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Essen 2008 Special (Sort Of)
November 10, 2008 11:20 AM

My Essen started early. Melissa Rogerson arrived in Cambridge in early October and we spent a very enjoyable day pottering, chatting and gaming. There was a lot to take in from those few hours, all positive, and with Melissa safely off to Europe the next day I was left to look forward to Spiel.

I was due to travel on the Wednesday with Richard Breese. On the Monday night I managed to pull a muscle low in my back. It has happened before, it heals eventually, but this was cruel timing. By Tuesday it had stiffened up nicely and I could barely walk downstairs without a lot of pain. Reluctantly, and knowing the prognosis, I decided that eight hours a day on my feet at Spiel was a really bad option. Dejectedly, I retired to bed, wondering once again how I was going to put my socks on, and dreamed of German beer, friends and new games.

Oddly, there was a silver lining. Due to this enforced break, I got a lot of reading done, cleared the DVD backlog, and generally did absolutely nothing. It turned into a genuine rest, much needed, where I was often sleeping half the day. I feel much better for it, a good antidote to a madly busy year. Much calmer, I didn't spend a penny and I still have the games to look forward to. Quite a positive outcome, on balance.

From the reports I have read, I am most looking forward to After the Flood (easily top for anticipation), Kriegbot, Krakow, Planet Steam, Comuni, Jet Set, Snow Tails, Uruk, Palais Royal, Golden Age, Power Boats, Corunea, Saladin, Cavum, Name of the Rose, Dominion and Le Havre. Okay, okay. I am interested in anything you put in front of me. I am even reasonably intrigued by Duck Dealer, Battlestar Galactica and Space Alert.

Monday after Essen. Still struggling with the whole walking thing. Enter Chris Payne, long time gaming friend, regular Essen attendee and, best of all, possessed of working legs. Chris did a useful round up for those of us who didn’t attend, and we quickly decided that this might well be of interest to you. So, over to my able sidekick:

Essen 2008 – The Dream Ticket

It’s the event every office junior dreams of or dreads: it’s the big day and the boss rings in sick because he is flat on his back pumped full of painkillers and told to rest, having put his back out. The key to the executive wash room is mine! Hot tubs, booth babes, parties and cocktails! [MS: Now they all know…] The reality then soon dawns – 300+ new games and three and a half days of the fair left means its time to hoist the press pass into a more prominent position and go game!

Every Essen starts the same: reading what one can from the Geek, Spielbox and Cliquenband and then progressing to the companies’ own websites to see what crumbs they are releasing about their new games. And every year, the carefully prepared scheduled list goes out of the window in the first hour as news starts to ripple through from fellow gamers – either people you know from back home, or people from the hotel, or snippets from people you get a game with.

Each Essen is also different. This year’s mention must be the number of no shows, caused in many cases I gather by problems at the Chinese factories which unexpectedly closed down for 3 weeks to avoid pollution at the Olympics but which hadn’t been factored into their promised production schedules. [MS: some reports indicate that a third of Chinese toy and game production has disappeared] So, at there was no sign at least of the following (and probably many others): Ascendency, Middle Kingdom, Constantinopolis, Roll Through The Ages, Battles of Napoleon, Black Sheep, Genji (said to be stuck on a lorry somewhere) and Tulipmania.

What else was new this year? A number of five and dime stores selling games on the pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap principle. New games stacked in the following price bands on one store €2.50 / €5 /€7.50: although post Essen I have read about the apparent demise of Uberplay which could explain some of the stock. So there were real bargains like the old version of Money by Reiner Knizia for €2.50 which I’d been looking for as presents for my German RPG chums who I’m weaning on to boardgames. Obviously there were less successful games amongst those piled high but the odd classic appeared.

There was a noticeable non German buzz in the background: lots of Dutch, Italians, Poles with a smattering of French and a leavening of Brits, Irish and Americans. The trickle of English rules in the boxes that started last year seems to have become a bucket this year. The big German boys like Kosmos and Ravensburger are still not swayed by this but there are also often dual releases of their games with an American partner such as Mayfair and Rio Grande Games.

Rio Grande were again there in force with a big demo stand, but this year they seemed to have taken things one stage further and there was a noticeable lack of people to explain a game. Thus an hour’s game creeps to two hours as you read the rules from scratch, put out the bits to play the game, and re-do odd bits of various turns as the meaning of a particular rule becomes absolutely clear or clarified. This means less turnover of games being played and a more stress exercise. Some the translation of rules into English was also poor in places.

My personal view, based upon experience, is that the best translation is done by a gamer, and by gamers who have also played the game. At €30-€40 for a new game in English then I do start to expect better translations. (A Castle for All Seasons was the Rio Grande translation in question). I would argue that successful promotion of a product at Essen really does need demo space and a demo team if it is to succeed. As always it is noticeable how some of the smaller companies, possibly at their first Essen hadn’t considered how they were going to sell their product.

What follows are personal comments based upon what I saw or played at Essen:

Steaming: (too hot to touch) Agricola Extra ExtraBits and Le Havre (Lookout). For long parts of the days it seemed as if the queue was always at least thirty minutes until they had sold out or given the last promotional item away. Duck Dealer by Splotter was sold out within an hour.

Luxurious long soak in the Hot Tub with Candles: Krakow 1325

Hot Tub: (popular and well regarded) Dominion, Comuni and Cavum. I bought all three, but have only played the last.

Quick Shower: Wasabi, Longarno, Sushizock im Gockelwok, Mow

Slippery Floor: (rules issues to be clarified, or some concerns) Aztek, Windriver, A Castle for All Seasons

More details…

Geode Games

First game from a new company and our group was he first to play it at Essen on the Thursday morning. It’s only a four player game and is played as a partnership game but with an overall winner. It’s also language dependent with text on cards (available as English, Dutch and German I think). The players are one of four groupings but this is kept secret until the end – The Good and Decent Citizens, The monks and Mystics, The Secret Societies and The Underworld. These are randomly dealt out at the start and nobody knows who is who. Players are then in partnership with who they are sat opposite. Players are dealt 9 intrigue cards of which they will play only seven cards for one season. Four Seasons make up a game year and the initial start player changes each season. The aim of the gain is to get your control markers (black or white) into the areas of the board, whilst advancing (i.e. winning) cards of your colour. Your score at the end will be the total of your black or white partnership colour plus the points scored by your grouping. Thus I was partnered with black but wanted blue agendas in the winning pile to score black and blue. The intrigue cards will show what area they will grant control cubes in, and their score in four colours, although what matters is the colour of the first card down. If it is for example yellow then the yellow scores on cards will be totalled. Thus, I may lead with a +6 yellow, to be followed by a -8 yellow from the opponent on my left, and my partner plays a +5 yellow, and the last opponent can only play a -2 yellow, so the result is victory for our team. There are 56 different intrigue cards. There is further subtlety in money, immediate victory points for a faction on some cards if successful and assorted other actions.

I wallowed in the medieval theme, the artwork and the cards and gameplay. It all seemed to hang together for one of those games that is just a pleasure to play. Others that I personally enjoy as much range from Advanced Civ (Avalon Hill), to Ticket to Ride, to short snappy games like No Thanks! and Poison. Talking with the designer he is working on a three player version which will need new control markers and new cards.


Build Track – Find Gems – Sell them to the market is Cavum in a nutshell. A longer version could be describing it as 18xx meets Shear Panic with dynamite. The basic premise is that people are miners seeking to exploit what lies within a mountain. At the start of each round everyone takes 12 different action tiles (these range from things like build a single straight, to build two, three or six crossing straights – the game is hex tile based – to such things as prospecting or dynamiting. Each action is done once, and only once per turn by a player although the “option” tiles may allow more of the same depending upon what is in the “bank” pool. So, in Shear panic you have twelve actions on your board marked off one by one: in Cavum you have twelve action tiles. Alternatively the limited twelve action tile sequence can be seen as a way of speeding up those games where one gets say ten actions point and then deliberates how to spend them (e.g. Tikal) and some people will spend a very long time working out permutations of their points. Each round you play three of your tiles, so the choice of options decreases each later round in the turn. The gem placement tile is such that you will only be able to exploit it the following round, so turn order starts to become important. Dynamite will only affect hexes if left uncovered at the end of a turn, so will often be covered over by another tile.

The English rules were well written to the point of being perhaps a little “over written” for the purposes of a rules explanation when some of the nuances would only need to be checked if they occurred. With hexes on a blank board and multiple options for a round then there is much strategy to be explored here, and lots of reply value as the tiles will probably be in different layouts every game. The only disappointment I have heard so far has been from railway game fans who feel that the game is too short to fully satisfy them.

Z-Man Games

Place ingredients to meet recipes and score points. Recipes range from two to five ingredients. Ingredients are tiles placed on a square grid which is the board. To “score” a recipe the ingredients have to be in a line or column on the board. Get them in the right order and for recipes above two ingredients then bonus points apply. Additionally there are a few special cards available after completing recipes that allow some tweaking – for example play to move ingredients around, play to place two ingredients rather than the usual one and a few other special moves. Turn order is place an ingredient from your stock of three held, then check to see if you have completed a recipe, and if so, score it. Collect a replacement ingredient and collect a replace recipe (I forget the exact order). Wasabi is fairly quick, and nicely produced and therein lies the problem: I consider it relatively expensive for the game length that comes out when other games in the same price band are looked at. It’s likely therefore that I may suggest this as a club game for our club where the quality of the components may ensure some longevity in a 45 minute opener or finisher. Game end either when a points total achieved or when the board is full.

Red Glove

Place tiles and (limited supply) control markers to score city blocks alongside the canal and main roads of Lungarno. Tiles are acquired from a choice of three face up ones (free, one VP or 2 VP’s) accordingly and once taken tiles shuffle along accordingly thus reducing in cost. Tiles come in three different types – palaces which belong a noble families and which will score points for who controls them, towers which score across the roads and a few special buildings such as shops that can increase the value of the nearby merchant houses or Churches and Cemeteries which can decrease the value, and the Plaza’s which have a special scoring mechanism.. This was off to a good start with me because it’s medieval themed and tile placement. Tile placement does mean though that if yours is a group that has people that think it is fun to play Carcassonne in two hours, then Lungarno could take two hours rather than the suggested 45 minutes.


A Knizia dice and dominoes game. The dominoes are sushi morsels or fishbones and to score a sushi morsel you need a fishbone as well. Excess morsels will not score, whereas excess fishbones will. The dominoes (nice chunky plastic bits) have a picture and positive or negative number. Roll the five dice up to three times (setting a dice aside each re-roll) to obtain a combination that either enable you to take a tile from the centre of the table or from somebody else, so there is some element of memory. Fail to get a workable combination and you get the biggest fishbone (minus score) tile. Not Reiner at his very, very, very best I feel but not far off for a dice and tiles game that plays in 20 minutes.


I’d better express some self interest here since once of our group did the English translation on this. Deal five cards to each player, and its play a card followed by pickup. Cows are placed in a line based upon the number of the card, and if you can’t play at the low end, or the top end of the line then you take the cards and will be scoring the flies on the cows at the end of the round. There a few special cards that do things like allow insertion into the line, block the line off, can be played over another card etc. The 6 nimmt comparison is obvious: this is a little bit lighter and quicker and has pictures of cute cows on the cards.

Yun Games

Think multiplayer Pacman meets Labyrinth. Players are a chieftain and two slaves searching a temple for lost souls. The souls have to be got to the chieftain who can then “release” them and thus score them. The pyramid is a set of 5 x 5 cards, although cards can be placed on top of other cards thus altering the arrangement of wall and rooms and access. Our slippery floor is that we are unsure if souls once captured by a slave are open to inspection by other players, and our scores seemed very low such that one lucky run could win the game. I have emailed the author on this point and will report back.

Rio Grande

Rival builders building different parts of a castle for victory points or occasionally money using resources (sand, stone, wood, bricks and metal) combined with a card from one’s hand. Everyone starts with the same hand of eight cards, one of which is played face down in a round and revealed simultaneously. When revealed there is a turn order for resolution of the cards, for example traders go before the stonemason or bricklayer who goes before the more humble workers. Often there is lots of flexibility when your card comes to be resolved and if building is possible, exactly what one builds. Buildings can range form the humble tower requiring a mere eight points of mixed resources but giving six victory points, to the Hall requiring 30 points but gives 18 victory points. The larger buildings also open up what are termed “helpers” in the rules, although I think Castle Officials would make it easier to understand, as your team is limited in numbers. Placing one of our team as a Castle Official also costs you money. The worker cards get you free resources from stock and the chance to build but only for half victory points due to poorer workmanship. If a Master builder card has been played that round and you build then you have to give five victory points to the Master builder as the union inspects your work. The master builder card is also the way to get your played cards back into your hand. In the game I played there were two master builder cards played in one round, and I chose to pay out 10 victory points (five each to two players) which I think cost me the game. With only twelve rounds played then everything – resources, money and actions from the cards always seem tight. I suspect not all the buildings will be built in every game causing variable results. The reverse of the game board contains the castle in winter adding more options and some cards that also affect game play.

Personal dislikes on the game were the presentation – the English translation of the rules seemed poor in places and occasionally not very intuitive (for example the resource exchanging ability of the blacksmith was found under the building rules and not the blacksmith building description). The sample couple of rounds described in the box were of a two player game that has a few differences from the main game: I feel a three player game using the “normal” rules would have been better.

I liked the game. The physical presentation is top notch with nice artwork and tiles. With the basic mechanism being to acquire resources – money – jobs and finally build relationships, then there are obvious comparisons with Pillars of the Earth (plus expansion) and Stone Age. I’m on a slippery floor here as without playing more games then I cannot express an opinion of which of the three may be better than any other.

Argentum Verlag

Get your teepees to keep up with the buffalo who are moving cross the plain and exit on the other side of the board to score victory points. On your turn you move buffalo equal to your excess over tepees, feed your teepees and then have a special action which can be acquire food, build more tepees, move one buffalo or move one tent. It becomes a struggle to keep up and survive. A couple of minor queries to raise with the designer if possible over the rules but on the slippery floor because of a concern that whoever is going to come third or fourth may be able to act as a kingmaker and determine who wins. Also, it starts as a fairly friendly almost race game, and then the last stretch bogs down as analysis paralysis starts to take over.

I’m told the boss is better now, so here’s wishing Mike a speedy full recovery and normal service will be resumed shortly. The office boy also now knows how hard the boss actually works as well and I’m surprised that Mike actually finds time to do normal things like eat and sleep in the Essen four days.

Chris Payne

Mike Siggins


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