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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many thanks to BoardGameGeek.com without which writing this report would have been an awful lot slower…
I can't say enough about how helpful this is and how many games I now keenly await here in the States. Thanks for giving us so much detailed information and so quickly after the show!
The best report I've read - thank you! I think I detect some of your old enthusiasm in there which can only be good news. At the risk of cluttering up your blog, here are my thoughts on some of the bigger games you mentioned.
Gloria Mundi - I thought this had a couple of good new ideas and I enjoyed my one game of this very much. I chose to add it to my purchases even though there was quite a bit of confusion around the rules from the "stand bunnies" and the written version seems to be one big mess.
Through the Ages - I've now ploughed through the (rather good) rules for this and am more than extremely optimistic. Just a bit worried about the length but isn't this always the case with this type of game.
Imperial - This was described to us as a business game, the board looks like an old Diplomacy one (minus Turkey) and we set off playing it like a wargame. I am lukewarm about Antike because I think it has a few issues but this one has me much more interested to play more.
Perikles - played for an hour and quite liked it but for the first time ever I came away from Essen without the new Warfrog game in my bag. Nothing wrong with it (quite the opposite in fact) but something just stopped me buying it. I may relent come Christmas but for the moment I'll just track the reviews.
On the Underground - almost entirely derivative but it was the game I most enjoyed playing and has the the first to get played since we got back. I will choose it over Ticket to Ride at the moment when we are looking for that sort of game. Recommended for people who like TTR
Yspahan - I agree that there are some very clever ideas but there is no way I would recommend this. I found the cards (and combinations of them) way too powerful. So much so that I read the rules three times convinced that we must be doing something wrong. It left me feeling that the game had been underdeveloped with a view to getting it in time to live off the back of Ystari's current fame. My most disappointing game of the fair.
Silk Road - an ok game but if you were looking for the heavier stuff then you were right to have missed this one because the box size and particularly the price gave a very false impression. 15 euros, FF silverline box at best.
I think you're spot on with idea of the Superfiller. The best example of this is Il Principe (I don't like it either). It seems to cram too much into too shorter time frame with the net result that everything seems a bit convoluted and attempts at strategy are lost in the muddle. If I want a shorter game then I will play something less complex. If I want a heavier one then I don't mind playing longer but the two don't seem to mix too well.
I did playtest KeyMarket at Richard's stand on Saturday morning so sorry I didn't manage to bump in to you. Thanks again for the report
I didn't notice much by way of the Yspahan cards, partly I think because I didn't use that strategy. But other cards played seemed okay. Either way, I will keep an eye on that.
See, your comment again leads me to believe we played the rules wrong. My understanding is that a player will draw a card every turn (plus any card for the Caravanersarai). How can you not use that strategy if you're getting cards so frequently?
If for, example, you are fortunate enough to draw the cards that say buy a building without paying camels and buy a building without paying gold then you can buy the hoist for nothing. All the other cards seemed equally powerful in given situations. By the middle of turn 2, three of the four players had built all 6 of their buildings. This didn't feel right at all.
I don't remember doing that! We may have had it wrong. I remember getting a card for being moved up to the camels, or was that moving to Valhalla?
So, apart from the card rules, highly recommended!
Well it seems we played the game wrong. On your turn you get to do ONE of select the action associated with the dice, move the supervisor, take a card. We were doing all three which explains our adavanced positions. This would certianly make me rethink on the game
I agree that the turns limited to a single action seem to be the trend. I think Ticket to Ride seemed to popularize this, and may be a hallmark of the "super filler," as you put it.
Yspahan, however, isn't a pure "single action turn system" because it does give players the option to play cards and/or build special buildings as additional actions to the dice-generated options.
Thank you for the kind write up of my modest works in your sweeping compendium. Finally back home, had a blast in Essen, and Sierra Madre Games will return next year. Sold out just about everything I brought within a few hours! Am slowly mastering the German language, and I have a German girlfriend.
It was fortunate that I was able to cross paths with you however briefly.
I wanted to mention that I too am a fan of Ken Folliett and his book "Pillars of the Earth", or "Saeulen der Erde". Did not get a chance to play the game. Like all of his books, the characters choose different paths depending upon their individual philosophies, and suffer or enjoy the consequences there-in. This dovetails with my Objectivst views of humans as controlling their own fates.
Sierra Madre Games Co.
Save your money my friend...this was horrible...and it could have fit in a box the size of the Kosmos 2-player series!