If you're at Gencon, an Area Control game means controlling the odors and smells in your game area.
Here's the BGG definition of Area Control / Area Influence:
Area Control mechanic typically awards control of an area to the player that has the majority of units or influence in that area. As such, it can be viewed as a sub-category of Auction/Bidding in that players can up their "bids" for specific areas through the placement of units or meeples. In El Grande, for instance, players earn their score in a region by having the most caballeros in that region.
I clicked on the game mechanisms and I found out there was 72 pages of games that use Area Control or Influence. Each page had 10 games so that's 720 pages of games with some kind of area control.If I was going to ask you to name the 3 games that came to your mind when I said area control I'm sure El Grande, Chaos in the Old World, Hannibal, 1960, Twilight Struggles, Struggle of Empires, Age of Empires, Angola, Carcassonne, and Cyclades might all come up. It's interesting to see the wide variety of Euros, war games and Ameritrash games that use area control / area influence.
Personally, I don't think of area control / influence as a mechanism. It's a means to get victory points but each game that uses area control also uses different mechanisms to get your dudes into an area. Some games may use auctions, some card play, some games may use movement to get dudes in the areas you want to control. It's the mechanisms, theme, etc. that separates great area control games from crappy area control games.
After looking into this more closely I realized that BGG didn't include games were players aren't trying to control or dominate areas, but instead players are trying to control or dominate objects, ideas, people, etc. If the BGG list included area control games where the area to control was blue cubes, most clowns, red crystals, bloody axes, federalist debates, etc. there would be twice as many games that determine victory point or a winner based on dominating something.
Recently I played 3 completely different area control games (Struggle of Empires, Circus Train and Founding Fathers).
Struggle of Empires is one of my all time favorite games. I'd rate it up there with Twilight Imperium 3, Arkham Horror and Battlestar Galactica. It's Martin Wallace's best game and the best area control game in print. What separates Struggle of Empires from all the rest is the theme and mechanisms to get dudes on the map to protect and conquer areas.In Struggle of Empires each player plays a colonial power (Russia, England, Austria, Prussia, Spain, Netherlands, France). The game is played over 3 wars or eras. Wars are set up during the diplomacy stage where players bid on formal alliances that can't be broken. On players turns players place influence markers in minor country or they can build or move armies or attack other players or buy technology or upgrade cards. After 5 round the war is over and victory points are given to the players who control the colonial areas. Although Struggle of Empires uses a simplified combat system and abstract diplomacy system the game works brilliantly at making your gut wrench as you have to make the tough guns and butter decisions for your empire. The area control system works great in Struggle of Empire because you can use armies to defend your control markers or attack your enemies control makers.
I also played Uba's pimped out copy of Circus Train. Circus Train is an area control game. Players aren't fighting over territory they're fighting over who has the most clowns, acrobats, freaks, horses, big cats and elephants. The big difference between this and other area control games is that you gain control of the performers by using a pick up and delivery system. Players move to cities to recruit performers and than move to other cities to perform and make money so that they can pay the performers. Overall, I enjoyed Circus Train quite a bit and I look forward to play it again. The unique subject matter, interesting movement system and having to make big decisions like whether I wanted to put on a show in Cleveland or recruit a Freaks in Detroit were big pluses in my book. The fun game play of Circus Train quickly made me overlook the crappy components.
Founding Fathers is the newest game by Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews. After reading the rules to Founding Fathers I was very underwhelmed. This game was nothing like Twilight Struggles or 1960. I decided to give it a try because I'm very interested early American history.
The game has excellent cards, components, rules, etc. Founding Fathers also included some great historical background about the Constitutional Convention. At it's heart Founding Fathers is an area control game. In Founding Fathers markers are given to players who debates the most for Federalist, Anti-Federalist, Small State or Large State issues. At the end of the game each marker is worth 3 - 5 points depending on how many bills pass for that issue. Victory points are also given to players who vote on the right side of an issue. The mechanism for debating and voting is by playing delegate or cards from a players hand. I actually enjoyed Founding Fathers more than I thought I would after reading the rules (but not as much as Circus Train or Struggle of Empires). I think I liked it because it plays very quickly (1 hour or less) and there is some deeper strategies to the game the more you play. However, I won't recommend it to anyone on F:AT. I think most people may find the theme and subject too dry. Also, the mechanism for gaining control of the debates or votes was very simplistic compared to other area control games.
I personally, have mixed feelings about area control games. The good thing about area control games is that they add a layer of interaction to games. A fairly bland Euro can become interesting if you're fighting over a territory or who has the most sheep. The thing I don't like about area control games is that I always seem to be in games where there's some shidiot who wants to fight me for control over some backwards fuck colony while the leader is racking in points for a good territory.