By John O’Neill
Every year the game industry gathers at the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA) Trade Show in Las Vegas, Nevada — the industry’s biggest and longest-running trade event, where publishers showcase their most exciting upcoming products for retailers and other insiders. It’s the place to be to see the best and most innovative new science fiction, fantasy, and hobby games — including board games, miniatures, role playing games, collectible card games, and much more.
This year Black Gate publisher and editor John O’Neill walked the floor of the exhibition hall, talking to over fifty companies set to launch a wide variety of fantasy titles, including the giant-monster themed collectible miniatures game Monsterpocalypse from Privateer Press, post-apocalyptic slug-fest Dust Tactics from Fantasy Flight, Wizard’s Gambit from intriguing newcomer Gryphon Forge, and his personal favorite: CthulhuTech from Mongoose Publishing, which pits mighty Cthulhu against giant fighting robots, 100 years in the future.
Read on for John’s extensive report on the very best fantasy games of 2008!
Last time I visited the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA) trade show in 2001, it was at the dawn of the d20 era. I held my first d20 products that week – Green Ronin’s Death in Freeport, Privateer Press’ Witchfire: The Longest Night, and Paradigm Concepts’ Blood Reign of Nishanpur – and the whole show was abuzz with excitement over a new licensing opportunity that would eventually re-make the entire role-playing industry, spawning nearly a hundred vibrant new companies eager to take advantage of a free license to the core D&D ruleset.
Seven years later the vast majority of those companies are dead and gone, and the once proud RPG industry is in a deep slump. The buzz at this show was on whether the slump was finally over, and much of the talk at dinner and in the aisles was around who would be next to get a pdf product out to grab another chunk of the only growing segment out there, small as it may be: Internet publishing.
There are bright spots. The imminent release of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons from Wizards of the Coast (which arrived to considerable fanfare on June 6) was expected to breathe some life into the moribund paper-RPG industry. And board games seem to be experiencing a minor renaissance of sorts – folks in the know were whispering that Fantasy Flight, the largest maker of fantasy board games, took home $8 million last year.
One of the first things to catch my eye was a headline on the cover of industry mag Icv2 Guide to Games: “Hobby Games Continue Turnaround!” Publisher Milton Griepp had this to say inside:
“The news this year is relatively good, as the recovery from the decline of 2003-2005 continues. There’s definitely a category shift underway however, as board games continue their growth in the channel and RPGs continued their decline.”
The Fantasy Flight booth at the show reflected this shift in the market – it was one of the largest, and certainly the most eye-catching, at the show. It didn’t hurt that it had plenty of titles to interest Black Gate readers either, such as Dust Tactics, add-on to their 1950s post-apocalypse wargame Dust, and the upcoming Age of Conan boardgame.
Of course, some things haven’t changed. As I checked into Bally’s I was handed a slick color brochure for hotel show Jubilee!, promising “Hundreds of Thousands of Rhinestones Covering Practically Nothing.” While GAMA attendees whispered in excitement about an $8 million windfall for Fantasy Flight, two corridors over a marquee invited people into this “$50 million topless musical extravaganza.” Different fantasies for different folks, indeed. Welcome to Vegas, baby.
I spent over eight hours walking the GAMA show floor, talking to dozens of game manufacturers, scribbling notes, and taking photos with my wife’s digital camera. For an industry that’s supposed to be in a slump, there’s an embarrassment of riches for SF and fantasy fans. Let’s get started.
One of the more modest booths at the show, but one nonetheless packed with terrific products – and more than a few surprises – was Mongoose Publishing. The game that caught my eye immediately (indeed, one of the most eye-catching items at the entire show) was CthulhuTech, an absolutely gorgeous full-cover hardcover. The first printing sold out almost immediately, but Mongoose VP Matthew Sprange assured me copies would be available in a matter of weeks. He was also showing the first supplement, Dark Passions, due in June. When I asked him to sum up the concept behind the game, Matthew described it as the Cthulhu Mythos 100 years in the future – with giant fighting robots.
That explains why I haven’t been able to find a copy. Cthulhu and giant robots? It’s like peanut butter and jelly… they were made for each other. “The concept’s pretty solid,” Matthew said with a smile.
Mongoose’s reputation has been built in large part on the Conan RPG, which is still going strong – with 25 releases for the first edition, and seven (so far) for the second. I could have spent the rest of my time in the booth just looking at them, but what caught my eye next was a new edition of one of the great RPG classics: Traveller, back in print in a handsome hardcover. Based on the classic rules and streamlined for the 21st century, Traveller is available now.
Will Mongoose be offering additional Traveller products? “Lots of them,” says Matthew – including 760 Patrons, The Spinward Marches, and the long out-of-print Belt Strike, “completely re-written as a new campaign,” he promises.
Traveller was the first great science fiction RPG, with a clean and simple rules system and a solid setting, heavily inspired by the SF of the fifties and sixties, with a galaxy-spanning human Imperium and a rich assortment of alien races. There have been a lot of versions since it first appeared over thirty years ago, including a few computer games and a recent GURPS incarnation from Steve Jackson Games. How is this one going to maintain the high standard of the original? “[Original creator] Marc Miller oversees everything,” explains Matthew – great news indeed for true Traveller fans.
That was certainly enough for any one publisher – any my notebook was already starting to fill up – but Matthew wasn’t done. Next he proudly showed me the latest products for their new Runequest line, another resurrected classic from the Golden Age of role playing.
“Runequest is the core system for all our fantasy games,” Matthew says. “We hung Elric and Hawkmoon off of it.” Elric and Hawkmoon are Moongoose’s other fantasy games, licensed from the work of Michael Moorcock. As someone who still cherishes his original copies of those games – first released by original Runequest publisher Chaosium over two decades ago – this is great news.
Matthew promises lots of support material for Runequest, including Land of the Samurai and Monsters II. “[Original creator] Greg Stafford overseas absolutely everything,” he says.
Want to hear more? Mongoose Publishing’s free online magazine Signs & Portents is the best way to keep up with news on all these games – as well as their other RPG products, such as Babylon 5, Paranoia, and Lone Wolf. With a readership of 60,000, Signs & Portents is one of the most popular and respected publications in the industry, and is well worth your time.
Mongoose was a hard act to follow. Who can compete with Cthulhu and giant robots?
Fortunately, the next booth I visited was one of the best of the show – and not just because they had a 12-foot inflatable monster towering over it to promote their upcoming Monsterpocalypse game. Okay, maybe it was. I mean, come on. 12-foot inflatable monster? Give it up.
When I think of Privateer Press, I immediately think of their highly respected Iron Kingdoms steampunk RPG and miniatures line – which is still going strong, supported by No Quarter, their bi-monthly magazine. “No Quarter is carrying the torch for that,” explained Marketing Coordinator Bobby Stickel as he showed off the latest miniatures.
I’ve been intrigued and impressed by Iron Kingdoms since it was first introduced in Witchfire: The Longest Night – one of the three d20 products I held in my hands on my first trip to GAMA in 2001. The Witchfire Trilogy of adventure modules was reviewed by Don Bassingthwaite way back in Black Gate 3. “Witchfire has an unusual setting in the Iron Kingdoms,” he noted, “a fantasy world on the verge of a technological revolution – characters can have pistols, ride aboard steamboats, encounter giants of metal and magic called “steamjacks” and so forth.”
The Iron Kingdoms setting eventually gave birth to one of the most popular line of fantasy miniatures on the market, and Andrew Zimmerman Jones picked up the thread in a lengthy feature in BG 10:
“One of the richest, most story-driven campaign settings I’ve come across in the last decade is Privateer Press’ Iron Kingdoms: Full Metal Fantasy, which mixes high fantasy with an age of industrial revolution. Here arcane magic is gradually moving from the realm of mysticism to science, and magical items are being replaced with elaborate mechanicka… Mechanika devices are more versatile than magic items, with components that can be bought, sold, stolen, added, removed, and upgraded over time, allowing for the creation of powerful devices, like the towering warjacks. In 2003 the Warmachine miniature war game line was introduced… the miniature game is wildly popular, so much so that Privateer Press has had trouble filling orders since Gencon 2005, when a two-hour line formed to view the upcoming miniature game Hordes.”
Cool. But let’s cut to the chase. What the heck is Monsterpocalypse? And how do I get one of those super-cool monster minis?
Monsterpocalypse is giant-monster themed collectible miniatures game. Attackers from beyond space and time, or arising from beneath the lands and oceans, have arrived among us – with some serious attitude. A host of towering beasties and their hordes of minions rampage through downtown Tokyo, Manhattan, and other famous monster-prone settings, leveling buildings, smashing cars, and pursuing their own mysterious goals. Sorta like the last five minutes of a Power Rangers episode.
The action takes place on a variety of colorful boards, representing destructible urban landscapes. Bobby Stickel tells us: “There are different factions – the giant robot faction, alien monster faction, and giant Cthulhu monster faction.” Bobby claims this approach has brought in a lot more interest.
Well, duh. Godzilla versus Cthulhu? Yeah, baby.
If Monsterpocalypse and CthulhuTech are any indication, clearly giant Cthulhu games have come of age. With luck, they’ll bring some interest in from a broader base of customers, too.
“I want to market these to giant monster fans outside the hobby industry,” Bobby said, showing me one of the collectible miniatures. “And that will help grow our community. To the retailer, that is all new customers.”
Whatever the target market, Monsterpocalypse looks great. It will be released after Gencon, and you can get a peek at some of the factions and minis at the preview website.
After all this giant Cthulhu action, I was ready to bring it down a notch with something more traditional. Fortunately, that’s just what my next stop offered: Wizard’s Gambit from Gryphon Forge is a fast-paced non-collectible card game for 2 to 5 players, with an easy-to-grasp premise and simple but compelling rules. Players are wizards competing to claim spells for their spell books; spells can be used immediately as they accumulate pages. Players can also cast Incantations, special actions that directly affect play, helping to both win spells and to smackdown your fellow players. In the later stages of the game, players wheel and deal in a political phase to increase their power.
Matthew Stires set up a game for me, and walked me through the action. It looked simple and fun, but it was the political phase that really looked like it would give the game legs. Any game that allows you to use both spells and sure-footed political maneuvering to put the screws to your friends is okay by me. Wizard’s Gambit is available now; more info is at their website.