ASTRA 2014: A Virtual Tour for the Casual Gamer | Casual Game Revolution

ASTRA 2014: A Virtual Tour for the Casual Gamer

ASTRA Marketplace & Academy

ASTRA, the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association, is a non-profit association dedicated to serving the specialty toy industry. They hold an annual convention called ASTRA Marketplace & Academy in which many toy and game manufacturers and retailers come together for a few days to enjoy mingling in a relaxed atmosphere — a far cry from the rushed hustle and bustle of the New York Toy Fair. This year's event took place in Phoenix from June 8-11, 2014.

For casual game publishers, the available markets are split between the toy and hobby gaming industries and, due to steep marketing costs, a choice must usually be made between the two. Thus, many of the publishers at ASTRA could just as easily exhibit at a gaming convention like Gen Con or Origins. However, none of these shows are focused on the primary audience of casual gamers, leaving publishers frustrated — but that's where we come in.

As an industry event, the doors are closed to the public, leaving little opportunity for casual gamers to get a glimpse of the new products being pitched by the publishers. Fortunately, the kind folks at ASTRA granted yours truly a media pass with free rein to wander the floor and scope out the products that caught my eye. I was a man on a mission, weeding through the vast array of fluffy dolls, transportation toys, and building blocks to target the best in casual gaming fare. And disappointed I was not — much of what I found at the show was far more than Disney trivia or math games. What's more, there seemed to be fewer attendees than exhibitors — so few, in fact, that on the second day most of the exhibitors seemed rather bored. This left me plenty of opportunity to learn and play many of the games on display.

Many well-known game publishers were at the show, ranging from Out of the Box and Mattel to Mayfair, IELLO, and Asmodee. There were also quite a few publishers that I hadn't previously had the opportunity to meet, some of which offer a compelling line of casual games. In general, there was a rather predictable trend of word games, stacking/dexterity games, trivia games, and speed games — while some were rather bland rip-offs of similar titles, others were more memorable and noteworthy. There were also some very pleasant surprises that left me quite impressed.

Without further ado, the following games are what I perceived to be the highlights of the show.

IELLO Brings Fairy Tales to Life

IELLO, the French publisher of the hit game King of Tokyo, was showing off several of their more family-friendly titles. Two of these, in their new Tales & Games line, are shaped like storybooks and are intended to bring classic fairy tales to life. At first glance, it is obvious that the artwork and production quality are fantastic. But it wasn't until I had the chance to play them that I realized how fun they really are.

Three Little Pigs

In The Three Little Pigs, players roll dice containing doors, windows, roofs, and wolves. The dice are rolled with a Yahtzee-style roll-and-hold mechanic. Rolling multiple doors, windows, or roofs allow the player to get the corresponding tile section of a straw, wood, or brick house. The stronger the material, the more dice are needed to retrieve it. These tiles are placed together to form houses of any size. At the end of the game, players score points for the houses they have created that contain at least one door or window and one roof.

When a wolf is rolled, it is set aside and cannot be re-rolled. If at least two wolves are rolled by the end of the turn, the player chooses an opponent's house to try to blow down and then blows on the spinner to determine which material will be removed from the house. If a player chooses wisely and luck is on his side, a whole house can come toppling down. At the end of the game, the player with the most points wins. There are also bonus points awarded for the tallest house, the first house of each material to be completed, and more.

The Hare and the Tortoise

In The Hare & The Tortoise, 5 different animals are racing toward the finish line. At the beginning of the game, each player is dealt an animal that determines who he will be secretly rooting for. Each player also chooses from his initial hand an additional animal to root for. During each round, players take turns playing one or more cards of a single animal. After 4 of one animal or 8 total cards are played, the round ends and the animals move forward according to the number of cards played.

The different animals move in different ways, as displayed on a reference card available to all players. For instance, the tortoise will move forward one space even if no tortoise cards are played (slow and steady), the hare will hop forward several spaces if between 1 and 3 hare cards are played, the sheep must stop at the river to get a drink, etc. The mechanics seem to be well balanced and the fact that movement is determined by all players makes it a nail-biting race to the finish, complete with bluffing and plenty of strategizing. The game continues until the first 3 animals cross the finish line. The player who most closely predicted the winners (based on the cards selected at the beginning of the game) will score the most points and win.

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