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A Week at the Game Manufacturers Association Expo 2024

The Game Manufacturers’ Association is a professional organization for game retailers, publishers, distributors, media, and more to collaborate towards an equitable and flourishing future for the industry. Every year they hold an Expo where publishers reveal the year’s biggest releases, professionals network in peer-to-peer seminars, and everyone comes together to play games and have a great time.

After several years in Reno, this year’s GAMA Expo was held in a larger venue in Louisville, Kentucky which allowed more publishers, retailers, and media to attend the event than ever before. I was attending on behalf of Games of Berkeley—my day job—and participating in some incredible workshops on marketing, wandered the exhibition hall, and presented my own seminar on social media fundamentals for retailers. I packed a lot into one week, so below are just the highlights of some of the coolest things I saw.

Life In Reterra

Let’s get started with the big one. A few weeks ago Hasbro and designer Eric Lang announced their decisive release of the year: Life in Reterra. It is a light, family-friendly tile drafting and placement game about building a settlement. Lang considers it “among (his) strongest designs ever,” and has upsold the innovation of how the game blurs the line between “mass market” and “hobby” games.

I somehow managed to maneuver my way into a seat at a demonstration of the game led by Lang at one of the Expo’s game nights. My initial thoughts are mixed. On one hand, it is as advertised. The game is approachable, easy to learn, and really really fun. It has slightly more moving parts than other games that have made the hobby-to-mass-market jump, so I don’t see it getting as much market penetration as, say, Catan or Ticket to Ride.

On the other hand, I think the hype that this game will revolutionize the industry is undercut by the fact that it will be a Target exclusive product on launch. Lang has advocated for progress in the gaming industry his whole career, but to see his self-proclaimed seminal work essentially be a corporate pocket-liner is extremely disappointing.

Gateway Island

A grid map, two rulebooks, and small sheets with minigames on them on a black table
Gateway Island components

Van Ryder Games, the makers of Final Girl, were showcasing a game that I hope gets a lot of attention this Summer. Gateway Island is actually 21 mini games in one, each focusing on a different common gameplay mechanic—push your luck, worker placement, resource management, etc. The mini games all play in about 15 minutes and utilize the same bits and components—not much more than a handful of chips, tokens, and wooden blocks.

The makers took this teachability a step further. The rulebook for Gateway Island also includes suggestions of other tabletop games the players may enjoy if they enjoyed a particular mini game. For example, after the mini game focusing on deception, players are pointed towards One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Avalon. And Van Ryder partnered with dozens of other publishers to put their games in the book in an impressive collaborative effort.

I hope that this project works and gets into the hands of as many gamers as possible, so they can play these mini games with their non-gamer friends to get them hooked. Plus at a retail value of just about $25, this is such an affordable way of teaching and learning board games.

A Conversation with Drew Wehrle

Drew stands behind the Wehrlegig Games booth at GAMA Expo 2024
Drew Wehrle

The brothers Cole and Drew Wehrle at Wehrlegig games craft the most immersive and authoritative historical games on the market. Pax Pamir—a tableau-building game about competing coalitions in the aftermath of the collapse of the Durrani Empire in 19th century Afghanistan—is a masterpiece that uses interlaced gameplay to narrate mosaic and complicated historical events.

It was such a pleasure to drop by the Werhlegig booth in the Exhibitors’ Hall and chat with Drew about ways of stepping up to help organizations like GAMA create meaningful ethics codes for reviews and game media, and about the intersection of academia and board gaming. He told me to be on the lookout for their next title, Molly House, releasing later this year and teased a few other upcoming projects as well.

Game components spready out on a large black table in front of a red box that reads John Company
John Company game components


This is another forthcoming Reiner Knizia game that falls on the heavier side of his tendencies. The game is beautiful, with gorgeous illustrations from Bartek Jędrzejewski that appear like classical watercolor paintings on a faded canvas. HUANG is a strategy game set in the Warring States period of ancient China, with each player representing a different faction in the conflict competing to unite the country under their dynasty.

Although fitting the aesthetic of the components inside—and the components do look and feel nice, especially the neoprene mat that comes in the deluxe box—the box cover leaves everything to the imagination. I wish the production designers would have showcased the stunning artwork on the game board somewhere on the outside of the box.

Windmill Valley board colorful board and components on a table
Windmill Valley board

Windmill Valley

Another bright and colorful game, Windmill Valley from publisher Board & Dice was opposite Huang at GTS Distribution’s table in the Exhibitor Hall. The two presented an attractive juxtaposition: both vibrant, one very classy, the other splashy. Windmill Valley is a medium weight engine building game from Dani Garcia, set in 19th century Netherlands on the famous Bloemen Route. Players will engage in worker placement, market manipulation, and worker placement to enhance the output of their windmills and create a successful tulip farm.

The centerpiece of the game is a functional dual gear that impacts the actions players can take at a certain time and the benefits they can gain from taking those actions. And who doesn’t like a good functional component? Of all the games I saw at the show, this is the one I was most disappointed that I missed out on demo’ing. Very early reviews say there’s a good deal of player interaction, so I’m curious how the solo variant is built.

Windmill Valley wooden windmill tokens colored wooden windmills on a colorful game board
Windmill Valley wooden windmill tokens

Things in Rings

Things in Rings is a party game from Allplay that is clever but silly, subjective but logical. Three rings form a venn diagram, with each circle representing a different characteristic: material, spelling, context, etc. Only “The Knower” knows the specific characteristic for each ring. Players take turn guessing each characteristic by placing object cards inside one of the venn areas. If their object correctly satisfies the characteristics of all the circle areas it is inside, they get to place again, if not The Knower moves their card to the correct location—which could be completely outside the venn diagram!

By placing cards correctly or incorrectly into these circles, players are sleuthing out what the specific characteristic of each circle is. The use of a venn diagram for this game makes it particularly challenging to use cards to suss out the properties of a single circle. It says it can play up to six players, but this is the type of game I can see a crowd of people gathered around at a party. It’s a step above other play and judge-the-answer kinds of games and can easily be freshened up by adding new characteristic and object options. 

Four cads in a hand with charicature pictures that read pillow, banana, napkin
Things in Rings object cards

Final Thoughts

This is only a sample-size selection of the many games I got to see and enjoy at the show. And the year ahead has me feeling energized. I feel like most of what I saw was original, which is a stark contrast to the past few shows I’ve been to where preview rooms were dominated by cutesy reskins of extant works. More effort is clearly being given to make medium-weight games more approachable and playable. Designers and producers alike are concerned with playability beyond hobby gamers and they’re devising clever thematic and gameplay experiences to deliver that.

GAMA Expo is one of my favorite conventions because I get a much different engagement with the games compared to a gamers convention (like Gen Con). Publishers aren’t just showing games to enthusiastic gamers, but to retailers who will also be carrying and selling their games, so the conversation—the pitch—is different. The facilitators and demo hosts highlight unique qualities of the games that make them marketable and innovative, attending to consumer habits, shelf appeal, and other factors that otherwise wouldn’t come across if they were angling just for the folks playing the games. On one hand, it’s a more commercial contextualization of games. But I think it also leads to deeper engagement with the product, opening up valuable conversations about components and supply chain, artwork and ethics, and so much more.



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