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Gamer's Notebook, Essen 2007
October 23, 2007 1:58 PM

Another year, another Essen. That may well be a cliché, but so quickly do the shows come round that it seems as if just weeks are passing in between. Getting old, I guess. But not too old to enjoy myself for a few days at the biggest game fair in the world. At one point Eric Martin introduced me to his wife as an "Old One", which made me smile, and sound like some sort of mythos creature. In reality, it probably applies to anyone who was playing German Games, B.S. (Before Settlers). As I approach my twentieth Essen anniversary, I rather like the idea of being a boss card in Arkham Horror.

If you want me to give you some general impressions, and I'm sure you do, then they would be that prices were up, smoke and crowds were down and that there were quite a few no-shows amongst the games scheduled to appear. The latter is down to the usual suspects: printing errors, delayed development, artists breaking their hands, etc. The lack of crowds was noticeable. Uniquely, game demonstrators on the big company stands were hanging around with nothing to do. They were even offering to demo games as you passed the empty tables, though why I would be interested in one of the girly pony games is a mystery. The reason? There was a fairly major train strike in Germany throughout the fair, although the U Bahn was running. As for prices, who knows? But the sub 20 Euro game was rare, and we saw a lot of 35 to 50 Euro games, both of which are unusual. Were I still at the show today (Sunday) I'd bet my house on at least a few reductions.

Sometimes it is possible to determine some trends, but this year all that was apparent was that there is ongoing sequelitis for some companies (Eggertspiel are working that rondel mechanism hard) and we are playing games that we have pretty much seen before. Normally such recycling is Bruno Faidutti's domain, but there were others at it this year. See below for the culprits!

Lastly, two small gripes. There are now marked signs of the British Abroad syndrome. One notices this in places like Spain and Florida, and it gets worse as the resort becomes more popular. I haven't been troubled before, but this year I ran into some annoying types. Secondly, if game rules, or a website, have been translated into English (note the clue in the word), could we please have a Union Jack rather than a Stars & Stripes icon? Or, at the very least, both. Thank you. That was my Pub Landlord impression, but boy does it grate. Even the French do it!

The annual disclaimer applies: what follows is what I was able to get to over the space of three days, mixed with chatting, browsing, eating, checking out miniatures games, and, it must be said, a fair few beers. There are gaps. I defy anyone to cover everything. On my list are about ten games I didn't even have demoed, let alone get to play. There were probably at least another hundred games that didn't even register.

It was another good year, but there are just so many games now that the reporter in me surrenders, lays down, and whimpers. When one is walking past entire companies, with perhaps five games on show, any one of which could be game of the year, it is hard to even say the words 'comprehensive coverage'.

And so, to the games. Where I have offered a view one way or the other it is only where I have played it and am confident that I have got a reliable feel for what is going on. Obviously in time I will return to the games, good and not so good, and check my findings.

2F-Spiele occupied their normal corner in tandem with Andrea Meyer, making for two designers of the weird and sometimes wonderful. Interestingly, the stars were right for each of them this year as both produced a credible hit. Friedemann had Filou (or Felix: The Cat in the Sack). This little card game, very reasonably priced at 9 Euros, was riding high in recommendations and on the Fairplay chart. I bought one following a short demonstration but when we went to play that night, I had not been given English rules. Safe to say, if you like Friedemann's style, this is a must buy. Quick and fun. Andrea had another of the top hits, Linq, but I can save you some money. It is a German word/social game with a 'detect your partner' element, but it will need an English version to be playable. Since that version doesn't yet exist, we Anglophones must wait. Finally, there was another set of power plant cards for Power Grid, which this time apparently change the game considerably.

Abacus had a very nice Zooloretto expansion, in English, if you knew who to ask, and a promo Polar Bear tile. They also had Darjeeling, which is at least half a good game. Designed by my old mate Gunther Burkhardt, this is a game about picking and shipping tea. Very nice components, some excellent ideas, and a really nice tempo in terms of deciding when to commit to shipping, and whether to go for small or large shipments. It is let down badly by the tea collection mechanism, which can be too random and also unbalanced, but otherwise I liked it. Were this fixed somehow, I think it could be a winner.

ADG were back, with Harry Rowland in fine form. They had what seemed a huge amount of World in Flames product, 7 Ages of course, and the item of most interest to me; a late beta of the Empires in Arms PC game. I am looking forward to getting that one onto the computer.

Alea presented Im Jahr des Drachen, designed by Stefan Feld. Herr Feld can do no wrong as far as I am concerned (Roma, Notre Dame and Roma II coming in 2008), so this will be a must purchase when the English edition appears. German friends of mine were full of praise, in one case saying that this is the best game Alea have done. Can't wait.

Amigo: We spent quite a while at the Amigo stand on the Thursday, when tables were freely available and help was at hand. We learned Michael Schacht's Patrician (English version from Mayfair) and all enjoyed it. Patrician is yet another take on the area control, card play and making buildings genre. It was quick, and it worked as a super filler, but one couldn't help feeling that we'd seen it before. The other issue was that while the situation was interesting, there wasn't much in the way of decision making.

Next up was Bohnroeschen. This joins the ever growing range of Bohnanza spin-offs - there are two Bohnbooks out this year as well - and sees the basic game amended by a series of tasks, in a nod to Was Sticht. So, one might need to have fields with a total value of six, hold five money, have each field valued at one, or have nothing but Soya planted. When you achieve the condition at the end of your turn, you advance to the next one. You can skip a task by paying a bounty. Essentially then, Bohnanza with hurdles. I am no fan of the popular Bohn series, through over exposure really, but will gladly play it every now and then. Personally, this variant just adds to the torment, but I suspect keen players might find the conditions make a nice change from the norm. Amigo also provide some cool beanshaped dobbers. As I can't easily pronounce this one, I have decided to call it Bohn Breaker.

CBG (Czech Board Games) collected their IGA award at the show for Through The Ages, and kindly put the last 40 copies up for grabs by way of a lottery. I say kindly, but there was a 20 Euro premium on last year's price! This game looks set for continued success with the reprint on the way from FRED. The big question, however, was whether last year's initial success was a flash in the pan. It wasn't. Combined with CGE (below) the Czechs are still looking fresh and bringing some interesting ideas to gaming.

CBG had two games, one of which most of us ignored because it contained plasticine/clay, but on balance there shouldn't be too much wrong with Laborigines. The basic idea is that modified lab creatures have to try and survive. This will doubtless get played in due time. The other release, Jantaris, was rather clever. An octagon of areas surround a central market. Players work to build control of individual markets, then monopolies, and also get involved in negotiation through a matrix system - this is not the usual verbal haggling, but action chit driven. It all came together very nicely, and although one can never be sure of games played in Essen, I will have high hopes when replaying this one.

CGE (Czech Games Edition) are sort of a separate company to CBG but in most gamers' minds we just grouped them together. There is apparently no schism, as they all still seem to get on, but I can't explain because understanding Czech corporate restructuring is beyond me.

Anyhoo. Galaxy Trucker is the new game from the designer of Through the Ages, and it would be hard to imagine a greater gulf between the two. Trucker is a Factory Fun style game, where you build a spaceship from components, and assess market conditions, against the clock. In phase two, the ship suffers the slings and arrows of spacial fortune. That's it really. I didn't buy it because I know there will be copies around, and that I will like as not only want to play once. I may be wrong, but I rarely see much replay value in this type of game. Or, I get bored easily. Take your pick. If I like it, I can buy it later.

The second game was altogether more meaty. League of Six is, for me, a very interesting design. Having played it, I was impressed but with hindsight that was mainly by the mechanisms taken individually and not, perhaps, as a whole. Based on the Hussite Wars, but so loosely as to be almost irrelevant, this is an intricate game of many interacting parts. There are a number of innovative mechanisms, a clever twist on the Amun Re bidding system, and more turn order devices than I have ever seen in one place! It appears to be a game with plenty going for it. I am not saying it is perfect, as there are definitely problems in the final storage phase and elsewhere, and a marked degree of looping, but overall I am thinking three and a half/four stars.

The other side of the coin is that three of the people I played with felt that there were larger, structural issues. In a nutshell, the game was accused of playing itself, with the gamer's role akin to watching TV. They also thought the game was calculable, and so ultimately prone to lengthy analysis and slow play. And related dullness. I disagreed, but only really because I play most games by the seat of my pants, on hunches, and with an approximate feel for value. The conversation developed and I would put it down to different gamers having different skills, preferences and, importantly, toleration levels. I would happily play this again now, and expect to play at least three times, but I will keep an open mind on the issues discussed.

C4/Creative Cell: Walking around on the Wednesday afternoon, looking for a game to buy and play that night, it was recommended that I have a look at The Circle by first time attendees, C4. I duly went to the stand, and seeing a well produced game about Victorian spies, plonked down my 30 Euros. The theme and ideas are excellent, and they have really done a professional job on graphics and artwork. About the only omission would be passing the game to a developer, I guess, which has had dire consequences.

Generally, the concept is good. Players represent a country deploying secret agents against The Circle, a sort of 19th century Illuminati. The currency of the game is secrets, and this part is neatly done. Broadly, you either strengthen your intelligence and future power, or you recruit and use agents using the same action points. The aim is to infiltrate The Circle with several spies and be the first player to score the necessary VPs. There are country specific and neutral spies, and each has a different skill. As one might expect, there are counter spies, double agents, assassins and several more besides.

There are two major issues that effectively killed this game for us. Firstly, the pace of play. After we had slogged through twelve pages of rules, and read out the sixteen (!) different types of agent powers, we got underway. Everything you do seems to revolve (literally) around the clock device, on which the agents must mature for a number of turns before they are ready for the field. If they perform an action (mission), for sometimes just a minor effect, they are back on the clock and again we wait. The pacing and feel is all wrong for the subject matter. The result is that we quickly gave up even considering missions, and instead infiltrated The Circle, bringing immediate victory points. After almost two hours play, we had had enough.

Crime two is using an olive green and a turquoise, and purple and orange, as colours on the cards. Not easy to define in anything but good light. And it is important.

My feeling is that The Circle almost works, but those workings are so slow as to be effectively unplayable. It felt like it needed to be a computer game to get the pace up. Others were less complimentary. I may be off base here, but it is almost as if they knew where they were going, but came up with the wrong mechanisms. It's a shame because the theme is great, and in keeping with good looking games that need some TLC, I will hang onto this one.

Days of Wonder were selling various versions of Ticket to Ride, with the Swiss expansion being the latest addition. It is clear that the game have a huge following, and one can see why. Probably related to that fact, there were no discount copies around the show, and Days of Wonder held to the 30 Euro price point. On the Thursday, Mik Svellov arrived at the Press Office with the Scandinavian edition under his arm, which I never saw on sale. The map is, to say the least, unfortunate!

DDD: There is always one stand I miss. This year it was DDD, who had displayed their Die Wiege der Renaissance card game in the press area. It looked great, I noted it down, and never got round to finding them. Which is a bit annoying as the game has been talked about since in positive terms. I will see if I can track down a copy.

Doris & Frank were present, but had nothing new this year. Doris has blisters from endless Carcassonne artwork, and Frank has been busy.

dV made a splash with Bang! and then Leonardo last year. According to everyone I spoke to they had nothing new this year, apart from Bang! packaged in an artillery shell (!), and so I didn't check out the stand in detail. Mistake. On the ferry home, Martin Leathwood produced Borneo from his pocket, which he had already played twice. This turns out to be a clever card game that, I believe, was chosen from the design competition held at the Lucca game convention each year. From what I saw and heard (I was playing Mr. Jack on the next table) this is one to check out.

Eggert-Spiele had two new games, as promised. Hamburgum received the better reception of the two. While it looks like yet another rondel-area control-build a church game, everyone that played it said it was good to excellent. Much the same depth as Antike and Imperial, but quicker and cleaner. I have to say it doesn't look all that, but it seems reasonable to expect good gameplay from this up and coming company.

Cuba sounds like Puerto Rico, looks like Puerto Rico and according to some, plays like Puerto Rico. As we also know, Cuba (the island) is quite close to Puerto Rico. Conclusive evidence? One gamer of my acquaintance suggested that Alea should call in their copyright lawyers! Other gamers are leaping to its defence, saying that it is indeed different, oh yes it is. Personally, I'm fine with whatever is in the box. It is designed by one of my favourite teams (responsible for Pillars of the Earth) and I am not super keen on Puerto Rico anyway... There was a lot of good crack about this game, as with Hamburgum, and I feel it is unlikely to be the same game. As I don't own Puerto Rico, I felt I could reasonably purchase Cuba. Okay, okay. I fell for the gorgeous graphics.

Face to Face Games had Cheeky Monkey, a card game by Reiner Knizia, and Moai which is a game about cannibalism. I passed on both, mainly for time reasons.

Fantasy Flight: In truth, I am not entirely sure what was new at this massive stand. I certainly hadn't seen Starcraft before, in one of the gravestone boxes, and Dust looked very good indeed. I had expected this one to be a skirmish game of sorts, but the map is at strategic level and the little bases and mechs are placed in cities. I had written this off, but am now very much interested again. There was also a new Beowulf game, again by Reiner, to coincide with the forthcoming film; a new version of Condottiere in a small box; and another Descent expansion.

Ferti had a new version of Reiner's ancient but still highly playable En Garde. There is a 3d cardboard piste, with a backdrop, and two plastic fencing figures. Very, very cool. Tempted to buy for my friend who fences, tempted to buy one all for myself. In the end I did neither but I will doubtless crack next year. Or, I suppose I could make one myself.

Fragor split people right down the middle with Antler Island. Some people didn't care for it at all. That didn't stop it selling steadily. I was lucky enough to get a game at the stand, and I really enjoyed it. For me, it is their best effort so far. The game is quick, tense and fun. Much snappier and more streamlined than Hameln, and on a par humour wise. It uses the trademark Fragor animal bits, this time elks converted to stags - Gordon Lamont suggested aquatics for next year. It has a very neat pre-programmed action system that allows some flexibility, and a brutal 'king of the hill' victory condition that means you have to clash antlers at least once, and often more. Good play requires timing, a balance of resources, and solid tactical choices. It is all done and dusted in well under an hour, with learning. There is no doubt that it is at the light/family end of gaming, but then haven't Fragor always been there? One of the show highlights for me.

FRED Distribution had the excellent Uptown, a mock up of the forthcoming Through the Ages reprint, and Rails of Europe, which is an expansion for Railroad Tycoon. They also had an English translation of Reiner's well regarded book of poker variants, published in German a decade ago, which I happily carried off for review next time.

Games for The World are the publishers of the hugely enjoyable The World Cup Game, which was published last year. Shaun Derrick the designer has, as promised, followed up with scenarios for 1958, 1962 and 1966, and another set covering 1934, 1938 and 2006. My personal favourite is 1970, and I hope Shaun gets round to that one.

Goldsieber offered an interesting title, Liebe & Intrige, I think largely aimed at the female market judging by the box colour. This is a story building game that claims it recreates the world and books of Jane Austen, although it looked more bodice ripper territory to me. Whatever, the thought of a game that makes stories is always of interest, but of course the German text is going to squash it. If anyone could tell me how this one works, I would be very grateful. Also on offer was Akkon, in theory a game about Templar warfare. I couldn't find anyone to demonstrate it, sadly, and there is a lot of German text, but this must be checked out.

Goliath had a re-issue of TaYu, a good game that I very much regret selling. This new version will let you play the game, but the beautiful components of the Kosmos original are absent, replaced by red acrylic.

Hans im Gluck: Time was that Hans im Gluck released one game per year. Nowadays, there might be as many as half a dozen or more. As the St Petersburg expansion didn't appear, we were left with a couple of Carcassonne expansions (these seem to breed if left in a room together), Travel Carcassonne, Underwater Carcassonne and a Carcassonne Deluxe system which has all the tiles, all the rules, and a large plastic sack to keep them all in. Seriously, I liked the look of the Carcassonne Big Box, which for 35 Euros got you pretty much all the earlier games. My favourites remain The Discovery, which seems so much more elegant than the others, and The Castle.

There were also two bigger box games: Oregon and Ming Dynasty. I was told that both would appear in an English edition, so I eliminated them from my enquiries. It turns out though that both may well be playable as is.

Histogames will always be on radar because they published Friedrich, still one of my favourite games. This year, after quite a break, they had King of Siam. This area control game drew above average comments, and in some cases a lot of praise for its clever card play, tough decisions and Liberte like power vacuum. Another one to try! You could buy this and Friedrich for 40 Euros, which was a steal.

Hurrican collected their IGA award at the show for Mr Jack, a game that still impresses me. Sadly the planned expansion was not available, although it now sounds as if the cards arrived on the Saturday. The expansion includes five new characters for the game, and it will be interesting to see how they fit into the game as the structure is somewhat fixed. Hurrican also had Animalia on the stand, which now has wider distribution. As I said in my earlier review, this is a decent card game if you can handle the cutesy graphics.

Japon Brand brought over a dozen titles with them in their suitcases, and once again they suffered from constantly selling out of the popular games. I went along early this year, and while I liked the look of the samurai chess variant, I plumped for Origin of Falling Water, recommended by two passers-by and the stand manager. We played that night and I was disappointed. It is a strange matrix form of trick taking game in which one could see the idea, but playing it was a nightmare of planning, and there was too much luck and too little control. In fairness, the hilarious rules were worth the price of entry. If anyone can shed light on the other ten new games, I would be interested. I don't really want to say that decent games from Japan are a rarity, but on the evidence of the last few years, they are definitely more miss than hit.

JKLM had a couple of major new releases, Caveman, Murdero (listed, but I didn't see it - this is a murder mystery CCG!) and Power & Weakness - the latter is an interesting looking game by Andreas Steding set in post Roman Britain. There were lots of copies of Phoenicia being played, which is a very good game in the Outpost/Zavandor mould, which I will be reviewing next time. There was also an expansion set for Kogge, and a card game called Stop Lights.

Kosmos were majoring with two new games of The Golden Compass, based on the excellent novels by Philip Pullman. This meant the stand had a huge armoured polar bear, which was a must for photographers. One game is based on the book licence, and the other (more for we gamers) draws on the imagery from the forthcoming film. The latter game is German only at present, but will be in English very soon. The game is designed by the Italian design team behind War of the Ring and Marvel Heroes, so hopefully it will be a cut above. It looks lovely, and I expect to play an English prototype in the near future. There was also an expansion to Pillars of the Earth that was selling very well, but, again, is in German only at the moment. Mayfair are expected to do the English version, but we don't know exactly when that will be. Another game on display was a two player series title based on Perry Rhodan, a curiously popular SF book saga. Reports were positive, and I look forward to trying it. I believe Kosmos also had some Settlers stuff out back, and Anno 1701.

Lookout Games caused some furrowed brows with Agricola. They had a tempting new gamer's game about farming (at last!), by an established designer, but featuring some German on the cards and no-one knew if it would ever get an English version. It also weighed a lot, putting off anyone who was flying home - these days, baggage limits are enforced with punitive fines. So, to buy or not to buy? The designer is Uwe Rosenberg, of Bohn fame, and to make matters worse, pretty much all the buzz was positive. If I take myself back a few years, the chance to buy a lovely looking game that might need a bit of work with the rules was something I did all the time. In this case, the talented Melissa Rogerson has already done the hard work on translation. So, unfazed, and always keen to support the smaller companies making such games, I handed over the cash, lugged it home, and I will play as soon as I can.

Lookout also had an unusual version of Bohnanza, featuring artwork submitted by fans. Sadly, it is all a bit amateurish. UK readers will think Vision On. Not that I am exactly the target market anyway.

Matagot were back, and their customer service hasn't improved a great deal. Say what you want about the French, and I hear many dissenting voices, but dealing with Matagot is reminiscent of buying a ticket on the French railway system. They don't care, they are rude, and if they can obstruct you, they will. Otherwise, I like the French, and France. In the case of Matagot, one wonders if they want to sell the game. So when I tried to get a game of Utopia (mainly because of mixed feelings about Khronos, the box is huge, and it is not inexpensive) I was greeted with a shrug, Gallic attitude, and a suggestion that I wait until a slot became available. At that point one was expected to learn the game oneself! So, for the very first time in Essen history, I thought, 'sod it', and walked off. But because I am a professional (!), the game runs about two hours, was deemed very good by almost all those that played, and it looks lovely. I'll get to play it within the month, and will report back.

Mind the Move have been a regular point of call for most gamers over the last few years, even if their games have left me cold. I believe I am right in saying that they weren't at the show this year.

Moskito were demonstrating Tribun, which is the theme-morphed game that I played as Sammelsurium last year and greatly enjoyed. This is a no brainer purchase, really, given the designer, but most understandably decided to wait for the English edition. For many, including the Fairplay voters, this was game of the show. Told you so!

Nexus had a nice looking prototype of motorcycle racing, a subject that we rarely see. Sectional track, and hopefully little bike models, should make for a must buy. They will need to be careful with the title though - I once worked in MotoGP licensing. Sadly, Battles of Napoleon, one of the games I am most looking forward to, will now not appear until later in the year.

Pegasus had a whole load of games, mainly US rebadges, but including a re-issue of Junta and new game called Robotics.

Phalanx had two new games, Lascaux and Chicago Poker, but most talk was of Before the Wind, a game I have played a lot recently and which I regard highly. It was pleasing to see BtW making a good showing, high on the Fairplay chart.

Portal Publishing had a new version of Neuroshima Hex. I like this game a lot, and asked if I could get hold of the attractive new map. The designer politely explained that I could get the new map if I bought the new version. No messing, these Poles. I could probably have worked that out for myself...

Queen are fast becoming one of the big players, and had several new games for the show. One of these I had hoped for, one was a complete surprise, and another seemed to be transparent because I heard not a single word about it all show.

The transparent game is Eketorp, by Dirk Henn, of all people. If anyone can tell me anything about this one, I'm all ears.

The surprise was Fish Market (Fangfrisch), which avoided most of the show previews. This is a great little filler. Turn over cards featuring various kinds of fish, representing the day's catch. Buyers watch until they decide to buy, and then they hit the Halli-Galli bell provided. They pay a flat 10 gold, the seller gets increasing money the more he sells. Store the fish in either crates or the freezer, and sell them later. Dead simple. Nice little game.

And finally, a game I saw last year in prototype and instantly liked. When I saw the box, I was almost sure it would be good. And I was right. Giganten der Lufte (Airships) is a short, punchy dice game by Andreas Seyfarth. A long way from Puerto Rico, and even Thurn & Taxis. This one bears some similarity to Um Krone & Kragen, and offers a comparable experience. The plot is that you are a company building airships, and through research, technology and improved resources (all cards gained through dice), you can build more and more advanced models, finally peaking with the Hindenburg. There are some interesting deicisions, a strong theme, and a real sense of building. Yes, there is luck, but in the context of the game it was no problem for me. One of the hits.

R&D Games broke the trend of recent years by having more than enough Key Harvest games on sale, at a very good price point. Adding belt to the braces, you could buy a different version altogether from QWG who, I am ashamed to say, I never found. Key Harvest returns Richard Breese to familiar territory after last year's diversion into Fowl Play, while retaining the superb art and production standards he is known for. Having played this one several times already, I can say that you will not be disappointed. I particularly like the cube pricing mechanism, and the simple device of 'gaming bingo' in trying to collect the right tiles is surprisingly gripping. I really like this game.

Rackham were present in the miniatures hall, a place where I spend a lot of time, and the future strategy was clear: pretty much anything apart from pre-painted plastics and AT-43 was on sale. The metal figures are going, as is the Cadwallon RPG. Hybrid and its expansion were under half price, making them almost affordable! This is, of course, a major shame as it seemed that Rackham were doing everything right, making a decent shot at Games Workshop rival, and doing it in exciting style. But cash flow problems, international marketing and new product launches can get you every time, and so I hope they manage to pull through. They are too good to lose.

Ragnar Brothers: Sharing a stand with R&D, Gary Dicken of the Ragnar Brothers made his first visit to Essen. He brought along copies of 2nd Edition Canal Mania, a few conversion kits (I grabbed one) and had details of their new game, Monastery. The latter game was not available because their artist broke his hand, which as you might imagine puts a crimp in your style. Expected later this year.

Rio Grande normally get slotted under other companies, but this year they alone had Tom Lehmann's Race for the Galaxy. In English. Yes, it is finally out. One of the most awaited games of recent years is in my hands. It had better be good!

Sierra Madre Games were back, this time with a full blown colour, Anglo-German language production: Origins: How We Became Human is a game about the very start of the human species, and resulting development and civilisation. It is no secret that I am a big fan of Sierra Madre games. I have therefore played a late prototype, and very much enjoyed it, so look forward to getting the published version to the table.

Truant Verlag, who have been around a while, did their first big box game in the shape of Kingsburg. This was that difficult proposition: a new company in the field, with a large game, at a large price. Does one take the gamble? I didn't, but those that did said it was decent. But nothing more than that. I would like to play it, nevertheless.

Valley Games had one of the better marketing ploys of recent years, with Miss Canada demonstrating games on the stand. It would be naughty of me to suggest that the many admiring eyes were for her rather than their new release, Container. Personally, as attractive as Miss C was (she did an excellent job of describing the game, by the way), I preferred her mum. I think that says a lot about me… Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, Container. A number of people I spoke to said this was Best of Show. The game is indeed a clever one, with lovely ship models, but I had such a poor outing (I ran out of cash too quickly) that I am going to defer judgement on this one. Valley also had their reprint of Hannibal, which looks spectacular. Miss Canada was evidently not playing this one, in case there were any wargamers thinking of marriage proposals.

Warfrog launched Brass, bang on time, and very nice it looked too. They also had a reprint of Mordred, with uprated graphics.

What's Your Game released Ghost for Sale, a deduction game aimed at the younger audience.

Winsome Games' release was Wabash Cannonball, which was getting an awful lot of good press before the show. A decent, meaty railway game in an hour or so is something I am always open to. Of course, John Bohrer only produces a limited run each year, and I had not ordered one. Fortunately, as John and I go way back, I was able to secure a copy. Thanks John. Can't wait to play this one.

WOTC/Sony: I apologise for bringing computer games into this report, but for me The Eye of Judgment was the buzz game of the show. One couldn't miss the many large screens showing the amazing battle sequences of a Magic style game, and people kept walking up to me saying how much they wanted the cards and the game, and trying to justify the 100 Euro price tag. Not to mention the PlayStation 3 you need to play it, and the fact it is collectible! Sounds like a money pit to me. In fairness, I was very impressed by the graphics, and when I found out the game was a hybrid, with cards that are 'played' into the computer by way of a camera, I felt I could happily mention it here. Have a look, it is probably another step down the road for gaming technology.

Ystari may have taken second seat behind the Czechs in the 'Company to Talk About' stakes, but they are not exactly idle. Their new game is Amyitis, which no-one seems to be able to pronounce except to make it sound like a disease. I didn't buy it as there will be lots of copies at the club, but I am keen to try as soon as possible. Again, generally good press on this one. There was also a small expansion for Mykerinos.

Z-Man are really starting to push the games out. There have already been a number this year, and Essen saw the release of 1960: The Making of the President, Prophecy, El Capitan and Chang Cheng. 1960 was a must for me, being a big fan of election games, and it is co-designed by Jason Matthews of Twilight Struggle fame. Not exactly a difficult decision, this one. I will look forward to playing Prophecy, as Frank Branham has spoken highly of it. My liking of this one will depend on it being considerably better than Runebound, and much much better than Talisman! Chang Cheng looked good, although being a game about the Great Wall of China lead many gamers to think it would replicate Reiner's earlier effort. I don't think this is the case, and, again, I will play this in time.

No Shows

Quite a few games that were slated to appear at Essen didn't. Here are a few, which in all honesty I was happy to cross off my list - to save money and decisions, not because I am not interested.

Cold War: CIA vs KGB - just a no show. The chap on the FF stand didn't know why it hadn't appeared. Shame, because this was a must have.

Mr Jack expansion - delayed. The cards arrived with square corners rather than round (and if you know the game, you know why that is a problem!). Possibly, the cards may arrive on Saturday of the show.

St Petersburg expansion - delayed until December. No one knew if this is just the Spielbox expansion in a box, or rather more than that, so I asked at HiG. Apparently it is the Spielbox cards, plus some new cards.

Age of Piracy - didn't make the show, more likely to be at Nuremberg '08.

Battles of Napoleon and Age of Conan are both delayed.

Im Jahr des Drachens, Ming Dynasty, Oregon, Pillars of the Earth expansion, Tribune, Golden Compass (film version) - all awaiting English editions.

And Finally

As you can see, I pretty much ignored all the little card games (they will show up over time or cause a stir somehow) and abstracts. This is not to belittle the efforts of Kris Burm, Peter Burley and many others, I just don't feel I can cover them. Increasing specialisation takes its toll.

My standout games so far, bearing in mind the pile of unopened boxes, are

Antler Island
Before the Wind
Eye of Judgment
Giganten der Lufte
Key Harvest
League of Six
Origins: How We Became Human

And the unplayed games that tempt me the most:

1960: The Making of the President
Im Jahr des Drachen
King of Siam
Power & Weakness
Race for the Galaxy
Wabash Cannonball

Mike Siggins

Many thanks to, and without which writing this report would have been an awful lot slower. I would also like to thank Richard Breese and Martin Leathwood for moving me country to country, Harry Rowland for a great (and truly huge) dinner, and Klaus Knechtskern and Patrick Korner for very interesting chats. And Charlie, Ken, Kurt and Marion, you know how much I enjoyed the week.

Mike Siggins
Gamer's Notebook, August 2007
August 17, 2007 10:21 AM

Torsten Landsvogt for Phalanx

Because I haven’t yet got a copy of this game (where are they?!), I can’t do the full review I would like to. But I have played twice, and I thought I’d give you the heads up. In short, this has all the signs of an interesting game and I am in no doubt that this is the best that Phalanx have so far produced. It is going to annoy some, because we have seen the theme before – buying goods to load onto ships. Personally, I will take ten games on this same theme if they each give me a clever new mechanism or two (check), nice graphics (check) and a solid game (check). Inevitably, comparisons with Medici will be made, but it really is a different beast. Drawbacks? There is an auction element, but this is interesting and different. The game is not too efficient. You seem to make very few actions, but something takes a lot of time down in the churning gears of the engine room, so the game ends up being too long. We also found that the last turn can effectively decide the game between competent players, which makes the lengthy preamble less palatable. So, pacing issues which are probably fixable, but otherwise looking good.

Reiner Stockhausen for Amigo

I rather like the idea of this little card game, but try as I might, I can’t get away from the notion that it is largely random and lacking control. There is certainly a strong case for not leading, while losing the lead is arcane knowledge. The key mechanism is very clever, but of course that is the basic requirement for card games that are going to join that overflowing, and unmanageable, pile of small boxes. I have purchased the game, and will play some more. At the moment I am going to file this in with 6 Nimmt as a game that is fun, frustrating but largely an exercise in fate that passes the time. A true filler!

Neuroshima Hex
Michal Oracz for Portal

Lots of interest in this one recently, mainly generated by the lucky few locals who have managed to secure a copy from Poland, and Frank Branham’s excellent column at BGN. I was fortunate to get to play a game, but because it was in high demand we made the error of taking the four player route. I think this was unwise, and that the game will shine with two. Still, it wasn’t at all bad as it stood.

Each player has a faction with many types of futuristic combat units. Overall your cadre is similar to your opponent, but with specialist tweaks, subtle differentiation and also unique skills for each side. For instance one side will have mine tiles or long range snipers, while another might have airstrikes or combat nets. Some tiles generate events, while others are support units that confer skills to adjacent and linked units.

The units are placed onto a hex grid. There is a randomising phase where you draw and discard, and (I think) you can also hold back units and events for the ‘right’ time. In some situations units may move, or be pushed around, but generally they stay put with players trying to set up powerful ‘chains’ of tiles, cross supported yet still able to attack. Eventually the grid is filled and this triggers a combat round. The highest initiative units go first, either firing or meleeing. Damage is applied and dead units are removed. The next level of initiative now triggers, and so on. After all combat is finished, and there is usually a high level of carnage resulting in many holes in the hex grid, the game continues until your HQ is destroyed.

The aspect I liked least was that the board feels very cramped. One got the sense that another outer row or two of hexes would have made for a very different game, and allowed some of the unit skills (especially ranged fire) to come into their own. This may have been a function of the vicious four player melee we endured, or perhaps it is exactly what is intended. Perhaps it is just the miniatures gamer in me, looking for room to flank.

Neuroshima Hex is at heart an abstract game, requiring one to deploy fixed ability units, and line up and assess chains of events, combat and sometimes moves. Strangely, that is an enjoyable task and often draws opponents and onlookers into co-operative analysis of likely interactions, outcomes and winners. It can be a little dry, and while the units all have evocative, warlike names, ultimately they are chess-like pieces, and usually inert. The kicker is the ability to form command chains, and to set up traps, pins and many other tactical ploys. Still, I liked it a lot. Definitely one to return to and I understand the company will be at Essen with unlimited supplies!

William Attia for Ystari

Leaving aside Caylus, about which I have written more than enough, for me Magna Carta is a clear improvement on the basic game. So much so that I have pushed it up a full point, and thought it good enough to buy. The feel of the game has changed considerably; it is leaner and no less mean. It is also a lot faster. By the simple expedient of streamlining, much of the real decision making of the game is preserved while a lot of fat, and half the time required, is trimmed off. I don’t believe it has been done perfectly – I am concerned about the infrequent use of the card deck – but it really has been boiled down to the best bits of the system. I greatly enjoyed my games, and while it is still not identifiably ‘fun’, it is definitely a title I will return to. And just as an afterthought, Ystari really need to divert some of their success into decent artwork – hard to believe they are still producing ugly covers.

Susan McKinley Ross for MindWare

It is always good to see an excited buzz form around an unknown game, from an unlikely and ‘non gamer’ source. This is one of those word of mouth games, where someone buys a copy on spec, plays it, likes it and then spreads the news. In a nutshell, it can be described as a bit like Set, Ingenious, Rummikub or (most commonly) Scrabble with symbols. It is very interesting to play, even quite challenging, and like all the best ideas you wonder why it hasn’t been done before. Recommended.

Phil Chase for Atlas Games

Atlas Games do take some interesting risks, and I cut them a lot of slack for publishing the excellent Ars Magica. Balancing this, one is always wary because of Lunch Money and the dubious decisions behind publishing such a game. This time, they apparently forgot to blind playtest. Why do we suspect this? Because the rules make little or no sense (especially on turn structure) and we had to come up with on the spot design fixes to even get the thing working.

It also seems strongly geared to four players, yet the box assures us three to five is okay. We played with three, and it really wasn’t okay – something very odd was going on with the scoring, the game pieces and card values. Its final sin is that it uses dumb made-up words in the rules, so one ends up translating back to English throughout. I think we all know a game or two like that.

Anyway. That was the bad stuff. Having played, we all enjoyed this game of constructing magical artifacts at a sort of Wizard’s Olympic Games, loosely attached to the rich background of Ars Magica. The graphics are attractive, the game play is interesting and sometimes challenging, and it certainly appeals. It is precisely the sort of game that would benefit from an expansion card set, and/or variant rules. Even with the problems described, all three of us gave it a 7/10 and we are pretty mean markers. That is saying something, if you think about it. Such generosity may prove to be mistaken, and of course is based partly on our design guesswork, so please tread carefully.

Apart from its latent play quality, I am also mentioning Grand Tribunal because it seemed to get lost in the flurry of new games last year, and it is not immediately apparent that it is a boardgame. So, I think this one deserves a wider audience; the theme is good, the implementation is solid and it does much that Colosseum does in a third of the time. I have kept the game, hoping that Atlas do the honourable thing and provide a new rule set, proper fixes and, in time, new cards for variety. Thus revamped, it could make a great Spells and Potions game for Harry Potter fans. Recommended, in a sort of reserved way.

Bruno Cathala for Gameworks

I will not go on about this one for too long as it is by all accounts a promotional game and is not easily available, if at all. Unless perhaps you are a veterinarian buying a policy. Published by Swiss Re, the insurance company who built the gorgeous Gherkin in London, this is a decent card game about collecting animals. The colourful artwork is well done, if terminally cute, and the game is middling, or slightly better. For a promotional game, considering the norm, it is rather good. Worth a try, especially as family fare, but don’t hunt too hard or pay too much.

Carl Chudyk for Cambridge Games Factory

I assume this is the other, upstart, Cambridge, rather than the proper one where I work. If not, we need the designer to come round to visit one evening. Why? This post-Settlers building game has quite a learning curve. I have played twice, and watched or listened (you know how that works) twice. Veteran gamers struggle with the curve. It is the very definition of opaque. I don’t think it is the rules, but they might be tighter. I think it is more the multi-use cards and unintuitive terminology. I think. What is certain is that the outcome is the same. An hour or so saying, ‘What do I do again?’ or ‘How do I build this?’ It’s a shame because the game is very good, once you are up to speed, and it has a very clever turn/role driver. A mystery, and to cap it all, I will happily play again.

Lord of the Rings

There is an argument to say that the world has had enough of the Lord of the Rings in all its many forms. But the fans remain fans, and the books and games still sell, so it was with interest that I went along to the first week of the new theatrical production in London.

Soon, I am in my seat in the spectacular theatre, admiring the amazing stage and set. And the first signs of problems. I am in the front row of a section in the posh seats, so can stretch my legs out into the wide fire aisle. Result! Sadly, this aisle is to be used, frequently, for various 'audience mingling' events throughout the evening. Within minutes, a hobbit is trying to push a wheelbarrow along within inches of my feet. Now why is that a problem you ask? At the moment I have to wear open toed sandals because I have an ingrowing toenail. The thing is painful enough, without a solid hobbit barrow going over it. So I sit there with my legs drawn up under the chair.

That's fine for twenty minutes, but this is a three hour production, and every now and then it happens again - someone or something suddenly appears from behind, or from the side. I become a nervous wreck, and very uncomfortable. Which is appropriate because at the two thirds mark, with me possibly dozing slightly, the orcs attack the audience.... There is a scream, I look round, and there is a snarling orc in a scary mask three inches from my face. Truly terrifying. I am not kidding, it was almost a change of underwear moment. For the next ten minutes, as my blood pressure subsides, these orcs run around like idiots, growling away, prodding the attractive women, and there I am virtually doubled up trying to keep my feet safe. I nearly walked out. Would have, but for fear of being ‘Boromired’.

Apart from that, and a strange development by which the Elves now use a form of sign language, it was actually good. The story went out the window, savagely cut down, but the key moments were there and the sets and imagery are great. Every so often there was a song*, and there was an 'unusual' dance routine in the Prancing Pony. By the end it all got a bit Elaine Paige, with some excellent singers belting it out, but I guess that is what filled the seats with foreign tourists.

Somehow they managed to make Bilbo fade and disappear (no idea how, I suppose he may have been a projection) and Gollum was, against all the odds, a brave and popular effort to match the definitive Andy Sirkis. There were two other stunning effects; the Balrog and Shelob. The Balrog is suggested at first, by sulphur scented smoke and bits of 'ash' flying around. And you think that it is. Then the bloody thing appears on stage. Very impressive, and Shelob was just as good.

If I had to describe it one sentence I would say it is LotR meets Cirque du Soleil. Lots of new age music, orcs on those bouncy leg extenders, stiltwork, cartwheels, and lots of lifting and lowering. It was fine. Well done. Entertaining. Different.

I will end by saying there were two very cute female hobbits (is that thought in any way wrong?) and that I still have some Balrog in my eye (and it is not often you say that).

The gaming link? I designed the boardgame for the show.

*In theory, I despise musicals. I really can't stand that bit where they are chatting away and then all of a sudden they burst into song. On the other side of the coin, some of my favourite films are musicals - Wizard of Oz, Calamity Jane, even Oliver! on the right day. Go figure. On the third side of the coin I give you Moulin Rouge, which is easily in my ‘Top Ten Most Disappointing’ and it is the only DVD I have ever sold. On another level entirely, I am scarred for life by Barbara Streisand movies.

Next time, a look at Tropical’s much talked about Age of Empires III, more on Before the Wind, and, hopefully, JKLM’s Phoenicia.

Mike Siggins

Mike Siggins
Gamer's Notebook, May 2007
May 29, 2007 9:27 AM

Gamer’s Notebook May 2007

This is part two of the extended Gathering and Eastbourne report.

Carlo Rossi for Mayfair

I liked this one. It’s quick, it’s quite light, yet it makes you think a bit. It may prove to be clever in a ‘sub-system looking for a bigger and better home’ way, but I doubt you will find one play a negative experience. I for one will enjoy pushing it to find the game’s limits, and to dig around for tactics that may help get me there.

Simply, you are testing, making and ‘patenting’ potions. Each potion recipe needs cubes to concoct, and given a good stir and bubble, it will produce different cubes and VPs – so the cauldrons are really little cube processors that will be familiar from many recent games. It also reminded me a little of Factory Fun, in an odd way. Blue and Red in, Yellow out.

Once your recipe is set, you price it with a VP chit, with the long term aim of scoring a hidden agenda – you want to make your secret cube colour is the most used in the game. This leads to some interesting strategies, such as setting up feeder recipes to create colours in short supply, to price accurately to get people to use your formula (because you can’t!), balancing rare and common ingredients going out against VPs coming in, and trying to make sure lots of your colour is needed all over the board. Not earth shattering, but it works quite a bit into its 45 minutes. What emerges is a decent little game with identifiable depth. As I said, I liked it and I bet it makes five plays without pausing for breath.

Fraser & Gordon Lamont for Fragor

It is churlish to be hard on a game that had four adults giggling for over an hour. So I won’t. The level of humour in Hameln may not be intentional, though I strongly suspect it is, but it works very well indeed. Just like Emira, the humour is of a past age; that which existed before Political Correctness. In the town of Hameln, men work, women drop sprogs and children are lucky if they don’t get lured away to Transylvania. Marriages are arranged, and the woman often chooses the house, which the husband buys. Everywhere has rats, and everyone pays the piper.

We are offered three major plusses, in addition to laughter: chunky, characterful bits (as we have come to expect) and a proper, unfolding theme. You can tell that the Lamonts decided on the Pied Piper legend, just possibly based on the bits, and worked everything in to make the game re-tell the story over three rounds. And it does. They have also tidily enforced partnership play, so subtly you hardly notice it is happening.

For some reason, and my money is on systems, it doesn’t quite gel overall. There may, simply, be a little too much going on. Why are we contesting status in such a complicated way? Why do the rats overrun us so easily and effectively end the game prematurely? Why is the cat so expensive and limited? The game has pacing issues, is a touch chaotic, and the board is somewhat cluttered and loud. These are niggles that may have been ironed out with more time in development, or they may not. Combined, they take the edge off of a game that is almost there. Then again they may just be symptoms of some deeper ailment; the conclusion is that a gamer’s game, even a quick one, takes longer to stew than a quick filler.

Against the flow of opinion, I don’t mind Hameln and I will play it again happily. I will be keeping my copy. It is probably not as good a game as Shear Panic, but it does work because it is fun, thematic and has some good ideas. How many games in this year’s batch deliver fun? It is an ingredient that is often overlooked or never considered, yet Fragor seem to manage it every time.

Thomas Odenhoven for Schmidt

A prosaic game of placement, enclosure and calculation, this game is so fast it is over almost before you have a strategy worked out. Although now morphed into a street market theme, this was a railway game and the ancestry shows. But a twenty minute railway game? It’s okay, it works, and it has some reasonable ideas, but not my thing really.

Dirk Henn for Queen

I still read requests to know how this game has changed from Wallenstein. So I played it. It hasn’t altered much, and what has changed is not necessarily for the better, apart from the transparent cube tower base which helps a lot. Instead of a squat, squarish format, the map is now long and thin. There are also naval moves to consider, but nothing too drastic, just coastal shipping. The map is fine and I did actually prefer the Japanese setting and theming. What I wasn’t so keen on was an action card auction at the start of each turn, for the same cards each time. Soon we weren’t bidding with any interest, and then hardly at all, so I would be inclined to leave this out. Otherwise, it is much the same. You pays your money, you takes your choice. Lovely production either way, and I still like the game despite getting kicked regularly.

Party Games

As the years progress, and I meet a different mix of people, I find myself playing more and more party games. In the past I would have felt a need to justify this statement, but no more. I like almost all of them, and I almost always have fun, often laughing to the point of mild discomfort. I don’t think there is any more justification required than that.

But here’s the rub. None of these wonderful games feature in my current Games Top Ten. That would be because in my mind, like music or movies, they live in a neighbouring postal area and so they have their own Top Ten. Which I haven’t got round to compiling yet. But these five are definitely in it.

Balderdash consistently amuses me. I think the mix, mood and wit of the other players are key factors, but broadly if you are willing to have a go, and there is a sense of humour present, it is a very funny game indeed – with the laws being my favourite source of giggles. I also feel, immodestly, that I am quite good at it. I seem to have a knack for getting into the feel of the questions, especially the acronyms. Balancing that brazen observation, I never actually win. To coin a phrase, ‘Will always play, and expect to do so for ever.’

I will also play Haste Worte whenever I get the chance. I don’t own a copy, so that basically means at The Gathering! The game has some flaws, not least the need to sometimes restrict, clarify and define answers. There also needs to be a fix for the ‘tactical nuke’ problem – where someone takes out almost the entire category using just one word, like Plants when the category is Things that are Green. Anyway, still a winner. Perversely, for some reason I like the handicap system in the end game which slows up the leaders.

Next up is Wits & Wagers. This games scores highly for a very simple reason: it neatly skips round the trivia game problem of people not knowing the answers. Here, we can guess, not feel stupid, and then bet on a range of likely outcomes using instinct and more, informed, guesswork. Clever. I like to play with proper poker chips for that authentic tactile experience. Another winner, even if the number content means it is a little less fun than others listed here. I guess I am a words and facts man, deep down.

Because of my ‘little rest’ from the hobby, I missed Smarty Party’s release and initial success completely. This year I put that to rights, playing my first game with the designer, Pitt Crandlemire. He is a bit good at his own game, but I still managed to make a fist of it. I can see the game replacing Outburst completely at Sumo Towers, and even making a run at our staple party game, Scattergories. Loved it, basically.

My favourite of the lot is Electronic Catchphrase. I understand this game is ancient, but I don’t care. It was in constant late night play at The Gathering, and having played once, I was hooked. I roamed the hall looking for games to join. I hunted the game down and bought it, almost taking one off the prize table, just in case. So simple, but brilliant. For British readers, it is absolutely nothing to do with Roy Walker.

The games I didn’t really get on with were Thingamajig and Abstracts. The former was hilarious, with Americans ribbing my every effort; the latter just put me under all sorts of pressure. Not good. Both rely on coming up with cryptic style clues, so to prompt Mozart as an answer, one might say, ‘Too Many Notes’. Given that I am a confirmed stranger to cryptic anythings, especially crosswords, I managed to cope amazingly well. But I am not good at this type of thinking, and I doubt I will put myself through it again. Here’s why.

I had to come up with a clue for ‘statistics’. For points, I am trying to get some players, but not everyone, to guess right. I went with, “What links Cricket, Baseball and Death?” Understandably, no-one got the right answer, probably because the clue was imprecise and crap. The best, and with hindsight obvious, answer was Throws, but I am not clever enough to have thought that up. The sick, depraved, never-wish-to-think-about-it-again answer was Runs. Ask a doctor. Ewwwww.

The game I didn’t like much at all was Time's Up. Nothing wrong with it, very popular, many devoted, talented and spirited fans. The fault is with me. Being an introverted type, and English as well (it’s a burden sometimes), I don’t do charades. It’s all a bit too Will and Grace. I probably could, badly, but I won’t cross the pain threshold. As Time’s Up’s third phase is essentially charades plus a memory element, it is not really going to work for me. Combine these with Robo Rally and I am in a torture situation. That didn’t stop many extrovert types playing the game for hours on end. Moving swiftly on.

Klaus-Juergen Wrede for Amigo

Despite this being yet another game about Venice, I was quite enthused when the game was being explained. It offers a newish twist on area placement, and has a neat card claiming system. Better still, idea wise, the victory point track is incorporated into the board and is actually interactive – your dobber position on the track can affect your scoring on the main board. Interesting. Unfortunately the track device doesn’t work too well in practice and the rest of the game is just alright. It is worth a try, to see the mechanisms in action, but I felt I could safely live without it in my collection.

Lords of the Spanish Main – Revisited
Sir Philip Eklund for Sierra Madre Games

I remain enamoured of this wonderful game after no less than nine plays. In my evangelical fervour I have taught around 25 gamers so far. Only one, Paul ‘Three Holds’ Heald, is no longer talking to me. I now have some more views to offer, and they will be concise and to the point.

  1. It’s great.
  2. Despite this, 40% of gamers aren’t liking it. I do understand.
  3. I have taken to running it like a role playing game (which is what it is in some ways), balancing roles, keeping the game flowing, and helping players through the tough first decade.
  4. I believe there may be merit in either
    1. providing players with a Colony Start Package or
    2. seeding the first ten cards with interesting and profit making colonies, enough for one for each player.
  5. It’s great.

Thank you for listening.

Anselm & Helge Ostertag for Pfifficus

Guru is one of those rarities: a game designed with a novel theme that has mechanisms to match, or perhaps a well chosen theme grafted onto a novel mechanism. Only the designers know, and so far they aren’t telling.

The idea is obvious and overdue. You play a guru, or perhaps cult leader, recruiting new members to your movement. Your admirers must be chosen carefully, as you only want the right calibre of follower, presumably equipped with platinum credit cards. But, cleverly, the more members you take, the greater the chance your rivals will discern your recruiting patterns and call you out as a charlatan.

The potential investors, sorry, cultists are cards with multiple facets – card colour, pattern, body type, facial characteristics and so on. Your opponents try to deduce, you try to baffle and score points. Good idea, interesting, playable.

In theory.

The game falters because someone decided to let their six year old draw the pictures, and then overlay them onto psychedelic, indistinct patterns that leaves only the colour facet readily discernible. This means you peer, and squint, and try not to give the game away. But inevitably, even with bluffing and false moves, you do. Ironic, since this is the whole point of the game.

Despite this, I liked Guru. If nothing else, the idea is sound and they have nailed the theme/mechanism thing. You can see that with graphics that don’t originate from under fridge magnets, it would work. Its heart is in the right place, and with some development, an art transplant (sorry) and perhaps a new theme, I would not be averse to buying this one. I look forward to the second edition, or perhaps Pfifficus’ next release.

UK Games Expo

Can I just put in a reminder for this new two day event that is launching in Birmingham next weekend (June 2nd and 3rd). While I have seen many such ventures over the years, more recently trying to kickstart a British Essen, this one looks to have all the pieces in place to have at least a decent shot at that lofty aim. Richard Denning has done a hell of a lot of work, knows the UK show scene, has been inclusive in terms of the types of game and events on offer, and has pulled in almost everyone who is anyone from the UK boardgame scene. In some cases, such as Warfrog (with Brass), JKLM (Phoenicia) and the Ragnars, there will be exclusive game launches and demonstrations.

If like me you have been along to the many previous attempts, I know what you might be thinking. What if I go and there is no-one there? Will it even run? But if I don’t go, will I miss out on something really good and kill it for 2008? The answer, this time, is that there will be plenty to do, even if you just browse the traders, and play the demo games. I am falling out with family to get there on the Saturday. I suggest you do the same. Let’s get behind this one, and see if the UK scene (always the bridesmaid, it seems) can finally take a step up onto the world stage.

Full details at the web site:

Mike Siggins

Mike Siggins
Gamer’s Notebook, April 2007
May 01, 2007 7:36 AM

Gamer’s Notebook, April 2007

What follows is a round up of the games played at three conventions that saw me occupied for no less than eighteen days of twenty five in March and early April. These were in Eastbourne, at The Gathering and the Cambridge Boardgame Club. Encouragingly, I am not in the least gamed out and will be back for more in two days time. There are however so many games to cover, that this report is going to be a two parter. Look for the balance in a couple of weeks.

For some reason, the Nuremberg releases were both few and delayed this year. Retailers could not satisfy our cravings at our mid-March mini-con in Eastbourne. The only ‘new’ game we had was Pillars of the Earth (Mayfair’s English version – identical otherwise) which I had managed to secure pretty much off the boat – accordingly, my copy got a lot of play and was, I believe, enjoyed by all. In a way, the delivery delay was a positive outcome. We simply worked our way through the more obscure or replayable Essen titles and, in a trend that would continue in Columbus, there were an awful lot of prototypes played. More on that development later.

First of all, a shameless plug for UK Games Expo which is taking place on the weekend of June 2nd and 3rd in Birmingham. Richard Denning has pulled together an impressive list of traders and gaming events, covering boardgames, cards, miniatures and more. He is hoping to start the ball rolling towards a British Essen. That can’t be a bad idea, and if you can, please support this venture. I am doing all I can to get along, even though the weekend clashes with a family event, and it is in Birmingham... Details at

Kramer & Lubke for Days of Wonder

Days of Wonder games are nothing if not big. Cleopatra was quite daunting last year, spread across two tables, and this looked no less impressive with a large board and lots of stylish bits. Cleopatra was okay, but we had seen most of it before and the whole thing was over-produced and under-developed, but we can debate that if you feel strongly. Colosseum is a different beast.

With a couple of exceptions, it feels as if the designers have applied themselves, the developers have done their work, and that this is a rounded, functioning product. The slip was in making some routes to victory somewhat channelled (try the trireme ploy one day) and in having just about everything left in, system wise – roll & move, auctions, trading, building, money, bonuses, VPs – it’s got the lot! The result can be a slow game with four or five - if you have the temerity to chat to your friends, you may be looking at two hours, which is 30 minutes too long. It also makes Princes of Florence, which achieves much the same net result, look lean and mean.

The basic game will be broadly familiar to any players of Princes, Leonardo, Show Manager, Moviemaker or (cough, cough) Shakespeare: The Bard Game. It’s all about productions. You are tasked with putting on shows in the Roman arenas. This means acquiring resources and matching them to spectaculars that emphasise your horses, chariots, gladiators or lions. There are bonuses for holding a controlling interest in some resource types, and there are bit players too. Sadly, you often can’t get hold of the resources you need. As I said, nothing much left out.

As the game progresses, your productions become more and more impressive, and - this is the unusual part – your final VP score is the best production you manage, not a cumulative total as you might expect. So your early shows may stink, but as long as you are building towards a season finale to make the emperor weep with joy, you are in good shape. This also gives rise to a Princes style income system, and some interesting timing decisions.

The one word summary? Overwrought. But it works well enough, and it feels finished and playable. You just need to keep a move on, it has some luck, and, honestly, I didn’t find it a great deal of fun – something of a serious omission for a Roman impresario.

Reiner Knizia for Fantasy Flight

A major highlight of The Gathering was a four hour Lord of the Rings game with all available guns firing for Sauron – including the brand new Battlefields expansion. I was Fatty Bolger, the full array of hobbits was present, and we even had a human Sauron, if that is not a contradiction in terms. Everything started really badly and got much worse. In Bree we drew a dozen consecutive bad events. By Moria, Sauron was skipping gaily down the track, whistling, and we were starting to die. It was all up for the goodies in Helm’s Deep. The shadow lay dark across the lands of Middle-Earth, and we went off for a well earned milk shake.

All of which is to say that the game is now rather difficult for the Free Peoples. Not impossible though. Later in the week, while I was struggling in the Friday Night quiz, the hobbits made it to Mt. Doom by one card. One card! That is what I call a balanced game.

When I returned to England, and described this epic event (I can see it becoming an annual fixture for me), there was a general sense of, “Oh, are you still playing that old thing?”. To that I mentally answer yes, and even all these years on I still find the group experience of LOTR valid, enjoyable, fun and so, so different. It remains a wonderful piece of design, and group play, and to be honest I don’t see anything coming along to replace it.

Anyway. Battlefields. I liked the effects and ideas a lot, and it adds some extra flavour along with the difficulty. There is however a real sense of the add-on taking out more cards than it offers, but that may be illusory. What I didn’t really care for was the actual process of minions and heroes following arrows around abstract boards – Lord of the Rings: The Flowchart. On its own, with the main game, I guess it would be fine, but where is the fun in that? As players of Alhambra and Carcassonne know, if you have 38 expansions, you want to use them all.

Palm & Zach for Adlung

A game that almost certainly needs a new name, as no one apart from German speakers can pronounce it without laughing.

A number of 18th century type people sit in a coach. Each belongs to one of two secret societies, but which one? Your job is to find out, and to decide who is carrying the society’s three symbols. Investigation is straightforward – question a fellow traveller, and obtain support from the others to make sure he answers. He then tells you his allegiance, for your eyes only. If you lose, with the support favouring the questionee, you will instead find yourself revealing your allegiance or items to him.

Each player has a power, one of which in particular seems somewhat over-generous, and a range of interesting artifacts move around the table, and ownership, by various means. Once you are sure of your facts, you make a game ending statement naming your co-conspirators, including who is holding the symbols. Not easy.

This game will not appeal to everyone, as it is an exercise in deduction and in reading people, at which skill some gamers are preternaturally disposed. Or undisposed in my case. But if this sort of thing appeals, I can recommend this one. It is also that most appealing of games: the Adlung title that works, so it will also be cheap. How can you lose? Well, you won’t want to be playing it with eight or more, as it slows to a boring grind. With six, and the right people, it was a little gem.

Cathala & Maublanc for Hurrican

A two player game set in Jack the Ripper’s London. Hmmm, you say. Not the most heart warming of themes, and many will just stay away because of it. But trust squeamish Uncle Mike on this one; the gore and victims are non-existent. Instead, this is a light, fun, quick, attractive (indeed stylish) game of deduction that could assume a new, less off-putting, theme quite happily. Be warned though that if you are a closet Poirot or Jessica Fletcher, and are naturally talented at deduction, this may be far too easy for you. Join the police force.

One player is the detective, the other Jack. By movement, logic and some darn clever exposition rules and character powers, the detective must identify the villain from a list of suspects. Jack simply has to escape before he is found out, using sewer movement if necessary (and isn’t that almost required?). The whole game feels fresh, it rolls along like a Swiss watch and the design is clever. Yes, even elegant.

The situation may well also be finely balanced, but I doubt it – I think the chips are stacked against Jack. So you should probably play back to back games, swapping sides. It is quick enough that this should not be an issue – 20 to 30 minutes, tops. Mary Prasad smacked my botty on this one, and politely handed it back. I believe that is the modern terminology for my losing like an idiot. But I almost got away, and I shall return. I liked Mr. Jack a lot, and would like to source a copy if such a thing is still possible in this feeding frenzy we call gaming.

Stefan Feld for Alea

I have rated Stefan Feld since he put the excellent Roma on my table, and so quite happily follow his progress. It is not bad to slot your second and third releases into Alea boxes is it?

So what do we have here? Nominally, it is a game about medieval Paris in which you are trying to build the eponymous cathedral, while avoiding rat infestation in your arrondissement. In practice, you have a personal board with several areas. Each area contains a power that is triggered by cubes being placed on it. A cumulative growth of cubes usually bestows greater benefits. Every now and then, rats turn up and need to be dealt with. Content is mixed: resource balancing and redeployment (cubes and money are limited), timing, opportunism, flexible strategies and reacting to rival’s efforts.

The most interesting part of the game is the card drafting driver, which has finally made its way over from Magic, by way of Fairy Tale. The cards determine where you may place cubes, and so trigger the corresponding actions, in a given turn. Some of the gamers I spoke to felt that this conferred too little control – you essentially did what you could with the cards on offer, but never quite seemed to have the one you wanted. This is of course pure chaos, balanced by the fact that you can sometimes mitigate by planning (getting, and choosing to hold the right three actions) and good fortune (inbound cards). If it all goes to pot, having money on hand will let you get varying levels of help from wandering professionals at the end of each turn.

I can recommend Notre Dame. I don’t rate it as one of the best, and it certainly isn’t deep, but I do see it very much in the same category as Yspahan – a game that will entertain, plays quickly (an hour or less) and yet allows a degree of thought and exploration of various strategies. It has that low turn density thing going on, and it rattles along. Also in common with Yspahan, while we have seen most of it before, it appears fresh, and this is an increasingly difficult achievement these days – another reason I am drawn to Herr Feld’s designs. Against all this, the game is strangely low on interaction.

By my reckoning, Notre Dame was probably the hit of The Gathering, ignoring certain unnameable prototypes and Caylus Magna Carta, which I have yet to play. I am positive on Notre Dame, I played it four times, and will buy it when available in English, but I am not going mad for it. Those deploying the ‘great’ word may well have had a sheltered upbringing. One to add to the wants list.

Vladimir Chvatil for CBG

It is not often I get stumped by a game. Usually, after playing a couple of times, I have a rating in mind, a view and a desire (or lack of same) to play again. TtA throws me. To try to find out why, I played for a third time at The Gathering. Four of us went to the quiet room, knowing that we would do the whole advanced game thing, and not move or eat until we had finished. Six hours later I emerged. None the wiser. So it remains an uncertain 6/10.

There are many things that are good in this game, and many things I don’t like, some of them jarring. There is, logically, a lot going on. The basic Show Manager card system is sound, and there is a real sense of building a civilisation. But there is also a lot of fiddling and effort to get there.

My main gripe is the powerful cards, of which there are not many, but enough to notice. If you get the right card at the right time, you are all set, usually as a VP generator many times more powerful than your rivals’. There are also some heavy event cards that can kick in during the ‘post game/future’ phase that I am not too keen on. Once card carried a 50 point swing from me to a rival. Too much?

I also got two cards that were spot on for my do-nothing ‘Afghanistan’ strategy – stay as a very low tech dictatorship and unmilitarised for as long as possible, fighting the many attacking tanks with spears, but crank out happy citizens and culture like they are going out of fashion. By the end of the game I still had lots of seed cards in play, and no science whatsoever – he was busily working on a farm. Who needs defence when you can have opera?

The strategy included the ‘pace maker’ option, by which you just run ahead using an unsustainable civ, building a lead, in the knowledge that the advanced behemoths won’t get up to speed for a while. In the end I took a fair bit of catching, and had I got Ghandi at the start of Epoch 3 rather than at the end, I feel I may well have won. Is that right that I should have had the chance? As it was, I got hit late on by one of the big war cards (Crusade?) and my country fell apart. My other main gripe is the time it takes overall, and that includes a lot of downtime.

As it stands I would probably, arm twisted slightly, play it once a year. Probably. Apart from the odd powerful card, what is clear is that Mr Chvatil has tested this game, and one can only imagine the hundreds of hours this must have taken him and his team. For now, it gets to stay on the shelf unsold.

Michael Kiesling for Hans im Glueck

This is the big early year release from Hans im Glueck, and I am left with mixed feelings. I played it three times, twice as the basic game and once the advanced. I really liked parts of the system, but others left me cold. The overall impression, of a loosely themed game that was missing the magic cohesive ingredient, was not favourable either.

The theme could and should be tempting. You are (I think) Saxons or similar, setting up your peaceful Dark Age colony on coastal islands. Sadly, you have chosen the Viking era to do this, so you can expect frequent looting by those pesky pillagers. Your aim is to acquire population and new islands while defending yourself from the raiding ships.

The good bit is the auction/market mechanism, which is both original and interesting in play. Twelve sets of island tiles and villagers are arrayed in a specified order around a rotating dial, which is numbered zero to eleven. On your turn, you can pay for any set at the price shown, or you can take the free set. As the lowest value sets are sold, the dial rotates and the entire market thus becomes less expensive. So you can get in early and pay top dollar, usually to secure an item in short supply, or you can wait and see if you get a bargain.

There are two twists. You can only take the free set if it is the last one of its type – clever, this. And lurking at the expensive end of the dial are Viking ships that, as we have established, are not good for business. So if you wait too long you will get a bad batch, and you may even have to pay for the privilege.

The problem with the game is that the theming is actually so poor that it annoys. Your population and islands are placed in an orthogonal matrix, and the Vikings attack individual columns... Incredibly, if they are in the wrong column, they fail to move to the one nextdoor. Sheesh. Way to portray the period, guys.

Not only is the game abstract in feel, play and indeed looks, but it comes up with these really odd rules that break the mechanism-theme link completely. Who’d have thought that Viking ships could only raid in straight lines? The advanced game is little better, and seems to just add turn order bidding, some fiddling and special power tiles at the expense of playing time.

In the game’s defence, I may have missed some nuance (in rules or play) and it is a Hans im Glueck, which are always puzzling when they disappoint. Against that, Kiesling is not my favourite designer by a long chalk. Either way, I will return to this one to see if it improves.

Michael Schacht for Abacus

In a nutshell, this is Coloretto with a game attached.

If you imagine the Coloretto mechanism re-purposed as a sub-system, whereby when you take the card batch they are placed onto a separate scoring board, you will have the feel of this game. Instead of cards, you are placing animal tiles. You want these for your zoo (which, in truth, looks more like a farm) As batches form, which can also include money and refreshment stands, you can choose to take them, always aiming to fill a field with one type of animal. This selection process should get you what you want, but also takes you out of the round.

Time passes, and your fields fill up slowly. Sometimes you secure a breeding pair, and a free baby animal appears. Sometimes they overflow, so you can sell a spare animal to a rival. There are some expansion options of the Bohnanza extra field variety, and you can swap animals around for a fee. At the end of the game, you add up your field points and that is that Simple, 45 minutes, and good fun.

Just to re-iterate, there is nothing heavy or especially clever going on here, it is just a good old fashioned German family game that works and kept this old hand amused. In the same way that I will always play Coloretto as a filler, I will now play this as a lightweight game. In many respects it reminded me of Ra, and I can see myself playing these interchangeably from now on.

In the end I played this one four times, and showed it to a fair number of people as well. If you like Coloretto, you are almost certainly going to like this one.

The Gathering

I don’t really need to repeat my comments of last year because all of them apply again. The Gathering is a remarkable event, and I enjoyed every moment. Thanks Alan. I played games with around thirty newly-met people, as well as many old friends. Having ticked off a game with Brian Bankler, I now I only need a Frank Branham, Matt Horn and a Patrick Korner for the set.

So it is, as ever, all about the people. On my first night of gaming, I was sitting opposite William Attia who was trying to mime Dashiell Hammett to me. We worked amazingly well as a team, considering my almost total lack of French. A couple of nights later, I had a great chat with Greg Aleknevicus, who I have never met before, and we put the gaming world to rights. These statements do of course enable me to drop quite considerable names and sum up The Gathering in one paragraph.

Normally I don’t play tournaments, ever, anywhere. But because my good friend Alan How wanted to play in the Puzzle Hunt, I made an exception. I have to say this was a sound decision. A team of us spent over three hours tackling what seemed to be an endless stream of puzzles, map tests, wordsearches, anagrams, logic games, auctions, quizzes and challenges, all forming clues and in turn leading to a single game title that would win the prize. Ties were split by the fastest correct answer. So no pressure then!

I doubt my brain has worked that hard since school. Some tasks I could do quite easily, others were very hard indeed – ‘brutal’, as the locals said. However, even though we failed to get an overall answer, had we known that the trivia question section related to Ohio towns, we could have been a contender. Hemlock, Ohio?

This fiendish challenge was set by Dale Yu and his hard working and, it must be said, worryingly sadistic team. As we slogged through, it became apparent how much work had gone into the myriad puzzles. A lot. Hearing it all explained just resulted in heads shaking, and wonder at how anyone got it right in the time available, but two teams did. Overall, I have to say the whole thing was awesome. And that is an English awesome, not a devalued American awesome. The final answer? Tikal. Which I suppose we could have guessed at!

My prize table picks were Sac Noir (woohoo!) and TV Wars. However, Tim Trant kindly gave me his pick of Pendragon (boxed 1st Edition – cor!), Alan How gave me Gouwan Strike, a Japanese baseball game, Jared Scarborough gave me Lords of the Renaissance, and John Palagyi gave me Beyond Balderdash. I was a very happy bunny. I also had to buy a new item of luggage.

And then, somehow, ten days of gaming was over. On the Monday, having theoretically caught up on some sleep, I like to go to the nearby Easton Mall. For someone who likes malls, this huge place cheers me up. With the Pound buying two Dollars, I am verging on delirious. But there was little to purchase until I reached Barnes & Noble, where I happily sat down with a couple of baseball books and the Swimsuit Issue.

So, relaxed and happy and not a little tired, I promptly fell asleep. This may have lasted for an hour or more, but so polite are the staff and customers, they left me to it. Eventually, I half-woke and was aware of lovely, soothing music. I sat there for a few tracks, and eventually I went to see what was playing. Alison Krauss. CD purchased, back catalogue being investigated. I am listening to this, The Kooks, The Killers, and Tracey Thorn’s new one as I write.

Can I identify any themes from this mad month of gaming? Yes. Some gamers are definitely getting fed up with the uniformity of German Games and are looking for… something else. What exactly, we don’t really know yet. The learned Mr Branham believes German Games are passé. We shall see. For me, the conclusion is that the overall standard of games seems to be higher, with smaller peaks and troughs on either side, if that makes sense? The key worry is the ongoing lack of truly outstanding games.

The other strange thing is that I have been playing some really good prototypes, which are frequently better than the games being released at the moment. I have said before that I don’t go out of my way to play prototypes (for the usually cited reasons) but I see some, not least through my design groups, and they bode well for the next year or so. Especially when you consider titles such as Caylus Magna Carta, Phoenicia, Race for the Galaxy, Friedemann Friese’s latest and Richard Breese’s new Key game. Again, we shall see.

The highlights, then? For me, Notre Dame, Zooloretto, Mr. Jack, Kutschfahrt, Smarty Party, Electronic Catchphrase and, predictably, Lords of the Spanish Main. On a straw poll of other gamers, I would say Notre Dame won by a distance. I am sure I would have liked Caylus Magna Carta, but I didn’t get the chance to try it. I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have liked Settlers: The Dice Game, and I didn’t want to try it.

More next time.

Mike Siggins

Mike Siggins
Gamer's Notebook, January 2007
January 21, 2007 6:20 PM

This month’s column will comprise four main parts: a round up of the Essen releases, either played or re-played; some relevant sports reporting; a short review of the best game of the year; and finally The Sumos – a list of my favourite games for 2006. But first, the weather.

It is very mild in England. We had a short winter, on December 9th, but otherwise I have not yet needed my gloves or a second fleece. I take this as incontrovertible (is that really a word?) evidence of global warming, I expect the Gulfstream to stop at any moment, and it is also how I ended up playing softball in November. This is what happened.

I went to an afternoon/evening 'party/barbeque' for my godson's 17th birthday. It featured a dozen or so work-shy, but sociable, teenagers. They all had better iPods than I have, and one had such a cool mountain bike that I almost bought it from him.

We went to the park to kick a ball around and then play softball. It was agreed to split into four teams of three (everyone fields, three bat), and the four girls were elected as team captains. Fair enough. Now I have played a bit of softball (London Mixed League Slow Pitch champs, 1989*) and am a pretty good infielder, for an Englishman. So I swung a bat around a bit, and threw and caught some balls impressively. Appearing good at this sort of thing is, it seems, still very important to me. I have my own glove, and everything.

My ploy worked like a charm. I was pretty pleased to be drafted in the first round and walked around coolly, as befitted my status as a born again sportsman. I mentally congratulated Natalie on her keen observation skills. Obviously a young lady destined for greatness. Possibly a future role in personnel, a model agency, or sports management, I feel.

Time passed, and eventually there was hushed talk of 'just the three old people left'. My mate Paul, 43, and his dad, 65-odd, and... three? I've been picked. Shurely some mistake? Turns out the Mike who had been picked by the astute Natalie was an athletic, good looking, long haired chap of 17 who went on to make two show stopping catches. He was also Natalie’s boyfriend.

I was picked dead last, after a pensioner, and tied with an underdeveloped, cross eyed, acne ridden teenager, wearing a Cubs hat, who was about two feet tall. Well I say tied; it is possible he may have actually been picked ahead of me. And him in a Cubs hat too. Even then I was only added on to a reluctant team as a surrogate fourth.

Needless to say, this was desperate, desperate stuff.

I was mortified. So crushed in fact, I couldn’t hit anything when I came up to bat. After two embarrassing wild swings, I managed a lame trickler single that barely made the shortstop. This with a girl pitching loopers. A girl. My demeanour was not helped by the creaky body issue that set in after an hour of charging around the field. I ached. Even after moving to first base for a rest. Always did like the big scoopy glove. The day after, I ached a lot more.

My confidence shattered, I was forced to impress them intellectually by being the umpire in Trivial Pursuit and Scattergories later on, back at the house. After I had taken a pain killer.

In fairness it was a great afternoon, and I had a lot of laughs, but boy, did I feel old.

*Actually, the team I founded won the League the year after I left, having imported three Americans. I can’t believe there was any link between the two events, and my therapist has told me not to worry about it too much. I gave up playing because my nerve went. I often pitched some mean relief, and one day a ball came back so fast that I didn’t even see it. It whizzed past my head, according to the second baseman, and was still moving fast as it left the atmosphere. That was okay. What could possibly happen? Who said “temple related injury”?

The next week, another ball came straight back, and wedged itself between my lower abdomen and, er, upper thigh. We are talking an inch or two from the Family Jewels. The bruise was impressive, in time resembling a late Jackson Pollock. I never pitched again, but I did sell a line to Woody Allen as a result, “My brain? That’s my second favourite organ!”

Back to what I know….

Reiner Knizia for Kosmos

Compare and contrast something like Emira with the lean and mean Blue Moon City. Emira is overweight, favours carbohydrates, heavy metal and a pimped SUV, and is surely headed for a coronary. Blue Moon City goes to the gym, has a minimalist home, listens to Philip Glass, drives an Audi TT, and lives a blameless lifestyle. It is positively sparse by comparison. But then we half expect that from Reiner. Where Emira is under developed, Blue Moon is developed within an inch of its life and, to be honest, it is just a wee bit bland as a result. The fantasy theme doesn’t help matters here, whereas, oddly, it allows Blue Moon (The Officially Underrated Card Game) to work.

Whatever, the City game is a good one. Very good. It seems like the first game is obvious and you wonder whether you will play again. But the second game really starts to show its paces, and you see more things to achieve, and better ways to do them. In short, it’s a grower. What I will say is that without Chris Farrell’s excellent analysis, we wouldn’t have been able to play this game. The rulebook is really poorly done, with concepts and important rules all over the place. Otherwise, if you don’t mind some hard, Knizia style dryness, and some interesting decisions, Blue Moon City is well worth a look.

Dominique Ehrhard for Asmodee

Firstly, you’ve got to love the cards and the artwork. Secondly, anyone who mentions (repeatedly) that there were no elephants in the Trojan War should be shunned, much as you would a trainspotter. Thirdly, you can safely buy this one if you like card games in the Condottiere vein. It’s not stellar but it works, it’s reasonable fun and it rings the changes from its ancestor, by the same erratic but talented designer. On balance, I prefer it to Condottiere, which never really sorted out the player interactions and end game. The only major problem with Iliade is that we played a six player game and it didn’t seem to want to conclude – it was the old ‘three players waiting on one VP for several turns’ issue. A house rule, or fewer players, should fix that – we had a much quicker game with four. Otherwise, a very nice little card game and I look forward to trying the partnership variant. I just wish the game were easier to get hold of – what’s the hold up?

Mac Gerdts for Eggertspiel

I find Eggertspiel a confusing company to track. They attract a curious species of gamer that I call Johnny Exciteables. They constantly regale one with stories of greatness, and impending mass-market breakout, but never back it with analysis. In truth, they can’t tell you why the game is good. They may simply froth because they have played, and you haven’t. So, later, I try the vaunted game and I think, bleh. The results of Unquestioning Fanboy Disease at its worst.

But still, I feel a professional commitment to play the new games. I like it. It’s what I do. And the themes often appeal. This saw me sitting down to a game of Antike with the owner of the company this Spring, and even though it was better than normal, it was still forced. It was, in fairness, okay, and it worked. Just happened to be stylistically opposite to my taste in games. Dry, slow, overlong, predictable, no capacity for big plays, no flavour – a classic Teutonic experience. Just grind out the yardage, ignore the flair - the French do that so well; leave it to them. And so, having shelved Space Dealer as well, I escaped once again from the ever-shifting Lands of Eggert.

Until December. I am drawn in again, this time to play Imperial at the recommendation of Richard Breese, among others. Now that is someone I can rely on. It costs me four hours of my life, but, yes, this one definitely has something. Take it from me, the idiots who say it is like Antike really do need a slap. It has a rondel. And a map. And it is from the same company. That is the extent of the similarity. Presumably these people think a Hyundai is like a Maserati because they both have a steering wheel.

Imperial is your bog standard ‘invest in expanding countries that might well go to war soon’ game. At this point I always think of 1630 Something, the early Wallace production, but no one else is making that comparison. Tant pis. The period is the late 1890’s, early 1900’s, and the stench of a Great War is in the air. So we are treated to a map that looks very much like a Diplomacy board, and lots of little wooden factories, armies and navies. Again, a sharp slap for anyone that tells you it is like Diplomacy. Apart from the major powers being on a land grab, it isn’t. In fact there is almost a complete absence of negotiation. It seems you build your own alliances by controlling both parties. Clever.

On the positive side, as the countries expand and annex neighbours, contesting valuable resources, there is a really good 18xx style company credit/income system exposed. While I am not sure all the rondel actions have a direct equivalent in company accounting, to this layman it was conceivable that they did. So, I felt I was running a company rather than a country, but as you will by now have gathered, that is what the game is about.

Generally speaking, you watch what happens on the board, measuring country successes and failures, looking at their long term potential and trying to work out who will come out on top. Ideally you then build a stake in that country, and a couple of others so that your portfolio is diversified. Clearly, some countries work better together than others, if they can be held on to, and this synergy and changing dynamics unfold nicely as the game progresses. If you build a large enough stake, you effectively become the government and, akin to running an 18xx company, you call the shots. England may be happily hammering on France, but a sudden change of management may see them ignore our Gallic heroes and instead have a pop at Germany.

On the negative side, the game is not really about war/territory, but we have to do all that tiresome move and combat stuff anyway. Instead, it is about income and investments. In much the same way as 18xx isn’t about running railways (discuss)! The problem here, and it frustrated me, is that the market in the countries is not that fluid. You can’t really sell, if you spot a major power tanking, but as the country holdings are bonds this does make some sense. More crucially, you can only buy if you have the dealer ticket that passes around the table. Needless to say the opportunity to buy may come too late. Or way too late. In turn, someone else may get it at just the right moment.

You also suffer that frustration that 18xx provides when you are taken out of a company just as all the hard work is done, and you are looking to reap the rewards. And yes, even though you start with two decent holdings, this can leave you with nothing to govern and perhaps a long wait to get back ‘in’ the game. That investor only role works for some gamers, but not for all. Having little money and a feeling of helplessness works for very few.

But taken overall, the game and the originality are very encouraging. It moves along quite well, as each decision is short and snappy, even if the resolution, military moves and payouts sometimes aren’t. The result, for me, was a long game that didn’t feel at all long, and which had a steady level of generated interest. Plus, it had identifiable peaks where key powers were changing hands, or a costly naval war raged, or money became plentiful and the bond markets buzzed. Also clever were the peaceful geographical sectors and phases of the narrative that emerge, almost organically.

So, a positive experience. What I have long waited for is a game where you cast your eye over the board, assess the chances of the respective factions, and back that assessment with an investment. Or indeed a sale. Imperial comes tantalising close to pulling this off, but ultimately there is a noticeable disconnect between the board position and the market. Instead of one interlinked whole, they feel disparate, which is a shame. This is partly because of the timing issues and illiquidity I mentioned above, and partly because there is some role confusion. There may be other factors too, which would be interesting to identify.

Where Imperial drops back for me is that it may have some peripheral issues; some in visual range, others not. However these are not rough edges left in a complex design but, more worryingly, potential holes into which the game can tip. The game and player positions, the ebb and flow, takeovers, and the financial fluctuations just feel a little too… unregulated. It may well be that Mr Gerdts and the team have tested this a hundred times and every possibility has been carefully identified, quantified and constrained. It also may not be the case. It is my old nagging doubt problem, born out of too many years playing this type of game. Just a hunch, and we shall see.

As for the theme, I have to admit a degree of surprise. There was a time when you couldn’t buy a war themed game at Essen. Now, in Imperial, we have little black battleships, ominous factories and poor old Belgium gets it in the neck, yet again. I honestly couldn’t begin to say why a German company would present a game set in this period, or what that choice has done to potential sales in the home market, or among the anti-war gamers. But they have their reasons, I’m sure. To my mind it could have been a really clever business game, with international market sectors opening, developing and fought over. Simple. My invoice is in the mail.

As you can tell, I liked Imperial a bit more than it deserves. Because I have some doubts, probably unfounded, I am going to withhold the Sumo accolade. But only just. What is sure is that I definitely prefer it to Antike. I will need to play at least twice again, but I have already seen enough to know I will probably buy one. It is playably good, with some work it could be very good, plus it is unusual and quite daring in its way. I ask no more.

Ingenious (Einfach Genial) – PC Version

Reiner Knizia for USM Digital Media/Kosmos

I saw this running at Essen and really didn’t think a lot of it. It looks nice enough on screen, and the price is right, but I saw no point in buying it as my chances of competing with a computer AI at an abstract game are always zero. Or worse. Anyway, not for the first time, I was wrong. Like Tetris and Sim City 4 before it, this game gained the ultimate accolade – it was deleted from my hard drive because it was taking up way too much time.

Apart from being in German only, and badly needing a ‘take back’ option (to recover frustrating mouse slips), and games played stats, it is just about perfect. And if you play it enough – I am about 100 games in - you really do learn the ropes. Even given that there is some luck in the tile draw, I have gone from a clumsy newbie to someone who understands the key plays, with a smattering of tactics, and I can now beat the computer 50% of the time.

In fairness, I think I am on the Dorftrottel, or Village Idiot, difficulty setting. But I don’t care. I like the fact that you get a good close game, whenever you want. You can play a tight strategy, or a ‘run and gun’ open format; I like the end game close out tactics; I like the games of chicken as a line grows; and I love the fact that it seems to pick up on your play style. I also don’t think the bugger cheats, but who really knows? This is an excellent implementation of the hugely popular boardgame, and will, I suspect, add a one player addiction to your Ingenious repertoire.

Corne van Moorsel for Cwali

Being a larger framed person, “you’ve got big bones” as my mum used to say, I wasn’t much good at running when I was little. Bloody useless at it now, I can tell you. Anyway. Sure, I got in the school soccer team, at full back, but as we lost 10-0 to St. Pansy’s Remedial School, that really wasn’t saying much. I played badminton, well, but even that was limited by cargo shift issues – you either understand that phrase, or you don’t. Sporting Life continued until one day I trudged out to the high school athletic field, on a freezing April day, and was handed a cold discus. As there was nothing on that plate to eat, I stood in the concrete, weed-infested circle and hurled it as far as I could. No spinning limbs, no technique, no grunting, just brute force. I broke the school record by 8 metres.

Shortly, I was in the track and field team at county and then national competitions, pairing up with Shot Putting School Freak Mick Bewby who was six foot three when he was born, complete with stubble, and who had been dating proper women since he was 12. Sadly, in case you were expecting a life affirming Steve Redgrave or Troy Smith type story, I never ever managed to throw as far as that first effort again. This annoyed the hell out of my coach. “Come on Siggins, if you get 42 metres we go to the nationals! You can throw that asleep.” I failed. Every time. No idea why. Overthinking? Confusion of techniques? God playing with my head as usual? My diet of cookies, Rhubarb ‘n’ Custards, and cheese? Hormones? Could have been anything. At least I avoided steroid abuse, so it makes for a happy ending.

Which is a very long way of saying I got all ten machines on the board the first time I played Factory Fun, and I have not since managed that feat. Or even come close. Otherwise, not much more to add to my Essen report comments. I have played this more times than any other game in 2006, I have sold about ten copies of it to willing converts, I even sent one as a Christmas present. In short, I am quite happy to recommend it to anyone. Not all will enjoy the puzzle aspect or ‘The Grab’, understandably, but most do. Some gamers go away and derive bidding systems, or even in one case buy four sets for ‘identical simultaneous Take It Easy style’ play. But I like it as it comes out of the box. A real winner. Unlike me.

Michael Rieneck for Kosmos

This is an interesting one. It sold out at Essen, but I was able to source a German set and thanks to Melissa Rogerson’s excellent translation we got to play. And play again. I really like this game. I do now see why people say ‘Caylus’ in the same breath, but the big difference for me was that this title had that mid-game warm glow feel from enjoying and exploring a clever and tight system, whereas Caylus left me cold. And that, I suppose, is just me. If I had to be picky, and I usually am, I would say that it is one turn too long, and it would have been nice if the wooden cathedral had done something else apart from mark the passage of time. That apart, I liked it all. Thematically, it is rather good, and I like the mechanisms. Those of you who enjoy Richard Breese style games, or think Caylus is a touch heavy and dry, should give this a try. I think it can exist both as an alternative, and as a game in its own right. Saulen will be published in English by Mayfair later this year, as Pillars of the Earth.


Having played this at Essen, and pretty much rated it as the hit of the show, I just had a nagging doubt that it would be a short-lived thrill. I have proved myself right by only playing once more. For comparison, I have played Factory Fun more than ten times already. The game is fine, and it works as advertised, I just don’t think it is a stayer - it has that curious, ‘Played once, played enough’, quality. As I said in the Essen report, I am intrigued to know how the base game would work without the egg timers and real time element. I still like it, and admire the innovation (shared with Recess this year, as it happens) but, well, let’s play it again after six months and see.

Peter Burley for Burley Games

My initial assessment of this one was spot on. It is a welcome expansion to and enhancement of Take it Easy. This news will either fill you with pleasure, or not. I just needed to be sure the developed game was a positive step, and I think it is. There seems to be a little more luck going round, but this is made up for by the variety of games and tiles in the box. If you like, it is a toolkit for Take It Easy variants. I am fairly sure it will prompt me to make up my own variants now the ‘sacred fixed format’ has been broken. And who better to do that than Peter Burley? One of the highlights of the year.

Tom Lehmann for Amigo

I know, I know. This game seems to be dividing gamers down the middle. I am in the pro camp. I think it is cleverly conceived (as long as there is a nod to Michael Schacht’s Knights) and well executed, and I can actually see a whole load of potential in this game – expansion cards, new applications, sub-games and so on. I liked almost everything about it, and moreso, in truth, its potential. I realise that your view may differ!

I like to call this one Applied Yahtzee. We all know how to do the Yahtzee thing, but Yahtzee on its own, with rolling just to tick a passive box, doesn’t really cut it. Here, you achieve something that will be actively useful to you later in the game. I have also seen this described as Yahtzee plus power/Magic cards, and that is probably close enough. Is this sufficient for battle hardened gamers? On paper, no, but this is one of those games that offers rather more than it should. Most designs go the other way. At heart it is a light dice-fest, but there is enough to think about, it doesn’t take too long, and the end game is interesting too. The cards are beautifully done, if a little difficult to spot at longer ranges.

I can see that it is not at its best with a lot of players, perhaps ideal with three, but with more the game scores because (unusual, this) it involves everyone on a group level – almost as a co-operative experience. Someone is rolling, they may not be sure where to go next, but there are lots of people to point out their options. Whether this is a good thing will depend on your view of whether game sessions are social events to be enjoyed by all, or a time for hard nosed competition.

Sebastien Pauchon for Ystari

The only game I passed on this year, and now really wish I had bought. I am well over five games of this one, and on one notable Saturday I played three times. It is very hard not to like it. A lot. There is still that heavy-handed element where someone throws five or six of one dice number, which happened in my first game at Essen, which lets the start player clean up for a turn. And there are other slightly clunky bits. And sometimes the turns are no brainers, especially if you are going last. But none of these quibbles amounts to a negative cast, and in fact they have a curious magnetic quality that sees you playing again to see what the system can take in its stride. Sometimes camels are in short supply, at other times no one can get gold. Do you go the building route, or the caravan, or the area control? All this works because the game is so quick, and because the dice driver is clever. Just twenty-one turns, and each one takes very little time. But a lot happens, or at least seems to, and there are definable strategies. I know you feel I am hedging slightly here, and I am (over what, I can’t say exactly; it is probably the Imperial Pothole Syndrome) but that should not put you off. If you have any kind of vacancy for a light middleweight, hour long, game in the Super Filler mould, I doubt you will go wrong with Yspahan. For me, one of the best of the year and my favourite Ystari game. Anyone want to sell me one?

And finally, the game that turned out to be the highlight of the year when it popped up at Essen, and then turned into my favourite game by some margin:

Lords of the Spanish Main

Phil Eklund for Sierra Madre Games

Many years ago I wrote a positive, even effusive, review of Lords of the Sierra Madre, an outstanding game that set out Phil Eklund’s stall as a talented designer and as a man who will pump in history until it oozes from your ears. His delivery vehicle is unusual, the rules are interestingly done, and the game is anything but typical, so there was in fairness always a degree of confusion as a result. Those gamers that persisted were rewarded with a singularly positive experience.

Nothing much changes. Lords of the Spanish Main takes us back to the year 1600, with the Spanish overlords looting Central and South America for whatever they can get their hands on. Every ten years a treasure fleet sails back to the home country in Europe. Such magnificent wealth predictably draws attention from the poorer, and unscrupulous, individuals known as privateers. Now privateers can exist on trading quite happily, sailing very close to the law and extracting a living here and there, but when they cross the line they become pirates, and that is a career for life.

The basic Eklund game structure applies. Your role is one of the famous sailors or movers of the age – Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Cardinal Richelieu, The Duke of Lerma or even Ganga Zumba, chief of the escaped slaves in Brazil. You start with very little cash and you will never have too much, but you do have a ship that can trade, or carry enough crew to be a useful privateer. Each turn you choose trading, or privateer status. These should both generate a small income, which you will invest into various schemes, business opportunities or bribes. Later on you will upgrade your ships, gain allies, and perhaps attain a position of power to rival even the Spanish. Over the long term, you aim to make your fortune.

Each turn, representing a year, just one card is turned up which triggers an event. It is then auctioned amongst the players. This might be a new colony, a better ship, a powerful character, the loyalty of a local tribe, or perhaps a favour from The Pope. You set your price and buy if you think the card’s powers can assist your cause. Some cards give instant benefits, others require delayed investment to bring them into operation. Some are powerful, others weak. Sometimes, they are sweet spot perfect and will change the game and your fortunes if you get hold of it.

It is through these clever cards that Mr Eklund injects a large dose of history, and it is my contention that as each card appears, the game balance and situation changes subtly and appealingly. Almost always. In case you were worried, there are an awful lot of cards and not all are used, so each game will be different. The cards include such titles as Tortuga Pirates, the House of Stuart, Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan Pilgrims, and the Swedish East India Company. Other cards trigger wars, or dramatic events, hostile tribes, or ravaging plagues. More mundane, but important, are the various plantations and silver mines. You can build forts, you can install garrisons, you can raid and plunder. Predictably, there is a comet card.

Lords of the Spanish Main differs from earlier games in two key areas. Firstly, the game is asymmetrical. One of the players takes the role of the Spanish Governor of the West Indies. This is a rich and powerful man, who not only takes the lion’s share of any transactions in the region, but also supplies new ships and gets a handsome cut from the treasure ships. In general, everything goes his way. He has the only trading port for some time, and he will make a lot of money. Your job is to reduce that income and divert it to your pockets.

This works in a very clever way, and it is the core of the game. While the cards deliver basic power, skills and opportunities, they and the players interact through negotiation. For instance, each turn a colony might be able to trade with three privateers. Each privateer makes one gold, and the colony owner makes three. But what happens if there is a fourth privateer? He has to make a case to trade with him rather than the others or he starves. Perhaps he will offer a non-aggression deal, or work for the Spanish somehow. Perhaps he will just demand protection money. Perhaps all the privateers hold out on the colony and refuse to trade. Short of trading your soul, you can do anything that you think will give you a headstart. The beauty in the game is how the dynamic at the table changes each turn, sometimes each minute. It shifts completely again when the treasure ships sail, but I won’t spoil that experience for you. Perhaps I can make a telling point by recounting that in the second game, no one even became a privateer, let alone a pirate, for the first decade.

If it isn’t clear by now, I absolutely revel in the possibilities we see here. I have played the Spanish twice, and Peter Stuyvesant once. I loved every single minute of the seven hours the games took. Hopefully, you will see why when you play. It is a negotiation game, it is an auction game, it is a business game, it is a wargame, it has oodles of period flavour, and almost as an afterthought, you can be a pirate and fight sea battles or charge up a cobbled street to the governor’s mansion. You see from the map why Tortuga was a key port, what the pirates did to trade, why the trade winds were vital, and how the delicate balance of the area was maintained. To portray all this, so well, through a multi-player game is nothing short of brilliant design work by Phil Eklund.

I end on a warning, or two. Despite my fulsome praise, LotSM will not be for everyone. I think we are averaging a 50% enthusiasm rate on exit polls! Because the game is essentially 99% pure negotiation, many will not find this to their taste. As one friend said to me, he has left negotiation games far behind. Oddly, so had I, but such is the quality, appeal and fascination of this one, I didn’t hesitate to make an exception.

As there is a lot of chat and deal making, time flies right along. LotSM could easily take you six hours to play to completion. It could just as easily take two. This is because, to an extent, the game experience is transient. You can quite happily join in if you arrive late, and leave if you have to go early. The game doesn’t suffer greatly. The end point is not that important really, more is gained from the participation turn to turn. We have played with 4, 5 and 6, and the more the merrier because of the interactions, but time does escalate a little with more. You can also play to a time limit, and we find that two hours is more than enough to get a strong feel either way – vital when some of the players may not be enjoying their game.

Next, there is the unfamiliarity aspect. The game is unusual and Phil has a unique way with rule writing…. Seriously, this set of rules is much, much better than his earlier sets, and everything is there somewhere. Organisation is not optimal, but it is workable. What trips us up are the card effects, which can change the rules, or bring in a new rules section at a stroke. What can this hill tribe do for me? Why would I buy them? What is their strength? Can they attack that port? Can they march to Brazil? To an extent, all that needs to be pre-understood. It helps a lot to have a player who has done it all before. And then there is basic stuff like the map being covered with colonies and flags, but it takes a while to work out that only one colony is active at the start. And guess what, the Spaniard lives there.

What the game needs is an overview sheet: you are poor. You will remain poor. Turns move quickly. The Spanish bloke is fat and smug. Increase your ship size. Trade. Take opportunities where you can. Cards sometimes change everything, like in Magic. Read them carefully. Deal on anything. Always make a counter offer. Everything is negotiable. Take a loan from someone. Joint bid. Lend them your soldiers. Steal, bully, beg. Anything goes. The Spaniard seems powerful, but he has definite weaknesses. He also has the chance to escalate his power. If he gets a fleet of his own, you will see why and how.

Also strange is that there are lots of players, one of whom is a powerful and dominant force from the start. The other players must eke out a living, and pull the balance of power their way. It should be clear that I love everything about this structure, but it has caused problems for some – it is just unfamiliar. I see that as a good thing. But the key issue with Eklund games is that very little happens in a turn unless it needs to. So it is absolutely vital to keep the pace of play high. Turn the card, check for interest, sell it, move on. If you don’t, two hours will go by with perhaps just fifteen years resolved. You need a pacemaker, and your experience will be greatly enhanced.

Because of the time of year, the need and desire to play it again and again, and because I want to catch your attention now, I am writing a shortish review of LotSM. Indeed, much shorter than Imperial’s, above. That is no reflection on the game, which I feel is simply brilliant. 9/10, possible top ten all time material. Yes, that good. Well designed, cleverly balanced, inexpensive, flavoursome and an absolute joy to play, or even just sample for an hour or two. I recommend it very highly. I will return to it next time with some after action reports, and thoughts on how Lords of the Spanish Main became my favourite game of 2006.

For more information, see Rick Heli’s excellent overview at or Sierra Madre’s website.

Just Like Old Times

Traditionally, around Christmas time, I roll out my highly subjective Top Ten list of games played in the previous year. Most of these are new games, but that is not always the case. The problem with 2006 was that there were so many games I thought I would never get through them all. Fortunately there were several serious game sessions between Essen and New Year, and we managed to slog through most of them. The things I do for you lot. Worse, many of the games turned out to be good or very good. So, for once, choosing was not easy and there may yet be some carry over into 2007.

So with no more delay, here are my favourite games of 2006.

The Sumos, 2006

Lords of the Spanish Main (Sierra Madre)

Factory Fun (Cwali)
Twilight Struggle (GMT)
Yspahan (Ystari)

Canal Mania (Ragnar Bros)
Command & Colours: Ancients (GMT)
Leonardo da Vinci (DV)
Mare Nostrum + Mythology Expansion (Descartes)
Die Saulen der Erde (Kosmos/Mayfair)
Take it to the Limit (Burley Games)

Honourable Mentions
Ars Mysteriorum, BattleLore, Blue Moon City, Fury of Dracula, Graenaland, Imperial, Khronos, Hameln, Mare Nostrum, Reef Encounters of the Second Kind, The Sceptre of Zavandor, Space Dealer, TtR: Marklin, Um Krone & Kragen and The World Cup Game.

The Noel Edmonds Award
for Most Innovative Re-Purposing of an Old Has Been
Um Krone & Kragen (Amigo)

The David Beckham Medal
for Heroic but Ultimately Doomed Effort
Imperial (EggertSpiel)

The Tim Henman Bowl
for Game Most Likely to Win Next Year
BattleLore (Days of Wonder)

The Raymond Poulidor Crystal Decanter
for Being Very Nearly There
Through the Ages (CzechBoardGames)
Mare Nostrum + Mythology Expansion (Descartes)
Arkham Horror (Fantasy Flight)

The Gerard Depardieu Cup
for Sheer Audacity
Khronos (Matagot)

The Asda Sliced White Bread Prize
for The Game You Play If There Is Nothing Better Available
Thurn und Taxis (Hans im Gluck)

Best Artwork
Arkham Horror and expansions plus the Fantasy Flight Cthulhu book, Blue Moon City, Rackham’s Cry Havoc and Cadwallon, Fowl Play!, Iliade, Mare Nostrum, Mission: Red Planet, Die Saulen der Erde, Thurn und Taxis, Tsuro, Um Krone & Kragen and pretty much anything that Mike Doyle brushes up against.

The Ten Worst Games of 2006
Abridged, California, Der Dieb von Bagdad, Hermagor (with five), Hollywood the Card Game, Mission: Red Planet, The Nacho Incident, Nottingham and Orcz. And by far the worst, alphabetically, and for every other reason… XiG – The Four Elements.

Mike Siggins

Mike Siggins
Essen 2006
October 24, 2006 11:56 AM

I am just back from Germany, the country where smoking, a 100% meat diet, and red trousers for men are still apparently acceptable. It has saving graces, though, such as Spiel. And decent beer. The biggest games scene in the world. The Audi TT. And some very attractive women.

Okay, okay. I love it.

I had, as usual, a fine time wandering around the halls of Essen, trying and buying games, looking at new products, chatting to old friends, marvelling at the range and quality of games we can now buy, and frantically taking notes for this report. The usual stats apply: over 350 games released at the show, displayed in ten massive halls, and around 150,000 people coming to check them out.

The big difference to The Olden Days is that there are now so many new games that it is impossible to assess, or even find, everything. Paradoxically, this takes the pressure off when compiling a report. One cannot hope to be comprehensive, and it makes no sense to try. Instead, one does what one can. So this report will be just my views on the games I found interesting and actually got to play, tempered by only having so many hours in the day. I will let others cover the latest Settlers and Carcassonne releases, abstracts, several hundred card games, and what seemed to be twenty or so Sudoku variants.

The first sign of a good show is that you have a list of possibles that runs to over thirty titles. It is almost with pleasure that one hears that Die Schmergels von Dresden is a children’s game involving clothes pegs, balloons and a damning exposure of the porcelain industry. One crosses it off the list, hoping that three surprises don’t appear in its place. But appear they do, and that is still the appeal of Essen, despite weeks of previews on the Web. The next stage is elimination – play the game and decide if you can live your next thirty years without owning it. Finally, you check your bank balance. The good news is that an unprecedented number of games made it through all these cuts in 2006. I didn’t buy that many, but would have if I could.

On the downside there was definitely some hubris evident amongst some of the smaller publishers, currently enjoying deserved success, but who would do well to remember who helped them on the way up, and that they may be only as good as their latest game. The other unsavoury aspect was a degree of ‘hustling’ in evidence – being given the bum’s rush by the usual suspects, who one now knows to avoid, and by a brace of new boys, one of whom – from a very large company – should definitely have known better.

The simple truth, and something I have never experienced before, was that there were so many interesting games at Essen this year that I didn’t actually get them all played. This was partly because I was trying to play them all ‘properly’ – ideally twice, with the designer rather than a stand bunny, and if at all possible outside of the less than perfect halls environment. Even so, I managed to play almost everything on my list except Z-Man’s Silk Road and Ravensburger’s Die Baumeister von Arkadia – mainly because there never seemed to be a table free.

There were also games that, I felt, deserved more time and application than we could offer in our tired and often frazzled state. Despite my best efforts, they remained unplayed when it was time to leave. These games were Perikles (Warfrog), Khronos (Matagot), Italia (Phalanx), and Through the Ages (CBG). In a perfect piece of irony these were also the games that I most wanted to play all week, such was their appeal. So, as I get them ticked off in the next month or so I will update the report, but meanwhile I wouldn’t dream of giving you even ‘the word’ on them for fear of prejudicing their chances in this maelstrom of decent releases. It is also fair to say that there wasn’t much word about because they are at the meatier end – my hunch is that we all tend towards the quicker and easier games at the show.

And so, to the games. Where I have offered a view one way or the other it is only where I have played it and am confident that I have got a reliable feel for what is going on. Obviously in time I will return to the games, good and not so good, and check my findings. But I am confident that I am not going to do an about face on many of these. Because I was very selective about the games – I was looking for big box, heavier titles - and because I think it was a good year, there is a lot of positive comment here. I feel it is justified, you may disagree.

2F-Spiele occupied their usual corner, and Friedemann’s hair was as green as ever. I thought you’d like to know that. While, back in the day, this stand was a must visit, it is now approached with caution. Why? Because apart from Power Grid (and even that has problems) it has been slim pickings. And don’t say Fearsome Floors, or I will have to scream loudly. I think the rot set in (literally) with Frischfleisch. What I detected in that game was a belief that 2F could serve up whatever they wanted in an attempt to be wacky. Is it wacky or zany? I don’t know. Trying a bit too hard to be leftfield, if you prefer.

This year there were two new games. The first one was a dungeon crawler (how mainstream is that?) in which I had zero interest after the farce that was Descent, but there may be something in this one. The other was Fiji. The latter game is about collecting shrunken heads (very 2F) but also an auction fest (very everybody else in the industry). I watched this, but didn’t play, and have had had enough of auctions at the moment.

Abacus had several joint venture releases, and a couple of reprints – Taj Mahal being very popular and selling well. I had a professional interest (only) in Gloria Mundi, but made no great effort to play as it is jointly designed by James Ernest. Frankly, I don’t want to go anywhere near a game that may have the Cheapass mark. Reports that it was taking two or even three hours to play didn’t help matters. Balancing this, I have been getting some positive reports from friends though. Under review!

ALEA followed their tradition of showing their next game, Notre Dame, in playtest form. While I will always give ALEA titles an enthusiastic reception, I don’t really see the point of playing their games, or anyone else’s, before release. Especially when there was so much else to get through this year. This is largely because I know there is a good chance the game will change (at The Gathering, Augsburg 1520 was amended even in final prototype) and because there is still that part of me that wants to buy something if I really like it. So, I deny myself the temptation! It is not as if we don’t have enough games to play. Notre Dame could easily be about college football, but – shock, horror – it is about mediaeval Paris. Those that played greatly enjoyed it, though we should always factor in some bragging rights, and it sounds about Louis XIV in weight. Let’s hope it is a better game than that when it appears at Nuremburg.

Amigo had several releases, but my main interest focussed on Valhalla. This is yet another area control game, but with a difference. I suppose in fairness there has to be a difference, or we wouldn’t bother. This time the areas are long spits of rock, representing the crinkly bits of Scandinavia. Your job is to sail longboats down the inlets, and land your men (and one of your opponent’s) onto a range of fields, towns and forts to score points in the short and long term. Card play enhances scoring, and twists the victory point conditions here and there. It sounds routine, but it was actually okay and had enough going on to be a positive experience overall. It felt fresh, but I can’t yet tell you why. We also got through it quite quickly, but I can see it dragging for some groups. I rather liked this one.

Argentum had a little game – Top Oder Flop - based on film premieres that was fairly clunky, and we abandoned play after ten minutes. They also had the snappily titled Seenot im Rettungsboot which is Rette Sich Wer Kann reprinted – the old negotiation one, not Crocodile Pool Party. Considering the excitement the game generated back in the early nineties, it was odd to see it sitting there virtually un-noticed. Anyone wishing to buy it can expect very nice components, and presumably not many changes to the original. Does it still stand up today, I wonder? Z-Man are doing the English version.

Bambus were responsible for my only regretted purchase. There is always one game that all your ‘friends’ say is wonderful, so you dutifully trundle off to buy it. Immediately after you have handed over cash, you will encounter at least ten people (possibly more) who say it is the biggest pile of poo they have ever seen. That game this year was Green Town, of which I am now a proud but somewhat concerned owner. I have looked at the rules and it does look quite interesting, so perhaps not all is lost. Just my 20 Euros.

Burley Games are a regular at Essen, often featuring new games but focussing on their core success, Take It Easy. This remains one of my favourite games, and it is always popular with my group. I was therefore very pleased to see Take It To The Limit, which is something I didn’t think I would ever experience – a revision and enhancement of Take It Easy.

The idea is essentially similar – everyone gets the exact same pieces to play on a grid, one after the other, trying to make complete rows of matching tiles. Not every tile will appear, and the order of appearance is random. The tiles are numbered, and multiplied through by the row length to get your score. The highest score wins, but you normally play three or more grids. The only variable is simply how you decide to place the tiles on the grid. Will you gamble on a tile coming out later? Can you keep all the rows open while waiting? The challenge is fascinating; perfectly play balanced, and strangely therapeutic. The emphasis is on consistent play, being able to handle the situations that the random order throws out, and constant striving for the perfect score, or at least a personal best.

About the only drawback would be that after hundreds of games (yes, I have) you can get into a routine, much as you do with Hearts or Medici – you know the call for each situation because you have been there before. Take It To The Limit ups the ante by providing two variant boards, new rules on holding back tiles and trying for bonus scores, a wider range of numbers and a ‘Scrapyard’ side-board. After a couple of enjoyable plays at the show, I think this means that there is slightly more randomness and therefore difficulty in playing tiles, offset by the chance to defer tile placement or perhaps even score on a side-board. The result is a different experience, not necessarily better, but still identifiably Take It Easy. If I can say it forces a desirable change in thought processes, that will be close enough. Either way, a highlight of the show for me.

CBG (Czech Board Games) caused quite a stir for their first appearance at Essen. Riding a few positive reviews of Prophecy (the English version is sadly out of print already), they brought three new games to Essen. There were only 500 of each game, but they were priced very competitively and so most shifted quickly. Ignoring Legion for a moment, which is a small box battle based card game, the two games of interest were Graenaland and Through the Ages. The former is a Settlers type resource-trade-building cycle game, but without the evil dice, and the latter is a definite attempt to do Civilisation with cards in two to three hours.

Having read through the TtA rules, and come to grips with the rather fiddly gem markers, we quickly decided that this was too much to learn, and too long to play, for a late night session and so it dropped into the Play When We Get Home Pile. I feel that was a good decision, and will avoid it being dismissed unfairly. I had expected a degree of streamlining, but this is still a complex game.

But Graenaland offered no such barriers to entry, and made it to the table twice. I liked it, and it definitely works well. We learned it in no time at all, it plays in about 80 minutes, less if you get a move on. I think there was a degree of ‘oh no, not again’ when we started trading rocks and wood for livestock, but there was enough good design on show here to ring the changes. The trade section is more like Junta than Settlers, and it encourages a win-win deal. Graenaland is a game I would certainly want to play again. There is some clever stuff, lovely components, and surprisingly good flavour. And although I found myself short of grain all game, at least I felt that I might get some eventually. Full review to follow, but definitely recommended.

Cwali seemed to have come off the rails. ZooSim had its moments, but otherwise there has been a stream of very dodgy games in recent years. But they have redeemed themselves with Factory Fun which is in contention for my favourite game at the show. To be honest, I didn’t expect to play it, let alone rate it highly.

Factory Fun is a multi-player puzzle. I don’t like puzzles, as a rule. The interaction is minimal, and what there is represents the weakest part of the package because it involves a Jungle Jam style ‘grab’ for components to start each round. This is, to my mind, more appropriate for a party game, but an alternative selection system really wouldn’t be difficult to import. After that, you are on your own and silence reigns while you place your pieces.

Each player has a grid representing a factory. Onto that grid must be placed ten machines, if you can. Each machine has input and output ports, and needs to be supplied by either a power source or another machine. Your only task is to take the machines as they come along, and connect them into your system for which you score points. The connection is done with pipes and re-jigging the layout. Machines are quite different, and sometimes provide benefits apart from income, or indeed problems.

The game felt a little like Take it Easy in play, and that is a compliment. I really enjoyed it, but others clearly didn’t. Definitely one that will polarise gamers, but should please puzzlers for a while. A real highlight.

Days of Wonder were very much the stars of the show. Grown men went weak at the knees when it was rumoured that production copies of BattleLore might become available on the Friday. As I said last time, this game could be huge. If it manages to hit the right markets, and the price is tolerable (we are expecting 70 Euros) it could well cut across into the family mass market for Christmas, miniatures gamers, and even threaten Games Workshop’s core game, Warhammer. Another concern voiced was whether the system would be collectible (bad) or just expandable (obviously good). We wait and see on these points, but suffice to say the game looks amazing. The graphics are spot on, the figures are good, it comes pre-stickered, and one can imagine the GW executives feeling worried.

They also had a rather lovely expansion: Ticket to Ride: USA 1910, which comes in a tin box. This works with all the previous games and allows a fair number of variants to be added at will.

Doris & Frank had an instant buy: an expansion to Ark/Arche Opti Mix for just 3 Euros, featuring new artwork by half a dozen illustrators. What one certainly doesn’t expect to say is that some of the artwork is definitely not up to the usual D&F high standard, but sadly it isn’t.

dV are Da Vinci Games of Italy, who have to change their name when they cross the border because of an existing company in Germany. Their big pitch was Leonardo da Vinci, a game I played before the show, and again on the Thursday at Essen. Lots of people are talking this one up, and I can see why, but it is not a great game by any measure. It is however very good, and definitely worth your time. I think with a tweak or two it might be excellent, so if variants, a rework or card game version ever appeared I would be at the front of the queue. The Essen crowds agreed, and it featured at or near the top of the Fairplay chart for all four days. Full review to follow.

Eggert-Spiele had a couple of games that were getting people’s attention. Years of duff titles, and then all of a sudden they bound into the major leagues, with two stands, presumably on the back of Antike. Imperial uses the rondel device from Antike, and revisits the notion of investing in countries and factions, so beloved of Martin Wallace in 1630 Something and later titles. My attempt to play it confirmed broadly what I had suspected – that such a grand sweep of power needs a deft hand to control, that there are role-confusion issues, and that the rondel tasted like stale bread. It is also, like Antike, rather too dry to get my enthusiasm going. I will play again though as it deserves at least that.

Eggert’s other game is my second big surprise after Factory Fun. The game is Space Dealer, and it had everything stacked against it: Eggert game, sci-fi theme, and the designer also did Neuland, a game I really didn’t enjoy at all. But the buzz was strong in this one and we felt compelled to try it out. Result: hugely entertaining game. Lovely components, some nice ideas built into the layout, and cubes for resources.

This is a weird one, though. It is a science fiction trading game of the type we have probably all played. Start on your planet, create resources, put them on a starship and set off to sell or trade them at another planet where there is demand. The slight difference is that everyone plays this game simultaneously, and events take place in real time. Want to build a power plant? Place an egg timer on the card. When it has run through, you can use it. Want higher tech levels? Same again. Mining? Ditto. Moving your ship? Research? You guessed.

The catch is that you only have two egg timers but want to do five or more things. So you must choose which action to do, and then start thinking about the next one because sooner rather than later (the timers run about a minute each) you will have to make another decision. Another twist is that the egg timers are not the same. Some have more sand, and others have smaller holes. We timed them between 57 seconds and 98 seconds! But even this anomaly has been cleverly built into the rules and gameplay.

Let me recount a brief sequence from our first game to give you a better feel. My planet had a demand card for red cubes. These can only arrive from another player due to the resource set up. It is also a one-off deal – once the demand is satisfied, the victory point goes away. So both Paul and Stuart spotted that I needed red cubes, and started to extract them from their mines. Both produced, loaded up their ships, and set sail for my homeworld. What Paul hadn’t noticed was that Stuart had launched a few seconds before him. Those few seconds were vital. As both ships converged on my planet, Paul noticed that Stuart was carrying red, and that he had a rival. The delivery came down to split seconds, and Stuart just claimed the VPs on offer. Brilliant stuff.

I won’t argue that the game is for everyone. To an extent, like story telling games, you just have to jump in and do it. Or not! Some won’t enjoy the experience, that is for sure, and others will object to the possibility of another player cheating. But that is missing the point entirely. Space Dealer takes us back to the root of games; the chance to have some fun. It is something we often forget about, and it definitely present in this game. Players frantically try to build things, then calm down while waiting for the finished product. Then it goes mad again. This ‘hurry up and wait’ is needed because otherwise it would be too much like work. One player felt it was too stressful as it was!

Of course, because the r&d cards are random and there are strategic decisions, each player’s set up looks quite different after a while. It certainly deals with downtime effectively – there isn’t any, and you know the game is going to last 30 minutes. Just compare that to all the games where you have spent hours, building fleets and sailing to far off planets, hex by hex. I think Howard Thompson, the designer of Stellar Conquest, might well swoon if he saw this.

Space Dealer is a breath of fresh air. It is very much a functioning game, and it is also fun. On reflection, it makes one question what games are about, and how we all have different interpretations of fun or perhaps enjoyment. It is so unusual that I haven’t yet fully thought the game through, and that in itself is an unusual and nice feeling. If I had to capture it in one line, I would say it felt like a real time computer game within a boardgame. Make of that what you will.

I have to say though, waving my Curmudgeon’s Union card, that I have a hunch that this may not be a game you play very often. Even so, whatever I may theorise about Space Dealer, it was undoubtedly one of the hits of the show and may yet prove a groundbreaking idea. I didn’t hear a bad word said against it and I wondered, out loud, whether the game might actually be alright as a stand alone, without the egg timers?

Eve Online had a massive stand, running their beautiful sci-fi trading game on 42” plasma screens. I have to say this is a very, very tempting system (I used to live for Elite on the BBC Micro) and while I have not yet, like so many others, succumbed to online games I can see it happening soon. But the draw here was the new CCG based on Eve. I hadn’t expected to see it, it looked lovely, and so I took one of my now infrequent gambles on a pair of starter decks. Don’t get me wrong, I have no truck with collectibility (when will publishers get the message?) but I still very much like card systems and sometimes the CCG format delivers. And then again, I can get burned. I have read the rules to Eve, and they are at the very simple end of the genre, so my hope lies in the card text.

Face to Face Games had several games on show, some new, some not so new. My main interest here was Genesis, a new tile placing game by Reiner Knizia. I played the game right through with the publisher present, and can say that it was quick, light and probably a children’s game at heart, because those children present at the hotel very much enjoyed it. Think a mix of Wildlife and Tigris, with almost all the heavier elements removed, and you will have a feel for this one. It took almost as long to score as it did to play, and the old brain cells were not exactly stretched. Nothing much wrong with it, just not well suited to the species homo ludens hardcorus.

Fata Morgana is always one of my first points of call. Like Karl-Heinz Schmiel, Urs Hostettler may just have something new. He did, but it was that most frustrating of games, a German language text heavy card game. So Millionen von Schwalben, a (presumably cynical) game about soccer, remained on the shelf awaiting developments or an English language publisher. Frustratingly, it got very good comments from the German speakers of my acquaintance.

Games for the World had a high profile, and were selling their World Cup Game. A bit late, and perhaps a licence short, but we forgive it everything because this is that welcome rarity, an experience based sports game. It is also a very good one, and has clearly been well designed and tested. The epic game that took place on the Friday night will go down in gaming history. Six players edged their teams through the qualifying stages, into the knock out stage, and eventually to the final where, I think, Belgium beat Croatia. A bit odd, you might think, but this was modelling the 2002 tournament, which did indeed get a bit squiffy form-wise. You also get the 1930 tournament in the box, and being amiably mental, designer Shaun Derrick is promising all the other years as expansions. Siggins drifts off to Mexico ’70. Mmmm.

The game has everything you might expect. Shock wins, dull draws, sledging, penalty shoot-outs and a sense of participation so strong that the cheers and groans could be heard throughout the hotel. One young manager was reduced to tears by a semi-final result, and one nameless gamer managed to miss the box lid with his die roll, meaning that he missed a crucial penalty. Slightly reminiscent of ADG’s now veteran effort in the same field, this is a timely and worthy upgrade. The downside to all this jollity is that the game can take three or four hours which may keep it off the table, it has no player names, and it is not inexpensive. However, for all that, still highly recommended.

Goldsieber offered Die Saulen von Venedig (Pillars of Venice) by a thus far unknown design duo. We played this at the hotel with The Splottoids and I think it was fair to say that no-one was overwhelmed with excitement. It would however be wrong to say it didn’t work, because it did; it was just devoid of anything really new and felt pedestrian and distinctly lumpen. A game that may well have had an initial theme – erecting buildings in Venice – and developed largely obvious mechanisms from that point onwards. Or it may not. The driver is Hol's der Geier meets role selection, with the slight tweak being that there may be multiple roles in play, and that you lose the role you just used to your left hand neighbour. Your wallet should not be troubled over this one, as it amounts to the very definition of middling.

Hans im Gluck have come a long way. They started out selling homespun games with foxes instead of Greyhounds. Now they annex a large chunk of the Essen halls and King Bernd the Magnificent rides around in a sedan chair, granting audiences to only the bravest of the land. Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. They also make good games. This year we have Taluva, which does its darndest to make you think you have played something like it before, but actually I don’t think I have. The game is a lightish abstract one of tile placement and land control, but unlike almost any other game it ventures into the third dimension. Tiles can be laid on top of others and so we gradually build a volcanic island. That’s the only clever trick, but it works. Nice game, quick, good interaction, lots to think about, and I am a buyer.

JKLM have come from a small start up to considerable player in just a few years. While I would still characterise them as making slightly underdeveloped games with sometimes ropey rules, they are at least putting out a succession of interesting titles. Apart from another 18xx game – 1861 - don’t we have enough of them by now?, their big release was On the Underground. As one might guess, this is based on the famous map of the London Tube system and makes a decent stab at network fidelity. I played a full game and enjoyed it, but perhaps not quite as much as I did Canal Mania. That said, I think both games are comparable and have a similar feel and weight, although Underground is lighter and quicker. Of course, if the game is the success that JKLM hope, they will have an almost endless supply of new map sources – New York, Paris, Moscow etc. One to try.

Kosmos were majoring on Die Saulen der Erde. This game is based on the novel Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, and actually carries the author’s name prominently on the box cover. It is however designed by Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler. The book has a massive following in Germany, in the style of David Hasslehoff as German Pop Star. I haven’t read it, but it was described to me as a mediaeval potboiler with at least some literary merit, but no allegorical levels whatsoever. As far as we gamers are concerned, it is about building a cathedral and it has some familiar mechanisms, so this may be what is giving rise to the Caylus Light description.

Apart from the fact that I doubt Kosmos would venture such a game, I didn’t really get a feel for that in play. Perhaps just a little, as we are building (again) and there are cubes, but there is a fair amount of luck and the whole experience is much more vibrant and varied than Caylus. I won’t make a call on this one as it was based on a fairly vague description on the stand, and we await a full English version and rules. It is however categorically not a book tie-in makeweight. There is definitely something there. It was riding high on the Fairplay list throughout the first three days, and seemed to have hit the right note with the German public. Let’s hope The Hoff never moves into games, though.

Manorhouse Workshop are an Italian company who until now have made only 40mm miniature knights for the wargames hobby. They have now branched out into boxed games. Mindstalkers includes not only rules and figures, but four chunks of resin terrain as well – and it is all of the highest quality. What counted against the game was the high price, which never really sits well in Essen – everyone is looking for a bargain. This was a bargain, but only a relative one. By a bit of quick thinking and a rapid business deal, I managed to come away with a complimentary copy and will report back. Just as soon as I have fondled the gorgeous figures.

Matagot were the enfants terrible of the show. They had a game, Khronos, that a lot of people wanted (I was asked many times where I had bought my copy) but didn’t seem particularly bothered about selling them! It’s that French winning personality thing. When we called over at 9am on the first day (keen? I’ll show you keen) to buy three games, they seemed quite put out at having to actually open the carton and take 120 Euros from us. Later on, they had to be persuaded to demo the game, and then to set up an extra table when demand grew steadily. There were even rumours that they had put the price UP! Oh, the pains of success. Clearly, they brought 500 copies with them, and were determined to hang onto them. Seriously, they eventually sold out and reports were all positive. As I said, I didn’t get a chance to try it, but this is top of the list to play next.

Meeple People Along with Richard Breese, whose stand I used as a base – the place where you can rest, recharge and dump your games – I spent most time with the Meeple People. Most of you will be familiar with their banner ads around the hobby They sell t-shirts, pins, badges, squishy animals and decals for many of your favourite games – with heavy emphasis on the meeple shape, and Richard Breese’s excellent shrimps. I quickly acquired a Reef Encounter t-shirt, and regularly bumped into other gamers showing off their game allegiance. Having seen everything close up, and indeed worn it, I can tell you it is all top quality gear, and every item gets individual attention. In a nutshell, I think they have a fantastic idea and have occupied a niche that one might have expected to have been exploited years ago. Cynthia, Chris and Karen are also the nicest people one could hope to meet.

Mind the Move leave me cold. Not least for their company name. However, I do realise I may be one of very few gamers who likes neither Oltremare nor Il Principe. That I can live with as I cannot imagine two more overrated games. But I try to remain open minded and so found myself learning Hermagor with the designer and several hobby luminaries. I really didn’t like it. Let me start by saying that for every transaction in the game, and every time you move, you have to make a cash payment. In a game that I think will do well to beat two hours, that is an awful lot of faffing about with money. Get the poker chips on standby.

The game has two phases. Acquire magical goods from a matrix, which is quite a neat but lengthy process, then move around the country selling your haul and setting up trading posts. Lots of sales in the right area and you will start to build cash and a winning position. But the wrong mix of goods and selling locations leaves you screwed because you have to pay to move, even if no sales income accrues. I was reminded of Auf Achse with a Was Sticht? style acquisition phase, mucked about by a poor map and movement system. The other problem is that the game stretches out before you, offering nothing but a slow, repetitive drag through to the finish. The whole affair feels artificial and forced, and unfinished. Perhaps this is what gave rise to the lame fantasy theme being plastered on, because that always fills a few holes.

In summary, this is probably, just, the best of Mind the Move’s games. But that really isn’t saying much. I honestly don’t see the attraction of their games. They are disjointed, luck prone, chug along and are, most worryingly, no fun at all to play. In Oltremare’s case they verge on downright painful. In perspective, Hermagor is a long but working game and in a fallow year you might find it appealing. But in 2006, amongst many rivals for your dollar, it is looking a little like a game that appeared because a game was needed. Or expected.

Moskito Every year Mike Clifford and I walk up to Moskito’s stand and ask Karl-Heinz Schmiel if he has a new game. It has become a firm tradition going back fifteen years. It makes us feel young, but old at the same time. Normally, the answer is no, and it has been that way for too long now. We fondly remember the days of Extrablatt, of Kunst Stuecke and Lieber Bairisch Sterben, of Die Macher and Was Sticht?, and even the weirdness of Das Regeln Wir Schon. We always hope that they will return. And you know what? They have. This time, the doyen of the hobby said yes. We were stunned. We thought he might be joking, in that jolly way the Germans have. But ten minutes later we were sat at a table, being shown a late stage prototype by The Man Himself. Deep joy ensued.

Sammelsurium (I am not sure of that spelling!) is a game about collecting. Through a series of action choices, one acquires numbered and coloured cards. These are laid out to form sets that other players will try to beat either by total or number of cards. Holding the biggest set gives you an interim score, and allows you to try for a second level of collectibles. Points are scored en route. Quite simply, and ignoring for once my aversion to playing prototypes, I would go as far as to say that this was the gaming highlight of the show: quick, decision heavy, accessible, and very clever. It shouted elegance. One was reminded immediately why Herr Schmiel enjoys the reputation he does. Look for this little gem to appear at Nuremberg.

Nexus had the very first copies of Marvel Heroes, and it was being played avidly at the stand. Only very late on did I discover that they also had a few English versions, and it would have been great to have tried this one. I can’t help but have War of the Ring in my head when I say that, and would love for Marvel Heroes to be anywhere close to that excellent game, but it looks a different, and much simpler beast. I will do my best to get hold of a copy as soon as I can, and a full review will follow.

Phalanx had three new games: Justinian, Anasazi and Italia. Italia was the game of most interest to me, being a new setting for the venerable Britannia system. Andreas Steding is the designer, and this represents a follow up to his earlier Hispania. Although I much prefer the system as modified in Chariot Lords, as soon as I have a suitable slot, we will get Italia on the table.

Queen are still riding high on the back of their SdJ success and had three new games at Essen: Alhambra the Dice Game, The Thief of Baghdad and the long awaited Shogun. Shogun is, as I am sure most of you know, the revised version of the highly regarded Wallenstein. It looks as if they made some changes to the basic system, and streamlined the event cards which make sense. There is also naval movement. I am hoping that this makes the game a little less static than its immediate ancestor. Again, one to play as soon as possible.

R&D Games had already sold out of both Fowl Play and Reef Encounters of the Second Kind a month before Essen. However some games will have made their way into dealers and retailers, so don’t despair quite yet. Richard Breese was kind enough to give me a copy of each as I helped him during production, and with a bit of playtesting. As Richard well knows, Fowl Play is not my thing at all, but as I said all along it will still find a ready audience, if probably a different one from the Key games. Richard ran several successful playtests of KeyMarket, which sees him return to the Key style of game, and having played it I can already say that this is definitely one to watch out for in 2007.

Ravensburger have become something of a lost cause for releasing gamer’s games, forcing us to plunder their excellent back catalogue instead. That may have changed this year (what is it about 2006?) and they were demoing Die Baumeister von Arkadia which many reported as a decent game. We have a copy in the group and I will report back.

Sierra Madre Games were attending Essen for the first time. I have long been a fan of their games, and it was a pleasure to finally meet Phil Eklund who owns the company and designs most of the titles. Phil had copies of American Megafauna Second Edition, an expansion for same, and a completely new game – Lords of the Spanish Main; a game about piracy in the 1600’s. This one is about as far from Pirate Cove as you could imagine. I can’t wait to play them.

Warfrog launched Perikles, a game about Ancient Greek city states, and very nice it looks too. Martin Wallace and I seem to be on a similar wavelength when it comes to ideal game topics – this one is right on the money – but slightly at odds when it comes to their implementation in games, the ‘appeal’ of scarce funds and playing multiple roles. But then he is an internationally revered game designer, and I am a reviewer, which says it all really! I suspect all that happens is the historical vision doesn’t always convert perfectly to the available mechanisms and components. Which is a very long way of saying, I so hope this game works!

What’s Your Game released Ur on an unsuspecting public. Early players of the game reported back in unflattering terms, and I needed to try it to find out why. I think they are right. While I will revisit this one, the game reminded me of last year’s Palatinus and it too is almost completely unintuitive in play.

Ystari are the wunderkind of the hobby at the moment, seemingly unable to make a wrong move. You will be pleased to know that they have yet another new game, Amyitis, due early next year – this was at the ‘we’ve thought of a name, and have a promotional poster’ stage, so I can’t tell you any more than that.

At Essen all eyes were on Caylus again (it won both the DSP and IGA Awards) and on Yspahan because it was their much vaunted new game. I played Yspahan, a little tentatively, on the first evening and very much enjoyed it. It is important to note that this is not another Caylus, but much faster and lighter fare. But not too light. About the only negative I could mention would be that there is one mechanism (the die roll to generate the actions) that can throw a chunk of good luck towards the start player now and then. But Yspahan does not use dice in the way you might think, and as ever with Ystari there are some very clever ideas. The theme isn’t bad either. My initial view would be that there is definitely a gap between what the game seems to offer and what one can actually achieve, but trying to bridge that gap is a positive and enjoyable experience. Yspahan comes highly recommended.

Zoch are spreading their wings somewhat. After years as a dexterity, quirky or kid’s game producer, they now have some serious stuff. Salamanca is Stefan Dorra’s tile laying design, and it was getting a lot of play at the Zoch stand. I watched it for a while, and couldn’t see anything new, but in the absence of a proper playthrough and rules, I will leave my comments at that.

Z-Man had two games I wanted to try, but I missed out on Silk Road due to its popularity and my time running out. I did however manage to play Gheos and I was impressed. I thought it had some very clever stuff in it, including a self triggered scoring system, or Auto Wertung – something Mark Buckley and I have been working on recently. So that’s a bit annoying! I think people are wrong when they say Gheos is like Carcassonne. There is much more to it than that, and there are, as I said, some neat little systems and tactical routes to explore. Those gamers who didn’t like it spoke of the board possibly changing each turn, too much luck in the tile draw, and not being able to plan ahead. This may all be true, but as usual it is mitigated if you play with quicker people and I always favour some luck. Review to follow, but definitely one to consider.

Summary and Trends?

I think there has been a subtle trend building over the last few months. Its cause was strengthened somewhat by the Essen releases, and by play at and either side of the show. Not conclusively proved, and it may be a flash in the pan, but I think we are starting to see games that amount to ‘Super Fillers’, and the rise of the ‘Single Action’ game. Let me explain.

The Super Filler is really a subtype of game that I used to call The Middleweight. It is more than a 20 or 30 minute starter, but it does not amount to a main course in weight or play length. The game is ‘straight in’, has plenty of decisions, a fair amount of depth, but importantly it is very quick to play. Almost always under an hour, and leaving you feeling as if you have played for longer. In many ways it is an important species of German Game because it can avoid many of the traps – too light, too random, too boring – and appeals to most types of player. And those that don’t like it can see that it won’t last that long.

A typical Super Filler is Mykerinos. I would put Yspahan, Taluva and Gheos in the same group.

The Single Action game is just that – each turn you do one thing. You may think about it, it may be a tough decision, and you can take your time, but you only get to do one thing. My hunch is that choosing just one action, and thus prioritising, is quicker than say the individual unit cost of three actions. Whatever the reason, it results in a very quick and slightly odd feeling game. I am not at all averse to it though. The idea may have been around for a while as well, such as in Chess or go (!), but it has only recently come to my attention in our sort of games. This was partly because I have been designing a game that evolved into a single action game to attain the required speed of play, and then all of a sudden games were coming along with the device. Yspahan is very much the best example of the breed. Again, we shall see.

Ready to Play

Another trend, this one more easily identifiable, is pre-painted miniatures in boardgames. In the past, one bought a game chock full of plastic miniatures and vaguely toyed with the notion of painting them all. Now, and in the future, those figures may well come ready painted. This has been made possible by technology changes in the plastics industry and, logically, the Chinese workforce. The trade off will be that there probably won’t be many of them in the box, and you might be able to paint them better yourself, but for most people this will not be an issue. The examples I have seen in the flesh are more than adequate for gaming, and look very good on the shelf.

Two games were announced at Essen: AT43 from Rackham, which includes two small units of science fiction troops and some great looking robots, and Marvel Heroes from Nexus, which a lucky few were able to buy in English. Elsewhere, Mongoose are experimenting with painted prototypes for a miniatures based game of their own. As a long standing miniatures gamer, this could really be an interesting development in pulling new gamers into the hobby.

And Finally

For me, with my intentionally limited selection, Essen 2006 was a great show. Plenty of interesting German Games, and more to the point plenty of interesting games that delivered. In fact, in the frequent exchanges of information around the halls, I was able to say that I had hardly been disappointed at all. As of now, apart from the unreleased Sammelsurium, I haven’t spotted a potentially great game, but there are plenty of very good ones. And that is without having played the trump cards of Perikles, Italia, Khronos and Through the Ages. But Essen isn’t just about playing and buying games. I met the usual band of people that make the pilgrimage a must, and a fair few new ones as well. And I can’t tell you how much fun I had in the miniatures hall. So I can, quite happily, declare Essen 2006 a vintage year.

Mike Siggins

Many thanks to without which writing this report would have been an awful lot slower…

Mike Siggins
Gamer's Notebook, October 2006
October 11, 2006 12:01 PM

Recess (Atlas Games) is the first published design by Morgan Dontanville, a frequent contributor to various internet forums, and consultant for Café Games. Morgan always has some insightful and often pointed views on games, and design, so it was with some interest that I sat down with the shiny, bright blue box. How would the established critic negotiate his own stated preferences and attitudes, and what sort of commentary could he expect as feedback? I really ask because I am in the same boat…

I was three lines into the rules introduction when the two fateful words appeared – Lunch Money. The bad memories of their earlier game came flooding back and, once again, Atlas Games manage to spoil my day with their portrayal of playground bullying and violence. Recess, to my great surprise, covers similar territory. I was on the verge of putting the rules down and refusing to review it, but I took stock, read on, and realised that I play games on subjects far worse than bullying. I am not sure I should, but I do.

Nevertheless, the feeling of unease stuck with me and it is still there. I was left with the unarguable conclusion that not only did Atlas Games still think bullying a suitable topic for a family game, but that now another designer does as well. Over time, and two plays, this concern became almost moot because if Lunch Money is at the sick, evil, dark end of subject treatment, Recess sugars the pill, wrapping it up in candy coloured coat, and a level of abstraction, that makes the subject at least palatable for the purposes of review. But still not acceptable. The honest truth is that I am never going to like the game because of the subject matter, and the associated memories of Lunch Money’s disturbing images. So, Atlas, here’s one less than satisfied customer.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the game. At heart Recess is okay, and it works quickly and elegantly. It is a simple, light abstract, of which we have seen many before, except that this time there is an egg timer to make sure that you never take more than a minute for your turn. With just 30 turns in total, you are guaranteed to take no more than half an hour, and often much less. This is appropriate, and makes the game feel close to what it is – a mad rush of kids into the playground, chaos, and then it is all over and back to class. Recess is easily learned from the clear rules. The only thing we didn’t work out was how to reset the egg timer if a player took less than a minute…

Each player has three boy and three girl schoolkids. They start at opposite ends of the playground, along with two nuns who are keeping an eye on things. Your aim is to end the game with the most lunch money, which you extract by whaling away on other pupils and rifling their pockets. As there is no cover in the playground, everyone is fair game. Except, of course, the nuns. So you can run, but you can’t hide – eventually an opponent will move up to one of your pupils and sit on him. Money changes hands in an upwards direction until the aggressor gives up, or another pupil or nun break it up. If the Holy Sister catches you, it is detention time, but surprisingly you get to keep the money. So, crime pays.

Play is easy enough, and soon your pieces are charging around the playground as we all no doubt recall from our time at infant school. There is a good feel to this, aided by the speed of play and the time pressures. But, in time, we all sat there wondering where the clever tactics came in. Sadly, they don’t, because almost the only way to win is to get most money, and almost the only way to get money is to bully. There is one highly appealing exception to this, the kiss, on which more later, but in our games we found that although it provided a neat alternate strategy and therefore some much needed interest, it never managed to provide a winning total. If it did, I think we would have a game just about worth the admission price – perhaps a variant beckons?

So, no clever twists here: there is no real tactical depth, there are (I believe) no tricks to discover, and there is nothing special going on – something we always look for as a minimum from German Games. Instead, it is an old school square grid abstract, and the rules are largely obvious because we are dealing with basic actions – bullying, fighting, tattling, breaking up fights. The theme is intact, but merely gives rise to the mechanisms rather than sustaining a worthwhile narrative.

The design rises a notch because of an ingenious movement mnemonic – 3,2,1,nun. Meaning that you move pupils three, two and one spaces, and then you must move a nun. Pupils are slow rooks, the nun is a queen. For some reason neither can go on the swings or roundabout obstacles, but these do – in a weird Squad Leader reference – block line of sight. What line of sight is doing in a game like this, I have no idea.

Anyway, if the nuns can’t see you, you can pummel away raising your personal wealth, or try to grab a quick snog. If you get a girl and boy to kiss in the same space (or two boys or girls, one would think, in these progressive times), the game is over and you get some bonus money, but it seems never enough to overhaul an efficient pugilist. The point being that that there is some fun to be had manoeuvring for a discreet peck, but very little in sitting on someone’s head and nicking their pennies.

Recess is mildly diverting, but surely just a theme-first, multi-player abstract American game in Euro clothing? Nevertheless, it’s a solid three star game, largely because it doesn’t over-reach, and I have seen a lot worse from first time designers. Although nothing to get excited about, Recess is really okay, and no-one would feel bad about buying it as a filler. But at £17 ($32) here in the UK, Atlas Games and their distributors have got to be joking. Your local gamestore may make the purchase more palatable than the subject matter, which still leaves me cold. Accordingly, I have transferred my sincere hopes to Morgan’s next game, Spectral Rails.

Thoughts on Essen

As I write, Essen is a little over two weeks away. This event sets the scene for this time of year: Autumn chills and misty mornings are very much with us, the nights are closing in, and it almost always clashes with the World Series – requiring late night dashes to the internet to check the boxscores. It also suggests a mad handful of days charging around the game buyer’s mecca, tiredness, overspending, Weizenbier, huge meals, choppy Channel crossings, and hopefully finding the latest gem – Caylus, Jenseits, Triumvirate etc – name your poison. It also defines a level of game fuelled excitement that carries on right through till Christmas, normally resulting in a break in January. Well, at least until the Nuremberg games start appearing…

Try as I might, because it spoils the enjoyment, I have sneaked a look at the upcoming games and have formed a short list of games I want to try or have a good look at. There are quite a few interesting titles, as usual, but one normally finds that these thin out based on local comment, play, playlength or sometimes (but not very often) price. For me, a factor now often considered is the size of the box. This year I have a pretty strict budget, and no great desire to lug heavy suitcases around, so I am aiming to buy five games or so (roars of laughter in background).

Currently rated AAA prospects are Through the Ages (I can’t tell you how much I want this to work!), Khronos (ditto) Pillars of the Earth, Take it to the Limit, Shogun, Prophecy and Yspahan. Two of these games are from the newly emerging Czech publishers, who seem to operate an interesting ‘difficult to get’ marketing strategy: takes me back to the old days. Space Dealer is another tempter, because eventually someone must get this genre pinned down, but if it is anything likely the dreadful Neuland, I will pass. I should get Fowl Play, if my mate Mr Breese has kindly put me one aside, and I hope to secure a copy of the sold out Hameln from Fragor because of my international superstar status. I may be disappointed here. Leonardo da Vinci looks right up my street, as do Italia, Justinian, Marvel Heroes, Perikles and Millionen von SchwalbenUrs Hostettler always has a good angle. Ark Expansion from Doris and Frank is a given, as is Buka Invasion for Blue Moon. Finally, I want to pick up copies of End of the Triumvirate, Mare Nostrum and A Game of Thrones cheaply, plus possibly Die Sieben Weisen about which I have heard good things.

Coming in at BBB we have quite a few appealing prospects that will need to be culled, one by one, or I will stagger back to England with the lot: Genesis, Graenaland, Die Baumeister von Arkadia, Balam, Factory Fun, Valhalla, Evolution, King of Chicago, Midgard, Taluva, Tekeli-li, Der Dieb von Baghdad, Salamanca, Fiji, Hermagor, Ur, Gheos and Silk Road. As ever, there is a huge temptation to throw in a couple of made-up names, but I didn’t. Really.

The speculative CCC rated junk bonds are shaping up as Gloria Mundi - I see this as a Cheapass game: to be avoided unless someone trusted says it’s stunningly wonderful, and even then I will want convincing, Experiment could be hit or miss, and of course the same applies to FF Spiele. I am pretty sure I don’t want a copy of Imperial from EggertSpiel, but I will reserve judgement. I wasn’t that taken with Antike, and I bet this is more of the same – rondel and all. I am also tempted by Medici vs Strozzi, a two player version of Medici, but after the disappointment of the Tigris Card Game I will keep my powder dry until I have played it. Much the same applies to Alhambra – The Dice Game. If they are new games, great. But if just a cash in, they can whistle.

And finally there will be the handful of games that no-one has yet picked up on radar and which make Essen such a great experience – I expect a strong showing from the Japanese and Korean stands here. Overall, I think a perfectly valid sales tactic is to not advise Rick Thornquist about your game, hide out back in one of the fringe halls, and have lots of people walk round talking about your game – ideally on the last day. If you don’t sell out purely on the frantic rush to hoover up anything potentially exciting, then I would be very surprised.

So that’s it. Over one hundred games on offer before we even get there, from which I am short listing thirty odd games, to prune down to five or six purchases in the space of three days. Mmmm. It’s a good job I don’t go in for abstracts, eh?

One of the highlights will be the chance to see the demo copies of BattleLore from Days of Wonder. I expect that I will eventually crack on this one, if only so I can set up fast playing mediaeval or Lord of the Rings battles. The appeal of generic fantasy battles is not there for me, never has been, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that if the historical versions of the system have sold by the truckload, then this is going to be a monster hit for Richard Borg. The expansion potential is virtually limitless.

Another highlight is that Sierra Madre Games might be in attendance, and I hope to have the chance to meet Phil Eklund who has designed some of my favourite games. I will also pick up American Megafauna Second Edition and the expansion, along with The Artifact.

I know quite a few of you are attending Essen this year, so please drop by to say hi, or thrust free games into my hands. I will be loosely based at Richard Breese’s stand (4-14), but as I have only three days at the show, meetings, beers to drink and a report to compile, I will be moving fast! Look for a Siggins style Essen report at soon after the show closes. It won’t be comprehensive, or up to the minute, but it will be more than plain old news reporting.

Mike Siggins
[email protected]

Mike Siggins
Gamer's Notebook, September 2006
September 25, 2006 7:54 PM

Okay, let me get this out in the open. Emira (Phalanx Games) is one of the funniest games I have played in some time. I will get in trouble for saying that because it revels in pre-PC sexism, has more double entendres than an Austin Powers movie, and a decent running gag about Palace Size, but never Palace Envy. UK readers should just imagine Carry On Caliph. I am convinced the designers, and definitely the rules translator, have milked what they can from the scenario and all inhabit some weird 1970’s time bubble, or perhaps have read too much Loaded or Maxim. In truth, I enjoyed the temporary juvenile freedom, the journey back to a time before PC, and the shocked reactions from women playing on neighbouring tables. I shouldn’t have enjoyed it, but I did. I apologise in advance.

Emira could have been done ages ago - I have often wondered about a dating agency theme, but this puts a slightly more dubious spin on the subject. Players take the role of princes building their harems, recruiting wives from a string of beautiful and willing princesses. Each princess is looking for a different quality in her man, and the game is about achieving that match before your rivals do. Most princesses, quickly, wins, which you have to say makes a change from victory points or cash as a winning condition. Emira won the famed Hippodice Game Design competition and comes highly rated by many of my fellow reviewers. Sadly, it is my job to tell you why it doesn’t make the grade. Emira version 2,0 undoubtedly will, but Emira 1.0 falls short as an operating system.

The player is given a card that shows what he is looking for in his princesses. He can win by just acquiring seven quicker than anyone else, or he can go for the quick win by getting five princesses who have the right mix of attributes – housekeeping, intelligence, cooking and ‘romance’. The princesses appear one at a time, at random, and they are drawn to the palace with the best fit for their desires.

A nice twist is that some princesses also have ‘skills’, which will please Napoleon Dynamite no end. This may mean that they can help you close business deals, or they may be really jealous, or they require a special payment to stay in the harem. In addition, all princesses demand a cash upkeep, which in the wrong company quickly translates to ‘money for shoes’. This gives the princesses a bit of character, and they are all individually named and illustrated, which allows one to assess them in the worst possible way – ‘Oh. Right. So she’s basically a tramp/nympho/horsey.’

Over time, the sheikhs build up their appearance, status, palace size and wealth and try to be first in line when the right woman comes along. If the fit works, and you have a spare room at the palace, she moves in. If you don’t, she goes to a rival with a weak chin and a hook nose, or worst of all, a small palace. And that, essentially, is it. Repeat until your harem runneth over.

Here, in that repetition, we see problem one. Emira is a looper. By which I mean the system goes round and round through eight phases per turn, with every phase needing at least cursory attention. The only variety to this looping is that the turn marker moves round, and sometimes someone might play an event card. These have to be bought, and they are not inexpensive. Their impact is wildly variable. There are weak cards (like those crappy ones in Dune) and very powerful cards. You just don’t know what is coming.

I have a few pet hates at the moment. One of them is London Bus ticket machine policy, another is the Scissor Sisters, and the third is Too Many Auctions In Games – a thorny subject to return to at a later date. At present I would happily live with no auctions at all. Especially when said auction serves only to determine turn priority. Basically all the princes bid gold to get first access to the tempting one-shot actions on offer, which then need to be paid for. You would think that the first to drop out got the last pick, and the one who paid the most got the first, similar to Amun Re. No. Too easy. The winner of the first auction takes his pick, and this can be jolly useful. Then the remaining players bid again for second choice. Oh my. Please save me. So in a five player game, you have four auctions per turn, in each of perhaps twenty or thirty turns per game.

Warghhhhhhhhh! I know it can be important, as in the closing turns of Indonesia or in Age of Steam, but please, please don’t make me do it every single frickin’ time. Design a better system. You will be pleased to hear that Emira has the abovementioned turn order importance, sometimes down to the fourth action pick, so rather than just leave it like Princes of Florence, which can be bad enough, they crocked it to make each turn extra painful.

I cannot begin to express how inappropriate this process is, how much time it takes, and how annoying it was. I also understand that you need the first choice to be able to change in a game like this. But that isn’t the whole story. It is not just gold that wins auctions. If you own a camel, you get a discount on your bid. It is a decent discount, and it gets bigger the more and better camels you have. It means that the player with the most camels bids, ohh, 280 gold, which costs him nothing, and he usually gets the first choice. The player with the second greatest camel fleet does the same. Finally players with few or no camels get to pick up the scraps. But still we must bid. Unbelievable.

Next up, as if auctioning every five minutes wasn’t enough, they kept money in the game. In multiples of 10, on bids, income and prices that that can go as high as 1,000 or more. Cue loads of fiddly payment, income, and change making transactions.

The result of the choice order fiasco is that some lucky player gets in early on the spice caravans. These are low risk multipliers of your income. You tip in 750 gold, and 2,000 gold comes out over time - we move the markers along tracks, which is even more faffing around. And don’t whatever you do knock the board. What it also gives you is instant extra income every turn, which is vital in all respects. But, in a cruel twist of fate, there are only two caravans available each turn. Guess who has the best chance of winning the second round and buying another caravan? After a few turns I was left with basic income of 350, compared to all the other players earning around 1,000. All I could spend my money on was plastic surgery and clothes, so I ended up as Mr Vanity while the others cleaned up on camels, more caravans, status and palace extensions (I told you it was a running gag). But could I pull a princess? No.

There is a deep and wondrous secret in Emira. Some while after starting you sit there and see the truth. It is as if the harem attendant has jumped into the pool and her previously opaque, dowdy clothes have become alluringly transparent. You see the true game hidden under all the padding. At heart, it is this. There are four categories that will appeal to the princesses – wealth, appearance, status and palace size. The game and cash flow are structured so that you will probably have to concentrate on being the best in one of these categories, perhaps two if you are the lucky rich blokes with dibs in the caravan oligopoly.

So what happens? Princess Diazepam appears and she likes to see a decent chunk of Status and, as a tie breaker, Physical Appearance will win her every time. There is a clear leader in Status, because he knowingly bought a status card, usually jewels, earlier in the same turn. But not because he has the most camels, which you would think would be a factor. Fine. No tension, but okay. You simply look at the undecided princess, try to manoeuvre yourself to be top dog in that category, and either fail or succeed. Alternatively you choose to ignore her charms, and improve your position for the next, hopefully more perceptive, candidate.

It quickly becomes clear that all you are doing is holding onto your lead in one or just possibly two categories, while trying to usurp the lead in another, and hoping that the right princess comes along at the right time. As this is a simple card draw, it comes down to pure luck. It might happen that the first four princesses turned are shallow, and go for looks and money. The guy endowed with the massive palace gets nothing. One would also assume, in the spirit of fairness, that there is an equal spread of princesses. There isn’t. Nine each go for looks and status, six for palace credentials, and just three for good old money (stop mumbling at the back there). So conceivably, you could attract no princesses at all before someone won. As a defence you play the odds, try your hardest to get into looks and status, and hope the princess deck is kind. Harem building by poker draw. You quickly sense that rolling a die and deciding a winner that way would be at least a lot quicker.

Finally, and probably terminally in my view, the game is way too long. The box says 75+ minutes. That plus sign hides an awful lot of spare capacity. We played over two hours and were only half way towards our targets. There was no real expectation of it speeding up, because loopers don’t usually do that, and there was not much desire to carry on as we had seen all the game had to offer. Each of the issues above adds a little to the time used. I would go as far as saying that there is no way this game could be played in anything close to 75 minutes, except possibly with three and a very lucky quick win. The good news is that all of us felt that getting, say, four princesses instead of seven would have been quite enough exposure to the game, and a perfectly good compromise. Or even set a time limit – one hour plus three turns each. It needs to come in at 90 minutes max, and that would still be toppish.

Deep breath, Mike.

So, Watson, what do we have here? Surely you can see the evidence laid before you? Emira has all the signs of a game that has not been sufficiently developed. Why else would the upkeep phase be where it is, and not netted against income? Why was that interminable auction phase allowed to survive? Why are we bothering with all this cash accounting? Why don’t camels count towards status?

I can see why Emira would win Hippodice, partly because there is historically quite a low standard there, and because the theme and the system appeal are first rate. Really, really good. True potential. The components are lovely as well. The rules are long, but well written. You want to like it like few other games in recent years, and I congratulate the designers on coming up with the idea, the mechanisms and the humour to make it work. All big plusses. But they didn’t know when to stop. Was there a fear that this would be their first and last game? In which case let’s put everything in we have ever thought of.

I would love to have seen the Hippodice version. I am hazarding a guess that it was pretty similar to what we are buying. In my humble view this is a game that needs large lumps lopped off of it, then downsized, lopped some more and then streamlined down to 60 minutes. Do we strictly need a spice caravan sub-game? Surely that is another game in itself? Cut it loose, let it thrive elsewhere. Simplify, reduce, improve. We desire elegance, speed and appropriate systems, not a box bulging with unfinished and ill fitting ideas. There is, overall, just too much of Emira to go round.

Don’t get me wrong. Emira is not all disappointment. In fact there is much that is positive. The whole game shows a welcome freshness of approach. There are interesting choices between actions to be made once you have a turn, and there is tactical fencing for the category leads. The caravans are neat. The way you build up your appearance and gain synergistic benefit is very neat. The flavour is solid, and we can all immediately identify with the aim of the game. The princesses’ desires and skills are well handled, so that they have a smidge of personality as they move into the palace – sometimes they are a mixed blessing, sometimes you really don’t want them at all. And despite all the obstacles left in our path, it is, as I said, great fun to play.

I suppose I should mention the theme here, as it is causing some people to raise eyebrows or even say they couldn’t play it with certain people, especially younger ones. That I understand, and as ever you as parent or host make the call. Not playing it won’t make the existence of harems go away, but it will hide them for a bit longer. In its defence, much as one can enjoy Austin Powers or Men Behaving Badly, it is an escape, a fantasy, not an endorsement of historical mis-treatment of, or attitudes towards, women. Had Phalanx come to me, I might have suggested the dating agency idea, or turning it on its head completely by having the men come along for selection by a powerful Queen, and set it all on a fictitious Desert Island. But they didn’t, so you get both a harem and to make your own moral choices.

Can I recommend Emira? Oddly, yes. But only if you are going to play someone else’s copy, have someone teach you, agree to a time limit and know what you are getting into. While it is a 50/50 game for me, I am by my own admission hard to please, so you could be looking at a 6 or better. Either way I still think it is worth the experience, if you can get over the learning curve, and the painful auction sequences, and the runaway leader, there are actually the signs of a good game in there. I had fun, I enjoyed more of Emira than I disliked, and I certainly don’t think it is broken. It just needs a lot of work. Even with its faults it is better than some of the games I have played this year – California, Nottingham and Aquadukt for starters. And just to prove my point, I am still going to give it two and a half stars. But not, predictably, Game of the Month.

I like canals. There is definitely something special about them. I first became aware of them at school, when we studied the period and played an educational game from Longman, also called Canal Mania. My earliest recollections are of days in Little Venice in London – I am still hoping to get to Venice proper some day - with my parents, walking along the Regents Canal. From an aesthetic viewpoint it was compounded in Birmingham one day twenty years ago when, surrounded by grimy buildings and urban decay, I looked over a wall to see the Birmigham Canal Navigation (or perhaps the Worcester and Birmingham). It looked untouched, forgotten, out of place; obviously man-made yet still impressive, cutting through the city at low level, almost hidden from the roads and buildings all around. So, bolstered by Joe Huber’s enthusiastic review, the buying choice was easy.

Somebody picked up the Canal Mania box while we were playing and expressed surprise that it was by the Ragnar Brothers. As far as they were concerned, the fearsome siblings* hadn’t done anything since History of the World. I sort of know what he meant, as although they have put out many good games – Viking Fury and Angola being two of my favourites – they have maintained quite a low profile. Many argue that this is due to their penchant for homespun components, which I rather like, but I suspect marketing, subject choice, having a five year break, and being British all come into play.

*They are anything but fearsome really. And only two of them are brothers. But, as they always tell me, it makes the bank cashier laugh when they pay in their cheques.

I am going to come right out with it. After two plays I think Canal Mania is their best game since History of the World, and it easily qualifies for Game of the Month. While it will undoubtedly make you think of many other titles – Ticket to Ride, Age of Steam, Railway Rivals, Stephenson's Rocket, even Empire Builder – it sets out its stall as a canal design, and thanks to some clever tweaks, loving care and good development, it stands as its own game.

Canal Mania works simply enough. You accept government contracts to build canals between specified city locations on a map of England. This must be done without too much meandering, but you may connect other towns en route if you can. Unlike most rail games it does not require linked networks – a canal can be at the other end of the map to your previous completion – but you may not re-use existing canal to construct a later contract. In your turn you have some decision making – the key one being to build canal tiles now, or to acquire the cards that will let you build later. The twist is that you must alternate tiles along the route – straights then locks. As you complete a contract, victory points are awarded, and then you can deliver goods to make yet more money. You have access to engineers that can help your builds, and there are various types of tile to get your canals through hills. Winning is a straight race towards a VP rubicon, which triggers an end game phase. All this constitutes a very tight system, albeit with some down time if you dawdle.

Canal Mania also scores highly for what isn’t there. No auctions of any sort, no fiddly money transactions, no sense of impending bankruptcy – whatever it adds to the challenge, this is not a fun gaming device – and no feeling that this is a game thrown together from diverse parts. For some reason the word in my head is ‘smooth’. It works well, the mechanisms mesh unobtrusively, it plays quickly (well under two hours), it feels fresh, the components are good quality, it offers a decent challenge, and the rules are clear as a bell. It even has Leighton Buzzard. If only all games could be like this.

It even feels like a canal game. It seems clear to me that the Ragnars started with the theme, as did Emira, and even though Canal Mania will get lumped in with the railway games by the ‘filers’ (all games will have a category imposed), we are definitiely dealing with water and not rail travel. One is building canals, and somehow they have managed to sell that notion superbly – I suspect because of the elegant requirement to lay lock tiles alternately, and the separate route rule.

Perhaps the whole idea is easier to buy into for natives of these islands, used to seeing canals in use - providing bike and walking paths - or at worst full of weeds and old shopping carts. There is actually a leisurely, historic feel to the whole thing that befits the 18th century setting. London and the West Country connect up, the Midlands develops the routes we all know, and the North West becomes quite chaotic with canals snaking from town to town, through the mountains. The modern looking map might have been enhanced by better period graphics and use of appropriate fonts (as elsewhere in the game), but that is a minor quibble.

Okay. All good so far. My only concerns would be on the luck quotient, and, importantly, the variable strengths of the canal networks you see in a typical game, and the slightly puzzling score mechanism. You can score in two ways; by having goods shipped over your canals (which works fine), and when you complete a canal build contract. The odd thing here is that you score for the number of locks, aqueducts and tunnels. So if, for the sake of argument, a clever engineer came along and built a perfectly routed canal, with no locks, he would score lower than one that built one with locks and major engineering works. I am not sure what is being depicted here, and it seems a bit back to front. I wonder if this is a nod towards income from locks? Perhaps I should read a book and find out. Either way it makes no difference to the gaming value.

The first problem is Reibach Syndrome, where everyone else always gets great cards to pick up but your turn seems to offer nothing but dross. And, of course, vice versa but it never seems that way. If you see three locks, or aquaducts, come up in one batch, rest assured they will not make their way round to you. Wildcard builds are great if you have them, painful if you miss out. Two or three turns of that, and a hand limit of seven, can set you back early on (he said, with feeling) and since this is a race of sorts, well it can hurt long term as well. In fairness, the easily accessible engineer cards can sometimes mitigate poor card draws, and you always have the option to ‘sweep’ the selection. Normally, you can at least do something.

A similar criticism can be made on the contracts. If the new batch is turned for the player on your left, or they finish one at the right time, again you can expect the good ones to go before you can grab them. However, because you can only hold two open contracts and there is a compensation system, this is sometimes not a biggie. Where your canals end up being built very definitely is a biggie, as we shall see later. Overall I am not going to make a huge fuss about the luck element, because this is not a brain burner type of game where people are going to get too bent out of shape by a bit of luck and increased flavour. What I think might happen is that the control freaks will, deep down, enjoy this game and actually want less luck… the game balance of the excellent Jenseits von Theben comes immediately to mind.

In the first game I went for the ‘many quick builds’ strategy, planting short canals all over the place, ending up completing seven contracts, more than anyone else. This achievement carries a victory point bonus, but not much of one. I think I got ten VPs, while even the last place builder got one. At the end of the game I needed a charge to make any inroads on the leader, who had built longer canals and had better connections, but ten was not enough.

In my unbiased view, I didn’t do anything really wrong. I was simply not getting the volume of goods shipped and my network was weaker, due to available contract card draws and speed out of the gate, so my income was consistently half that of the leader. Even a late run of steady business didn’t help much. So we may have a game that permits a player to establish a lead, and hold onto it. Why? Because, quite simply, some canals are more equal than others and because they will be built in varying sequence, or not built at all, they will have different strengths in each game. I think. The strength is based on canal length, location, whether they connect to each other and the big cities, whether they offer access to a range of markets, and, ultimately, who else chooses to send goods along them.

Point one is that there is an early mover advantage. Being out there and able to shift goods in the opening turns, even on a short canal, will pick up money because there is no one else doing it and the goods replenishment system compounds this advantage. This may partly be because goods are generic, although I will have to think that through fully. I feel the allocation and delivery of goods is a slightly contrived system and inferior to that in Age of Steam, game wise, but works well enough here for historical feel and ease of play. This is a running trade off in Canal Mania.

Secondly, I think there is much to be said for a central position, or a good combination of canals, or perhaps just lucky draws on the goods contracts. By central I mean one where others’ goods will have to ship partly along your route to attain long distance, high revenue, deliveries. To an extent it seems as if goods are pulled into these well placed, powerful canal networks which may be owned because of the luck of the draw rather than skill, but I reserve judgement on that for now. However, much of one’s income is certainly reliant, as in Emira, on the sequence in which canal contracts, goods, and build cards appear. In one game Oxford to Coventry may be next to useless sitting there on its own, or completed late in the game, but as a link between Reading and Birmingham, it could make all the difference.

Thirdly, there is that dual edged gaming device, the card deck. If you know the deck, or decks in this case, you are going to be able to play the game much better – it is no use waiting on the Peterborough to Boston card, or the tenth aquaduct, if there isn’t one coming. For this reason, I would have expected a list of contract cards in the rulebook – we looked, and came up short. We only later realised that the rulebook centrefold is the completed map. Doh! Actually there is no Peterborough-Boston, as I found out to my cost. And even if the contract you want appears, but appears late or goes to a rival, the effect is much the same.

On the other hand, I always enjoy games where you don’t know what is coming, events wise, so one feels more at the whim of fate (or the government!), to which one reacts as best as one can to the situation presented – thus the process and the game tends towards the chaotic. In this sense, reverting to the luck element discussed above, Canal Mania can and does work well as an experience game on all levels. Just don’t expect to always win through good play.

The oddest part of Canal Mania is that it is like playing Railway Rivals in reverse. In RR, you build a speculative network and wait for the runs at the end of the game to determine profits, or network success. Here, you know the routes at the start, get them built as quickly as you can and then hope that they get profitable goods traffic. I think that was essentially how Empire Builder worked wasn’t it? Seems a long time ago now. I liked that game a lot, but the rewards never quite seemed to match the network planning one put in.

What I hope, and won’t know until I have played a bit more, is that a canal that is good in one game, perhaps because it is linked to another, or manages to link key towns, may be weaker in the next because of rival routes and unbuilt contracts. If you get the synergy working, through luck and good play, then you have a shot at the win. If you don’t, you will need to enjoy the building process and I know a lot of gamers that won’t settle for this feature alone. Personally I am happy to play canal builder and see what the fates bring, money wise. To me this is an interesting unfolding of the game system over several games, and as we often say if that gets you through five plays, or even ten, we are all winners.

Although it is quite an expensive game, Canal Mania has a lot going for it and I can happily say it will be played for a while to come. The game has some neat decision points, a strong basic theme to which the system sticks hard, and everyone comes out of it smiling. It feels somehow very English. Canal Mania is an enjoyable, clean and flavoursome game in which you feel as if you have achieved something, even if actually dead last and contemplating those key turning points. For comparison, this is something I have never felt when playing Age of Steam or Railroad Tycoon – there is always too much frustration and lack of atmosphere to overcome. With the provisos on powerful networks and leader catch-up firmly in mind, Canal Mania comes recommended.

Mike Siggins
[email protected]

Mike Siggins
Gamer's Notebook, August 2006
August 25, 2006 5:14 PM

Fantasy Flight

There is now no getting away from the fact that Fantasy Flight are a major player, and I am actually pleased that is the case. After several early forays that marked them out as ‘just another American boardgame company’, they have seemingly cracked the difficult task of presenting a steady stream of gorgeous looking, hefty and sometimes rather long games. These are provided at surprisingly reasonable prices, pushed out the door in numbers, and seem to preserve a viable business plan at the same time. The latter one is key, as anyone at Eagle Games will tell you. For these achievements alone, they should be congratulated.

They also have some real winners in their line-up. As a result, even I am tempted by their prodigious output on a regular basis. There, that surprised you… But one needs to be selective, because longer American style games are not for everyone, and with the huge ‘gravestone’ games pushing £60 ($110) here in England any mistakes can be costly as well as bulky. Why? Because what they seemingly haven’t cracked yet is dependable quality of design, the value of intensive and clinical development where needed, and perhaps a sense of knowing when to leave well enough alone. In short, they are not yet consistent. In the final analysis, Big Games with a high price tag need to say, ‘You can trust me to be playable’ as well as, ‘Hey, look at all my great bits’. I think there must be a large sign in FF Command HQ saying, ‘More is More’, but as my old school chum Mies Van Der Rohe contended, that is not always the case.

It strikes me that this issue is complicated because to achieve the impressive number of releases they are using both external and in-house designers, plus they mix in a fair number of reprints. As we now know, these reprints seldom return as they were, and most become ‘enhanced’. Personally, I would have thought that in many cases a few tweaks together with improving the artwork and rules would have been enough But no, there are often major changes to be made. But what do I know? (seriously). As with Peter Jackson, I charitably assume these changes are market driven updates, rather than just fiddling with another’s work for the sake of it.

I thought this time I would take a look at a recent selection of their games, featuring Arkham Horror as the key release.

Descent: A Journey Back to the Dark Ages

Let’s start with the biggest disappointment: Descent. This one left me completely cold, as if caught in the breath of a White Dragon. Even though I should have liked it, and really wanted to, it really failed on almost all counts. Based on a sneak preview at Essen I had envisioned a fantasy Space Hulk for the new century, with spectacular pieces, map boards and scenarios; my expectations were high. What was delivered was almost painful. It must be said that there were extenuating circumstances, and I should stress that everyone else playing really enjoyed it, as did many others at The Gathering and since. Some people are using the Great word, but then some people support Arsenal, or the Cubs. So this is almost certainly a minority view, with me in the corner again. Nothing changes.

The first problem I had was that my character, a bow wielding elf thief stereotype, was pretty lame. He ended up shooting from distance into melees and missing, and disarming the odd trap. I had in mind a down at heel Legolas, yet somehow proud and aloof, sniping with deadly accuracy from cover. I ended up as incidental cannon fodder. The other characters dished out damage in multiples of my own, and seemed to take on the defence values of tanks rather quickly, while I hid behind my stout Elven cotton.

The second problem is game length, or more specifically pace of play. It drags. Even more than Doris Drag, reining drag queen of Dragenham. The action, which could be fast paced and vibrant, is actually so leisurely that it may as well be in slow motion. In all respects, it is a dungeon crawl. Sorry. I think there are too many rules, too little scope for movement, and far too many monsters. See below for more controlled but channelled ranting.

The third problem is almost philosophical. Descent is a dungeon hack, in the worst possible traditions of the form. I go way back with D&D and once we got over the initial fun and excitement some of us started to question powergaming in neatly tiled dungeons with water features, full to the brim with monsters. What do they eat? Adventurers I suppose. How do dragons, a few minotaurs and a couple of armies of gnolls and trolls live in the same building, happily confining themselves to separate rooms, perhaps wandering around a bit for exercise? What fun is it, long term, to simply kill monsters and cart off their treasure? Those players that didn’t ask these questions, or perhaps found credible answers, lived on to design this game.

So Descent is Old School adventuring, something I have personally been trying to leave behind for best part of thirty years. Why? Because, at heart, it is dumb, formulaic and repetitive, and because there are better ways to game, and much better places and ways to be role playing. Now Old School is back, with plastic bits and an attitude, and people seem to love it. There is no playing of roles here, it is just a bash the baddies and grab the cool kit exercise that brings us quickly to the door of the much loved/hated Munchkin and all its vile spawn. The spawn live nextdoor, obviously.

In the spirit of fairness, I will come clean. Even if I am rather embarrassed. I, Mike Siggins, have played Munchkin twice, and because I could identify with the jokes, I actually had a good laugh. However, I just can’t imagine playing it again. Why? Because there is no game to speak of. Once the jokes have emerged, you are left with a vapid exercise in card play, even though this didn’t need to be the case. One presumably buys the Sci-Fi expansion to get the same jokes, warmed over. Laziness? Lack of talent? Cynical marketing? Who knows. So while the purchase, initial play and commercial success of Munchkin don’t surprise me greatly, continued play does.

Accordingly, I can’t actually track the multiple ironies going on here. Is Munchkin taking the piss, a genuine attempt to just be funny, or is it really an homage to Old School as some claim? Who cares says Mr Jackson, counting his dollars. Is Descent knowingly ironic, an attempt to go retro, or just plain bad? I am erring towards the latter. I guess all this makes me a sort of role playing snob, but please read on.

What does Descent do well? Predictably, it gives you a whole load of amazing bits and enough scope for many, many games, albeit all rather samey. Or even a campaign, if you made up your own rules… The monsters are good from the box, but I have seen these hard plastic figures painted up in a hobby shop and they can look stunning. It also does an excellent job of creating a meaningful character for everyone in double quick time – you choose a base card, you get some special skills and weapons, you are quickly painted as weak or strong or a good shot or a heavily armoured thug. You immediately think character, not playing piece. There are some interesting magic items and weapons. The combat system (unlike the cumbersome one in World of Warcraft) is also nicely done.

Unusually for a boardgame, and I wish it happened more often, one player takes the role of GM. Or DungeonMaster as we used to say. For this gamer, any game that squanders the huge potential this offers, there had better be a very good reason. The GM gets to draw secret cards and deploy monsters and reveal the map as we explore it. In fairness, he may get the best deal overall, but even his actions are restricted. We are all working to a set scenario, known only to the GM, but even the most deductively challenged adventurer can work out that we are going to progress through half a dozen rooms, collecting keys and stuff, so that when we meet the Big Bad Boss at the end, we can overwhelm him. Or ideally, for excitement, just overwhelm him with a casualty or two. Then we all cheer, say Tschuss!* to four hours, and move onto the next scenario featuring strangely familiar monsters, rooms and magic items. Until such time as we buy the inevitable expansion set, anyway.

*Orcish for “Bye-eee!”

I could bang on again about the excessive time taken, but those who like Descent seem not to mind. Apart from the criminal under use of the GM (who does, in most cases, have a brain), what really kills it for me is this single factor: The party opens a door, and a room is revealed. Not a large room, but decent square footage as desirable dungeons go. The GM then proceeds to add chests and a monster to the room. Ahhh, a Clawed Terror. Scary, but we can handle him. Hang on, there’s more coming says our grinning GM. A couple of trolls, a minor demon, several squigs, two Horned Horrors, three Hell Hounds, four Vampire Hens, five Gold Rinnnnnngs. And an Ogre. The place is packed. It is banging. Have we caught the Ogre mid-party? The room fills out even more, and a couple of goblins have to go into the kitchen for a breather. Eventually, there is barely room for the party to squeeze inside. Small talk, canapés and vicious combat ensue, and as the night goes on, one by one the monsters fall. We clean up (wine stains just everywhere!) and nick the goodie bags. Another door beckons. You can work it out from here.

It is, in essence, very silly and over the top. I suppose Siggins getting all prissy over a fantasy game, that is meant to be fun, is silly as well. I hold my hands up to that one. But I hope you can see where I am going with this. Potentially, this was a game to ice the legacy of dungeon games from the past, all of which fell short in one, many, or all departments. Let us just be grateful that I will never have to play Talisman again. Potentially it was a chance to exploit a player willing to GM and open up all the exciting free-form improvisation and spontaneity that only a human umpire can provide. Potentially it was a campaign game, with character development, plot progression and scenario variety, that one would look forward to playing regularly. Potentially, it could have handled a single session scenario in 90 minutes or less. It misses on every single one of these, and by some margin. I guess I am just out of step with the market, what they are willing to pay, play and identify as fun. Which is where I came in – I’ll get my coat.

Resurrection Shuffle

A far, far better game is Fury of Dracula. Yes, yes, I know. It is very hard for Dracula to win, and the player taking that role should ideally be a bit paranoid to start with. But if you can get someone to be the stooge, especially someone who will give it a good go all the way through, and convince them that getting caught during the day is generally a bad idea, you should enjoy yourselves. This is a game with oodles of flavour, some neat deduction, and, interestingly, is not that far removed from the lauded Games Workshop original. It is, most importantly, a game that wants you to like it. The designer, and in this case the developer, clearly cared.

The basic system, like the Hidden Hobbits device in War of the Ring, is rather clever, and gives away just enough information to make the chase interesting. The Dracula player uses hidden movement, and leaves behind a trail of embargoed clues that the other players follow. He gets to use minions and event cards to delay, distract or murder his pursuers, and the hunters get to pick up the pieces. This balance works very well indeed, aided and abetted by all the vampire paraphernalia we have internalised from movies, games and books. And Buffy.

You know it is a good game when all the hunters think they definitely have their quarry cornered, and then five minutes later they look at each other with puzzled looks. Where on earth is he? He must have been in Vienna at some point, but now he could be anywhere. You go that way, I’ll cover this route, and John can cover the South. But Dracula still gets away, and that is the fun of it. Conversely, the run of luck sometimes turns cruelly against the Count, and he will get into trouble. Not a strong gaming plus, but great for the feel of the thing.

Within Fury of Dracula there is a neat little combat system. It does feel a bit odd at times, and I think we will see this particular hat looking better on another head, but it certainly beats rolling dice. The nature of fighting with old Drac is that developments are unpredictable. What will you kill him with? Will he run and hide, or fight, vapourise, or turn into a bat or wolf? Inevitably, he fights better at night. The solution is a set of combat cards that in turn form an interesting matrix of play and counter play, timing, bluff, guesswork and tactical guile. As the highest praise I can offer, I am reminded of Football Strategy’s excellent matrix system. No gags about Dracula’s aerial game please.

For the fans of Puerto Rico and Caylus out there, you will not find much gaming meat here, but there is easily enough for the time required. One can argue that atmosphere alone makes for a poor game, but it is something I will always take in preference to a great game with no soul at all. Fury of Dracula has atmosphere and gameplay, and I think the mix is a good one. I know from my group that needing someone to play Dracula may diminish the appeal for some, and that I can understand. What this may all mean, very much as with Shadows over Camelot last year, is that it is a game that you may play once or twice and enjoy greatly, but not feel any great desire to play again. But I bet if you have Fury of Dracula on the shelf, it will come out at least once a year.

That statement probably colours my verdict on Fury of Dracula, and even I can’t see myself playing it very often, but I liked this game a lot. I think it works well, it has a decent number and weight of decisions, and it has presence, when so many recent games don’t. It undoubtedly has some luck, and it can tip heavily at the wrong time for Dracula, but like a small beer paunch, the luck is carried well. I also use it to show that Fantasy Flight can do considered and successful in-house development, even if that development means leaving some elements well enough alone.

In the world of furniture, they talk about finish being everything. Fury of Dracula has just that quality, and it is my Game of the Month this time.

An old game now (carbon dated back as far as 2003), but one that keeps getting played. I think the deal here was that the first game worked and had enough in it to make repeat play tempting, and also set aside my fears that you need to know the background. I have tried three times to read the G.R.R. Martin books and have made a maximum of thirty pages before keeling over. In fairness, apart from a slight sense that you are playing Diplomacy, and a few problems with the naval rules, this is a smooth and well designed game with some clever systems. Not stellar, and certainly not quick, but always playable. I await the latest expansion, A Storm of Swords, with interest.

You have no idea how pleased I was when this game was released. I liked the original game, to a point, but here was a reprint where the extra development work, or even a re-design, and a graphics overhaul could really pay dividends. I also love the whole Cthulhu background, being a big fan of the role playing game, Mythos the CCG, and even obscure boardgames like The Hills Rise Wild, Dark Cults and Cults Across America. Add in an environment damaging box of bits and some excellent artwork, and you have a game that has figured large in my gaming this year.

Which is very odd, because initially and ultimately Arkham Horror was quite disappointing. Something evil though, true to the Lovecraft books, kept drawing me back in – often the shared enthusiasm of fellow mythos fans to start another game, or perhaps just the desire to see what cool situations all those bits could really come up with. Like Hazienda, which flirtingly displayed some qualities but then hid them, I was waiting on Arkham Horror to show its true colours. It never did. Even so, as a disappointing game, I have played it seven times and I even chose it as my pick from The Gathering prize table. Go figure.

While unusual in structure – it is almost a non-co-operative co-operative (call the hyphen police!) - Arkham will always be inherently strong because of its subject matter. There is so much potential here that the mythos background has actually carried it forward regardless, like a running back at speed. Arkham Horror makes good yardage, but falls some way short of a first down. The basic problem is that you do essentially the same thing every turn, which may or may not be sufficiently interesting, and those turns come along far too infrequently. The other issue is that we have lost the central driver of the mythos; fear.

The core of this game is inter-dimensional gates. These regularly appear around downtown Arkham, and the local council is not happy. The players must close them as quickly as possible, and closing all of them gives you the joint win. To do this one ideally needs mucho stuff, so you submit to text based encounters specific to the town location visited. Because the characters are all different, and the gates are all over the place, this tends to be done independently, making the co-operative experience rather flimsy. In fact, taking a straw poll on one’s next action is about as co-operative as it gets. Characters may specialise (hunting books, fighting, even shopping) but for me there is little team spirit; we have the same overall aim, but we are working apart.

The encounters vary from the trivial (you are attacked by a dangerous bookmark! Seriously.) to the potentially deadly, and usually involve a skill roll. Some are banal, some are obvious, and a few are inspired. There is however no narrative linkage between encounters, even at the same location, and sadly there is no overall plot to expose or research. Importantly, there is little atmosphere and no sense of threat. One doesn’t even feel the tiniest bit scared. Just keep closing those gates, with your fists if necessary.

Scale this up to the game level and everyone is running round, killing monsters where necessary, and being generally active – just like those awful people who are always going to the gym, or doing white water rafting in their lunch hour. Whereas I would rather be studying in the library (art imitating life?). We are assigned characters with which we can identify (nun, P.I., professor etc.), so why not use them ‘properly’? You can try, and in time you may even get a spell or artefact that may help the cause, but generally it is a poor fit and there is little “keying” to help the flavour build. Too much trouble I suppose, and too much peer pressure to get out and close gates. So Arkham feels like a cross between Whack-a-Mole and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but without actually needing Giles.

The overall experience is a bit long as well as strangely uninvolving, and the end sequence is often an easy win, or conversely a cheesey ‘bash the ancient one’ that is usually doomed to failure. I am disappointed that we are even asked to go through the motions. In the Realm of Great Cthulhu, suggestion is a powerful tool. We don’t actually need to have an intergalactic elder god pottering down Main Street, we just have to think they might be. When I played the pencil and paper game, the whole point was that if you met a monster, you were in big trouble. If it was a big monster, big parts of the world were in big trouble. Whatever, it was unlikely that a Tommy Gun, a Pack Howitzer or even 14th Armoured Division would help much. That point seems to have been missed, or overlooked, in deference to lots of flavourless, tedious and usually futile combat.

But apart from these curious departures from a winning formula, there are many commendable elements. As with Descent, a player’s character is generated in minutes, and they have a surprisingly textured feel – a private detective is blah, but a private detective who is cursed, broke and rides an old motorbike is already speaking to us. The combat and sanity systems are sound enough, even if time in the sanatorium or hospital is a bit dull. The minor league monsters, of which there can be many, are flavoursome, believable and in the case of flying beasties, quite cleverly portrayed. When your character gets to do his thing in the right location, and a well conceived card is drawn, there is considerable satisfaction. The same is true when a character advances, finds an important book, or gains a new spell or skill. Countering this are the ‘other dimensions’ that one may travel to, or fall into, which are ironically one dimensional. Sorry. Again.

I suppose deep down I just really wanted to love Arkham Horror, and gave it every chance. In truth, there is much that is good, and more that really could be good if someone had sat down and improved the co-operative element, turn structure and variety. And cut back the play length. But once we swapped the unique ethos of Call of Cthulhu for Whack-a-Mole, there was no way back, even with a Gate Key. The game, like the unwary investigator, was lost in Time and Space. But even though the game is virtually solitaire, repetitive, and could take a long time to finish, it still has something. Much of that something is the decent, not great, atmosphere generated by the location, the characters and the mythos text.

Arkham Horror joins a handful of other games on death row (a small shelf above my desk), awaiting pardon. Even this dubious honour is a better fate than those games summarily sold off (cough, Attika). I have held onto the game for the usual reasons: I think the bits might be useful for a better game after tweaking; I think there is enough here for the occasional outing; because I have formed an irrational attachment to it (always a good justification) and, most of all, I am placing an unnatural level of hope in the expansions already announced.

Unlike most games, I think this one actually needs expansions. I hear rumours of missions (woohoo!), scenario theming, new towns and of course yet more dimensions, cards, skills, spells and tomes… this lot could in theory save it, transform it, or sink it for good. Whatever, it is going to cost me more money. When they arrive I can judge if they are game elements that should have been in the admittedly overflowing box to start with, and that is never a good feeling. I will let you know.

Mike Siggins
[email protected]

Mike Siggins
Gamer's Notebook, July 2006
July 28, 2006 3:03 PM

As the summer hots up, and work on my new house -- Sumo Towers -- at last declines, my thoughts immediately turn to long bike rides in the English countryside, blockbuster movies, barbeques, gardening, kite flying, and of course quiet afternoons sitting in the courtyard reading or painting. There is even the odd game session available for anyone not sunning themselves. Were it not for work and mortgage sticking their oars in, things would look pretty idyllic round these parts.

But Mike, we want to hear about games. Okay. The Nuremburg releases have been and gone, and outside of Thurn und Taxis and Um Krone they raised barely a ripple -- but as ever, there have been a couple of notables which deserve comment. Plus, there are some games from The Gathering still unreviewed. I have also been lucky enough to enjoy some good two player sessions recently (still a rarity for me), and Fantasy Flight would seem to be trying to attract my attention with a slew of releases that have given a hernia to my postman. And then there was the fateful day when I played Sceptre of Zavandor. But first, some serious analysis. Wake up at the back there!

Closed Systems

You may have noticed a little game called Caylus doing the rounds. Seems quite popular on the whole. I can't say I am huge fan, but if nothing else, it at least got me thinking. I played at Essen only to be predictably underwhelmed, and it was no better when I tried again in November. But recently, after a six month break, I revisited it just to check why this game was still up at the very top of the Geek Hit Parade. At the moment I am happy to let the fans (Colin Excitable and his chums) go mad for this one and when the dust settles we will see what is really there. What I have so far detected is a game that could well have been designed by Richard Breese, like Ys before it, but which clearly lacks that designer's arch hand. I also think it is overlong. I would be happy at 90 minutes of this essentially repetitive stuff, but two or even three hours? Too much.

Don't get me wrong, if you can get around the thin theme it is a good cerebral game with some clever mechanisms and a lot of decision making. It is however an interim design, which shows great potential, and so I think the next game from Mr Attia could be very interesting indeed. But simply put, while I won't veto a game, I just don't enjoy playing this type of thing. I am reminded of Puerto Rico, Goa and to an extent Princes of Florence, a game I otherwise enjoy. I call these 'Closed System' games, wherein there are no surprises, most or all random elements have been terminated, they have fixed resources, and a very firm feel of boundaries on all sides - almost like an intentionally restricted test environment that somehow got released to the masses. And seemingly they like it that way!

Seriously, I find this style of 'damped' game to be painfully tight, ordered, rather dry, process heavy and with a strangely studious feel. While there is a little interaction, much of this is simple forced reaction to another's play. There is as a result a strong sense of everyone ploughing their own furrow and optimising as they go -- a game for Perfect Plan devisers, and we all know one of those. I don't feel there are any exciting strategies or sweeping plays to be made, or surprises to be had, and I don't warm to the theme. Where is the flavour, the sweep of history, the narrative quality, the depth of experience, the soul? Above all, it is no fun.

There are of course advantages to the form, and we can see why designers of a certain, shall we say Teutonic, mindset regularly come up with them. Mainly, they provide an intense, close game and allow the sort of gamer (a.k.a. The Silent Ones) to really get into the cogs and pulleys of the design. These players enjoy a mental workout. They play often, they play the same game repeatedly, and very competitively. Understandable. Sometimes I sit and wait months (or years) for a game that hits the right balance of decision making, and flavour. Sadly, I think this depth, and depth it is, is often mistaken for a game with many strategies. Instead I feel Caylus is a game with a number of strategies that may be pursued, but they are not exactly limitless. Of course this is more than 95% of German Games offer, so again, one can understand the appeal. In a nutshell, not my style of game -- but each to their own.

I had avoided playing this one for a long time, but when there is an identifiable level of hobby support for a game that is clearly not based on pure speculative buzz or being first to play, I feel a need to check the game out. My reticence was built on a dislike for Outpost back in the day, the game on which Zavandor clearly draws heavily (I am not sure if there was an agreement or not), and also on reliable advice that the game ran for at least four hours. Outpost certainly took us at least that long. Four hours is a long time playing something you don't like, so it took a balmy afternoon at the game club where no other games looked tempting, a promise of two hour game length, England losing to Portugal on the TV (unwatchable, my dears) and a transitory Siggins mood swing to get me into it. Truly, the Stars were Right.

And you know what? I rather liked it. This view would be slightly biased by the one point win I enjoyed, but not that much. I ran under the "Fair Deal for Fairies" ticket, and shot out into an early lead with the Crystal Ball and Three Opals opening. I was first to the Diamonds, and made them my own, and managed to secure two Sentinels before anyone else had even one. But gem losses hit my income, my cash flow was already erratic, so after that, like a desperate pace maker in the last 100 metres, I just lumbered on and waited for the challenges. And they surely came, one after another. In fairness, one player could have pipped me had he remembered to buy two Opals in the last turn, but I had made a similar timing mistake earlier. So an honourable draw was agreed and given that we were playing the German version, with some rather nebulous definitions and game text, it seemed the right result.

I don't honestly know what has changed from Outpost, apart from the theme which I do think fits rather well. I was reminded of Ars Mysteriorum both by the light hearted fantasy motif, and the real and evident effort to make that theme stick. It certainly feels a good degree friendlier than Outpost ever did, and while the ordered and regimented structure is still evident, it didn't seem quite so onerous. And referring back to the Closed System comments above, it avoided the dry label in a way that Outpost certainly didn't. Can someone familiar with both games let me know why this might be? But whatever has changed, including probably my receptiveness, makes for title that I wouldn't mind playing again, perhaps once or twice a year if the mood took me. It is a game that is ridiculously overwrought, with a sore need for decent play aids, and has all the signs of being built in a spreadsheet (!). Elegant is never an adjective we will need to deploy here, but the system stands up and, importantly, it has enough hooks to draw you in and keep you entertained for the three hours or so this will take you.

I really liked that I enjoyed the steady progress, you can see where you are going and how relatively well you are doing, and you can see why a certain artefact would be a very good thing to have, right now. That said it is a bit processional, but I liked the fact everyone was involved right down to the wire (closed system advantages, again). One becomes immersed in the relative pricing, the different strategies, the occasionally vicious auctions and the cleverly staggered and variable cash flows but mainly (and I hesitate slightly here) there is the race element. A very slow race, for sure, but a race nevertheless. The rider is that the 'race' did take four hours, including explanation, but that could be improved a lot if everyone kept the pace up. But still, Zavandor was a very pleasant surprise and I look forward to the English edition from Z-Man which will hopefully have a really tight set of rules, charts and game aids. I am happy to make Zavandor my Game of the Month this time.

Two Player Games

My opportunities for two player games are strictly limited. Almost always there are three or more gamers present at a session, and there can be up to twenty at my local club. So when Richard Breese came over recently we took the chance to play some of the many games in my backlog. Inevitably that means Kosmos are going to be figuring large in proceedings, and as it happened from the seven on offer, we played four Kosmos games.

We opened up with Hellas, a game I have had on the shelf in German for a year or so but never got round to making the card translations. So the English version was snapped up at The Gathering! Talk about lazy… Mark Johnson recommended this one to me and I liked the sound of the island conquest and battle system as a sort of wargame-lite. But in play it proved a surprisingly abstract exercise, with a lot of positional play, and as Richard is a bit good at abstracts I got hammered before I could explore the possibilities. The game is one of those that 'tips over' and once you are in a losing position, there didn't seem any way back. But next time I will know that. It also struck me that the tactical cards were somewhat variable in effect, but the scenario and exploring was interesting and the game well balanced. I will return to this one.

Three Dragon Ante is one of those games that occasionally slips out from the TSR stable (now Wizards of course) purporting to be an AD&D product but is really a proper game. I think in fairness it is something of a cash-in on the worldwide poker craze (has it finished yet?), but it works well enough until the game end which is surely broken? -- I suspect in theory it could go on for several days. You also have to provide your own poker chips. The game is essentially one of ante-ing up dragon cards and gold, and then building hands to try and win the pot. It is actually quite interesting in play, restricted only by luck of the draw which can be drastically one sided (he said, with feeling). You win by reducing your opponent to zero gold, but as there is a distinct to and fro quality, and you start with 50 gold, this can take some time. I would suggest either reducing the 50 gold figure, or play the sudden death win but allow a time limit to kick in, e.g. highest total after 30 minutes plus one hand. Okay, playable, and probably better with more players. It is staying on the shelf.

Next up was Odin's Ravens, about which I had heard nothing but good things. I like the designer Thorsten Gimmler, who at least seems to be trying to push the design envelope, and I was impressed by Aton and Geschenkt. This is a deceptively clever little race game, which didn't quite work the first time. But we carried on into the second race and started to see the possibilities. By race four, we were seasoned experts and trying tricky stuff. There is actually quite a bit of tactical depth here, but it retains a light, fun, lucky feel -- not easy to pull off. We played about six or seven races in the end and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I think the target points total may be a mistake, as it could make the game too long which would be a mistake, but otherwise it is all good. I like the various card effects -- not too strong or weak -- and the neat ability to come from behind, make a sudden dash or subtly block your rival. Great flavour too, with the terrain playing a key role. Not one you are going to play every week, but a decent filler, a clever design, and well worth your time.

We then took a quick pitstop for an old favourite in new clothes. Predictably, with its status as a huge hit worldwide, Einfach Genial/Ingenious! is now out in a small box travel edition, and while it is exactly the same game (except with pegs for scoring) it is about a tenth the size of the original. So ideal for your beach bag, backpack or bike panniers... I like everything about this game except my inability to plan ahead. It is easily taught, everyone I know loves it, and even I can put up a decent performance. The copy was a German only edition, but that hardly makes any difference, and there may be an English edition coming along. I probably need say no more.

And finally, Jambo, a lightish title from Rudiger Dorn concerning buying and selling goods in an African market. I have a weakness for this type of game, perhaps as a post-CCG legacy. Give me a symmetrical position with new event and power cards to experience, with the possibility of special cards and combinations, and I am a happy gamer. Obviously the discovery element wanes with time, but it is fun while it lasts. Jambo hit almost all the right notes, and apart from the annoying restriction on slots, this was a winner. I even started thinking of a four player variant mid-game, which probably indicates how much I enjoyed it. I like the fact that you always want more actions, and I think the opponent recording those actions is neat. Really good little game, I hope to play it a lot more as sessions permit.

I would rank these games Three Dragon Ante lowest, then Hellas, Odin and Ingenious, with Jambo at the top. This is because I rather like slightly chaotic, interactive card games like Jambo, and because while I love Ingenious, I am not that great at it. However, unusually for a single session, I felt every one of these games worked and can happily recommend all of them, as long as you fix the Dragon game end…

In what has become a largely disposable hobby, some games stick around. The really good ones are self explanatory, but there is a broad sub-stratum of games that are The Nearlies. Even though they don't really excite, they don't disappoint either, often having some little residual hook that makes you think, hmm, okay, go on then, once more. These games are rewarded with something that very few titles get -- repeat business. Hazienda is a good, and timely, example. The first time I played I thought it was okay, but I also expected to leave it behind me: it's Kramer solo for starters, a complicated version of Through the Desert with all sorts of random factors, cash and systems thrown in, and possibly even a flaw in the shape of the land strategy.

However, this is a Hans im Gluck game, lots of people said they liked it, and some raving individuals said it was the best of Essen. But then there are always such comments, and in this case I don't think it was. The most persuasive argument came from Larry Levy who said I should try it again on the asymmetrical map rather than the default 'dogbone'. This I did, and two plays quickly became five plays. While I still don't think it is a great game, there is definitely something there and I'll play at the club if there is nothing better to do. Perhaps importantly, I haven't yet bought it.

Faint praise, Siggins? Yes, I am afraid so. Hazienda neither shines nor smells; it is just slap bang in the middle of acceptable -- about a solid an example of a 6.5 as I can offer you, and I don't usually do halves. Or numerical ratings. But today, I needed one. It's a playable game, it works, it's quick, and I like the feel and weight. I am just frustrated that a little more development, or perhaps some deciduous trimming by the designer, may have made it an 8. From Hans im Gluck the least one expects is superb development and fine tuning from Bernd Brunnhofer. Perhaps this is just a game that wasn't meant to shine.

So let's have a look at why this may be. Firstly, the appeal. You are building, which is generally a positive thing. There is a decent level of interaction, competing for resources, claiming land and racing for the important markets. A very strong element is the global timing of ones moves -- different actions need to be taken to optimize your position and score, so your valuable turns must cater for short termism, funding, re-stocking, and long term strategy. There are also some interesting and varied tactical approaches possible (I chose those words carefully, and will return to them in a later column), and the situation, rather than the theme, is challenging. I think this is because there is a decent balance of random factors, timing, options, cash control, setting up potential VPs, and working out how to optimize that lot in one big game plan.

So that's all good, and one can see the considered design, or probably development, that has gone in. The result is a game that has a base appeal despite a clear abstract core and I am pretty sure that we will see improvements, revisions and spin-offs in time. Certainly the game is ripe for any amount of variant play -- the official variants included are a good start point. I have already seen some good homebrew maps, there is at least one map generator available, and one could feasibly tweak almost all the game components for interesting effects. Not often one can say that. On the downside, I think that the standard, recommended board (the notorious 'dogbone') is an idea bad enough to sink the game for some. The reverse side of the board, or one of the abovementioned maps now appearing, are so much better it is baffling that the symmetrical board was even included.

We have established that there is a fair bit going on, generating interest between turns. The trade off is that the underpinning money transactions, as ever, impede the game flow and in this instance combine with action points to make it worse. There is a major disconnect between your downtime -- where you know clearly what you want to do -- and your turn, where these aims are not easily implemented. The Moon Patent System of acquiring animals, Airlines/Reibach style, is both good (quick, immediate, some decision making) and not so good (luck of the draw, crap selection when your turn arrives forcing deck draws). As a result often one has that 'Two or Three Turn Delayed Execution' issue that is not because of decisions or having too much to do, just because the game situation or availability of cards dictates it. The game still comes in at the 75 to 90 minute mark, so there is no great concern here, but there is a noticeable pacing issue.

I think as a function of all this, the game feels fiddly rather than elegant. There is also slight sense that there is a little too much to be considering for the weight of game -- for instance, water tile play is almost always an afterthought -- and that perhaps we are working too hard for the rewards on offer. Mark Johnson raised just this point in his excellent podcast, Boardgames To Go. I think the crux of the matter is that I like the options available, and where that leads, but the way I access those options is somewhat fiddly and not quick in process or maturation of plans.

Compare and contrast this with something like Ticket to Ride, or indeed Through the Desert, where we are offered just the bare tactical bones and a transparent, intuitive system -- the resulting immediacy and snappy play is pretty much what lifts those games. There is much that feels fresh and interesting in Hazienda, and it makes one think even though there is little new on offer. I can happily recommend it to you, largely because I very much doubt that you will dislike it. It is a game that will see occasional use, as long as you don't even think of playing the dogbone more than once.

Mike Siggins
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Mike Siggins
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