I went to the Origins gaming convention for the first time this year. (Dani's been before and asked me to try it with him.) We chose games we've never played before that sounded interesting from their blurbs and BoardGameGeek pages. Here's a rundown on games we played:
Pathfinder Adventure Card Guild: Season of Factions' Favor: cooperative card-based adventure game. We've never played the Pathfinder RPG on which it's based. Solid meh.
Lancaster (Queen Games); worker-placement game with competition (your workers can kick others' weaker workers out). Shorter and less complex than Caylus, a game we want to like and usually like when we actually play it but we often resist playing it because of those factors. We bought a copy of Lancaster after playing once.
First Class: card-based train game that initially looked simple-minded but has some nuance to it. We enjoyed it and plan to buy it (didn't find it for sale there). The actual running of this game at the con was poor, but the game itself is good.
Aventuria Adventure Card Game: another cooperative card-based fantasy game. Ok but not novel; probably would have felt better a few years ago. I don't have strong memories from this now and might edit this entry after I refresh my memory at BoardGameGeek later.
Too Many Bones (Undertow): also a cooperative adventure game, futuristic this time and not card-based. You use dice to attack and defend against the monsters, and each character has specific skills which are also dice-based. We played through a scenario where the group had to make decisions along the way to fighting the big boss-monster. We ran out of time before the boss fight but had several others. The GM/teacher here was very active, treating it as more of a demo than an actual game session, which made it hard to evaluate. So dunno, maybe? Not a priority, but I'd play again. Also, the company has a very nice solution to the problem of needing to roll lots of dice without disrupting stuff on the table; this is way better than box lids. They're supposed to have their gizmo available for purchase in a couple weeks.
Mare Nostrum: Empires: we played Mare Nostrum once years ago and it didn't work well for us, but it's been redesigned since then so we signed up. Two things then happened: (1) we needed to resolve a scheduling conflict elsewhere, and (2) we saw the dread phrase "all expansions available" in the updated description. Piles of expansions tend to weaken games in both of our opinions, so we punted.
True Dungeon Adventures: this is sort of "live RPG" with abstracted mechanics and a lot of scenery and props. This deserves an entry of its own.
Sword & Sorcery (Ares Games): yet another cooperative fantasy game, this time with cards, miniatures, and a dungeon layout. They were apparently running a campaign (or at least a series of games) over several sessions, so we played "part 3" but it didn't matter that we didn't have the prior context. The characters (I played a dwarven cleric with a big-ass hammer) were well-balanced and play was not too complex. My character had a couple pieces of equipment and a healing spell, each of which was tracked with a card, which wasn't bad at all. Others were similar. I would play this again.
Railways of the World: tile-based train game where you build a network of tracks to move goods around the board. You start with no money and take out bonds as needed to build track and upgrade your engine. You pay interest on those bonds every turn, so you have to balance investment (at 20% interest per turn) against getting left behind while others build the stuff you wanted. Both Dani and I collected more bonds than the experienced player who was teaching us; that player interpreted the style as aggressive (it might have been more of "we don't know what we're doing") and said "I like the way you guys play". He won anyway, but not by a lot. We played on a map of Mexico. This game is more forgiving than Age of Steam and less complex than the 18xx games, which puts it right in our sweet spot. I want to get this.
Quest for the Antidote: the king and all of the players have been poisoned, and the goal is to be the first one to collect the ingredients needed for a cure and deliver them to the palace before you expire. The score counts down and is measured in "breaths". This sounded cute but turned out to be overly simplistic; probably good for families but it didn't do much for us.
Power Grid: yeah yeah, I know -- how have we gotten this far without ever having played Power Grid? We keep hearing good things about it but as far as I know nobody in our gaming group owns it. That will change as soon as we can order it (sold out at the con). Players are competing to power cities on a map (we played on a map of Germany). To do this you need power plants (which are auctioned), fuel unless you manage to get wind or hydro plants, and connected cities (which cost money). Each turn you get income based on how many cities you can power. We both enjoyed this game a lot, and I came within a few dollars of winning (which apparently impressed the GM). There are lots of maps available.
Evolution: you are playing and developing one or more species of animal. Everybody needs to eat, food is limited, and some species are carnivores which isn't much fun for the prey. Cards each have a numeric value and a trait; traits are things like "long-necked" (gets first shot at food others can't reach), "climbing" (protection from non-climbing carnivores), "body fat" (can store food), and, perhaps most important and fairly elusive, "intelligence" (which lets you get food in other ways). You use these cards either as their traits, as discards to improve your population or body size, as discards to start a new species, or -- one card per turn -- as your contribution to the watering hole (food), which is where the numbers matter. You can replace traits. I liked this game and felt it was what American Megafauna should have been; Dani was more lukewarm on it. This must be played on a table where everybody can easily see everybody ele's cards, which was not true of the large round table we played on.
Pulsar 2849: space exploration/colonization game with dice drafting. You have competing needs -- improve your technology, claim new galaxies, claim pulsars and use them to get power. When you choose dice that are either above or below the median roll for that round, you pay (or gain) position on your choice of two tracks, one that helps with technology and one that establishes turn order. This seemed like a well-balanced game; we ran out of time before finishing so we jumped to final scoring but missed some of the late-game stuff. I would play this again.
Freedom - the Underground Railroad (Academy Games): cooperative game set in 19th-century America. You are trying to move slaves from the plantations to the north and ultimately to Canada, but (almost) every time you move a slave, one of the slave-catchers moves in that direction. A new ship arrives every turn, and if there aren't enough open spaces in the plantation those slaves are lost. Your goal is to get a certain number to Canada before you lose a threshold number. (Or run out of cards, or some other losing conditions.) To move you need to buy "conductor" tokens, and to get money you need to do fundraising. You also need to pay support costs. There are also event cards. Each player has a (different) special ability. The game felt well-balanced (we barely won a beginner-calibrated game). We both liked it (Dani more so). I felt a little weird about the setting in a way that's hard to explain; it felt wrong to be playing a fantasy-hero game for recent horrific history that still affects people.
Flow of History (Grand Gaming Academy): card-based civilization-building game. Fairly light and quick. Acquiring improvements is a two-step process that other players can interrupt, so it's decently interactive. The ending felt rushed.
Dungeon Draft: punted so we could sleep in a little on Sunday. I guess it sounded good at the time we signed up, but last night we decided we didn't need yet another card-based dungeon game.
Atlantis Rising: the residents of Atlantis have angered the gods, who are responding by flooding the island. The players win if they can build a portal and escape before the whole island is gone. To build it, you need to gather resources from the tiles on the island. If the tile you're on floods, no resource for you (but you don't drown). The rate of flooding increases as the game goes on. Each player has some special ability. We won but not easily. I enjoyed it.