Hello! My name is Derek Thompson, and I’ve recently joined Chris Hecox in our Tabletop journey here at Geeks Under Grace. I’ve been writing for MeepleTown for the past five years, and played Magic: the Gathering an excessive amount before Settlers of Catan put me onto the board game craze. I’m a mathematics professor at Taylor University in Indiana, and it turns out math is a lot like a board game–just a list of rules on how to make moves–so it’s no surprise that I’ve taken so strongly to this “golden age” of board gaming. Thanks to those years playing Magic and an obsession with Dominion in graduate school, my favorite games are deck-builders and card-combos, followed closely by social deduction and party games like Resistance: Avalon and Codenames.
Chris and I both attended the 2016 Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio. I was only there for a day, but it was very exciting to talk to the people I already knew from MeepleTown about this new venture with Geeks Under Grace. I also got to check out a lot of new games and play in a tournament–and that’s the stuff you’re here for, right? So let’s get to it!
Codenames Pictures –I started off the morning by finding, to my complete and utter shock, an open demo table for Codenames Pictures. Codenames is easily the best game of 2015 in my mind, so I was very excited to check out this upcoming Gen Con release. I sat down with some folks and just started playing, as anyone who’s played Codenames can intuit how the new game works.
I found that this version was much easier and simpler than Codenames. For example, if two pictures had an item with a handle, you could simply use that word. Therefore, clues were much easier to do than the sometimes agonizing wordplay of the original game. This makes a much better game to play with kids, and a game with less downtime overall, but the ridiculous stretches you have to make in Codenames is what makes it such a fun game with adults. I’ll probably still pick it up, but, at this point, I prefer the original game more.
Imhotep – Speaking of Codenames, it’s one of the three nominees for this year’s Spiel des Jahres (the Game of the Year in Germany), and the biggest prize in board gaming. Its competitors are Karuba (review here) and Imhotep. That last one came as such a surprise to publisher, Thames and Kosmos, that they did not have nearly enough copies to sell for Origins, but fortunately they had a single copy left to demo. Although I only had a chance to play one round of the game, it was enough for me to clearly see that the game is excellent, and also that it probably will not win.
One “selling point” of the Spiel des Jahres is to have a game that parents can buy for their kids at Christmas, knowing they’ve bought an excellent game for the whole family. Imhotep has a lot of nasty, mean interaction between players, which is bound to get kids in big enough fights for mom or dad to take the game away. And as I mentioned above, Codenames is at its best when the wordplay gets crazy, something younger kids can’t yet do. Karuba is my current choice for the winner for this reason, as it’s a great game for kids. However, I still eagerly await my next chance to play Imhotep.
Evolution: the Beginning – North Star Games is best known for its party game, Wits and Wagers, and its many iterations, but a few years ago they launched a strategy games division and kicked it off with the game Evolution. As North Star has always taken the “shotgun” approach over the “machine gun” approach, they’ve continued to expand Evolution with two expansions (one a stand-alone), and now they have a new, streamlined version coming out called Evolution: the Beginning. This version has fewer traits and is almost purely a card game, aside from a few tokens. The game reps told me that the impetus for this version was that Target’s buyer loves Evolution, but said it was too complex for the common shopper (and I agree). This version will be exclusive for a year at Target, and then available at most hobby stores after that.
I’m glad Target had enough clout for their suggestion to be considered, because I think that Evolution: the Beginning is the best “evolution” (ha ha) of the game system yet. My general philosophy is that if a game can be streamlined and still be fun, it should be–and that’s exactly what happened here. As I told the developers about Geeks Under Grace, we also had an interesting side conversation about how Christian academic perspectives on evolution have changed over the last twenty years; it’s nice to be able to have those important discussions in the midst of a day that might not feel very “religious” to the other attendees.
Tyrants of the Underdark –The company, Gale Force Nine, now has the rights to distribute Dungeons & Dragons board games, and they’re starting with another game from the duo behind the incredible Lords of Waterdeep (check out Chris’s review here). Tyrants of the Underdark is set in the underworld of the Forgotten Realms universe, home to drow like the famous Drizzt Do’Urden. It combines deck-building with area control in a very natural way, and I loved how streamlined and elegant the rules were. It also had a lot of clever new ideas, like rewarding players with more victory points when they thin their deck, making for tough decisions about when to get rid of high-powered cards for more points. Unfortunately, we didn’t play a full game and it was not enough time for me to get a strong sense of how the area-control aspect would play out. The $75 MSRP (!) is too much for me to bite at this point, but I’m eager to play the game again.
Hero Realms – My favorite game is Star Realms from White Wizard Games, so it’s no surprise that I made sure to schedule a demo of Hero Realms before I even got to Origins. It was great timing that I also got to meet the other tabletop contributor (Chris Hecox) in the flesh for the first time as we played Hero Realms together. We played the basic game, which played very similarly to Star Realms, but with a higher power level and graphics similar to Epic, the other game currently available from White Wizard. What’s going to make Hero Realms very different from Star Realms are its expansions, which add unique character class decks and cooperative campaign play. I’m excited for those things (and trust the company enough to have already backed their Kickstarter), but what I got to see was just more Star Realms–and that’s okay by me! Speaking of…
The Star Realms Legends Tournament
I made sure to sign up for one event at Origins, which was the first in the Star Realms Legends series of tournaments. The winner got an iPad (or $500, their choice) and more importantly, got to design their own Star Realms card which will have their likeness on it! There were 48 players–much fewer than my old Magic days of up to 1000 players in a tournament. Rounds were only a single game, although the top eight matches were best-of-three. The designers of Star Realms are Magic hall-of-famers, so they know their way around a tournament, and it showed–the rounds were very quick and the tournament ran without a single hiccup.
Through some skill, but quite a bit of luck, I made it all the way to the finals of the tournament! The other finalist agreed to a split, with him getting $400 and me getting $100 and the card design (I really wanted it…). Then we played it out for bragging rights and I lost a nail-biter, so splitting was apparently a good move! It was certainly the highlight of the convention, along with meeting several other in-app players earlier in the day and going out to lunch. If you’re an avid Star Realms player, be sure to check out the great fan community page on Facebook.
Origins was a great time this year! It’s a doable, one-day trip from where I live in Indiana, and I even recouped my money in the tournament. If you’ve never been to a board game convention, Origins is a great place to start–it’s large enough for there to be plenty of events and vendors, but small enough that you can actually get to do the things you want to do. Of course, I’m quite excited for the chaos of Gen Con as well–and I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes!
I've been a board game reviewer since 2011. I love card-driven games and party games. I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics and teach the subject at Taylor University in Upland, IN. My wife and kids are my favorite gaming partners.
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