it continues to sell at a rapid clip. The demo at the Devious Weasel booth was packed each time I walked by, and copies sold out almost immediately!

Devir showed off LUNA Capital; the production for the price is out of this world. The Red Cathedral, Mazescape and Paris: La Cité de la Lumière are all great games from Devir; Devir is becoming a real destination for solid gameplay in small packages.

Decorum, Floodgate Games

Floodgate Games showed up a preview copy of Vivid: Memories, which if anything else was a fantastic-looking production; the Floodgate game that I’m really looking forward to is Decorum. Announced on day 2 of Gen Con, Decorum is being dubbed as “a game of passive aggressive cohabitation” where players cooperate to decorate their home while holding secret goals that need to be achieved while decorating their home. Decorum features campaign elements to slowly change how the game is played, adding a lot of replayability to the base game. The art style is bright and beautiful and I can see this one being great as a game for my wife and I, at least until we fight over how our real house is decorated!!

I spent a lot of time at the WizKids booth; the games currently available paled a bit in comparison to what is coming up soon. I can’t share details of all of it, but I can confirm that Clash of Cultures: Monumental Edition has a production quality that is just filthy. (Filthy good, that is.) 300+ minis and the way some of these minis fit together is just amazing. That one will hit in October. Also, the design for Dungeon Scrawlers (get it?) is really unique—a real-time dungeon-racing game that features 10 maps in the box and almost unlimited expansion content which will certainly be made available if this concept takes off. Free Radicals was the WizKids game I wanted to get my hands on but prototypes were still in route (yes, another reference to the global shipping crisis!). And Sidereal Confluence is getting an expansion: Bifurcation, which will expand play by providing alternates to the factions in the base game.

And those are only the games that I got to see or talk about! Even in a so-called depressed year, there were games everywhere and I wish there were five of me to tour the floor to discover more gems.

The detail of the minis in Clash of Cultures: Monumental Edition is phenomenal

Diversity: Firmly on the Agenda

I am a 46-year-old Black man. Suffice it to say during previous visits to Gen Con, I floated somewhere between the minority and the vast minority when considering the racial and ethnic makeup of the crowd.

2021 was interesting, because I noticed something—and this was easier to grasp because there were fewer people in attendance. There were definitely more Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) walking the floor. Gen Con has generally had more women than other gaming events I have visited; between RPG events, volunteer staffing, cosplay activities, and non-gamers visiting with their families, we need more women in the hobby but Gen Con isn’t as lacking in regards to gender balance.

But as it relates to racial and ethnic inclusion, accessibility and the like, Gen Con is beginning to change, albeit slightly. 

My favorite moment of this year’s event came during my media check-in; an older Causasian man greeted me while adjusting his Trump/Pence “koozie” beverage holder, sitting next to a woman who had 3-4 brilliant streaks of different hair colors, was fully inked and was significantly younger than her male counterpart.

“Pronoun badge?” the man offered. When I stumbled on how to apply my “He/Him” sticker to the bottom of my press badge, he kindly offered to show me where to start peeling off the adhesive.

This is why I love gamers! It’s a potpourri of people coming together to celebrate play, and no matter what your background, your political leanings, your home city, your taste in games or any other defining characteristic, Gen Con attendees are generally world-class in the friendliness department and this year was no exception.

And that focus on inclusive behavior didn’t stop in the press room.

Many of the exhibitors I spoke to brought up designs meant to push boundaries beyond the traditional characters, subjects and worlds we are used to seeing in hobby gaming. I had an incredible conversation with the team at Deep Water Games about how aggressively they are considering representation in all of the 8-10 games they are releasing in 2022.

What’s incredible about Deep Water is how good they have already been with inclusion in their designs; I am an owner of Floor Plan and was impressed with their approach to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in that game, which basically only has a few cards to serve as scoring goals for that roll-and-write affair.

In speaking with the team at Arcane Wonders about Furnace, I was struck by a decision made by the design team late in its development: 2 of the 5 Capitalist cards were changed from white characters to Black characters to ensure players had more choices during the setup process.

Anno 1800 (Kosmos) had similar discussions as it considered the mix of depictions on the Population cards. Key to the Kingdom (Restoration Games) has a mix of cards and playable characters that feature various ethnicities and a nice gender balance. The expansion for Lost Ruins of Arnak features a handsome mix of options too.

It is fantastic to see the efforts being made by publishers to change some of these supposedly minor details to draw in all types of players to their games.

Don’t worry, Warhammer fans…super-sized dudes with large weapons still made an appearance!

Gen Con is Still Gen Con (Thank Goodness!)

On the bus ride back to Chicago, I had to admit: I wish more of my friends and Meeple Mountain colleagues had chosen to come to the convention.

Sure, that would have meant a bigger crowd, in a year where I specifically had more fun because the crowd was so much smaller. But the event was safe, it featured plenty of chances for interaction with publishers and their games, and after spending so much time playing games I love through virtual venues, it was just fantastic to sit at a Game Topper, roll some dice and chat with strangers (ahem, future friends!) about all of the great games hitting the market in the next few months.

The future is bright, with conventions of all sizes slowly coming back: Origins in just a few days, then Essen, BGG Con and PAX Unplugged all in the next 2+ months. Be sure to check out our coverage of each show in future Meeple Mountain features hitting soon!

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!

1 Comment

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  • Really nicely written summary! I especially appreciated your perspective on diversity efforts. I’ve not yet had the opportunity to attend a GenCON, but that portion helps provide me comfort when thinking about attending future events.

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