Letís get the usual disclaimer out of the way. We may well have misread, misheard or misunderstood rules in any or all of the games we played. Weíve very likely been mis-taught at least one game. Whilst a wrong rule is unlikely to convert a good game into a great one, it may well turn a good game to a poor one. So bear this in mind whenever I describe a game in less than glowing terms. Also, most of my opinions are from a single playing of a game. This might be an outlier, and the game may usually play better or worse.
Two of us went along for the trip this time Ė Oggie and myself. After the fun and games with trains last year, due to a strike and an unexploded World War 2 bomb, we were hoping for an easier train journey this time. Sadly this hope was shattered on the rock of a nearby control centre going up in flames. One positive thing did come out of this though. We've now added the word for cancelled to our German vocabulary and so are one word closer to being able to translate game rules.
The Foreign King
We kicked off proceedings with the game formerly known as Belgium 1831. I'm not sure why the name was changed. Given that the game is set in Belgium in 1831 it pretty much said what it did in the tin.
The game itself proved to be a very thinly themed abstract based on action selection and area majorities.We played two player which lent the game something of a chess-like planning feel, thinking a few moves ahead. I quite enjoyed it but it did suffer from a couple of issues. First, two players wasn't the optimal number and to counter that a semi-dummy third player is used. I say semi-dummy as its limited actions are controlled by one player each time the other scores. This made the game a bit swingy. Second, and more importantly, the game felt like a meaty filler but played quite long, even with two. I can imagine it outstaying it's welcome with larger player counts. On the plus side it comes in a very shelf friendly box.
Our usual approach to Thursday's is just to wander around and sit down at a table if we see anything that looks interesting. I noticed a free table for a game with an indecipherable Russian title from the publishers of last year's Viceroy so we sat down to investigate.
After about 20 minutes of working through the rulebook, a demo chap came over to explain it to us. And took away about half of the components, which we would not be using in our introductory game. The game itself proved to be based on a tower defence. Cards, representing monsters, are gradually drawn and placed around the walls. Players spend action points scurrying around the castle, picking up mana cubes and blasting the monsters into the discard pile.
This all felt a bit mechanical, and the introductory game looked like it would be very hard to lose so not much of a challenge. The full game would probably be much better. I could see this being very popular with a certain type of gaming group, but not this one. Not my sort of thing at all.
This wasn't a new game to either of us, having both played the mobile version, though I'd not played in a while. However, a new expansion - Colony Wars - has recently been introduced so we thought we'd have a play with the new cards. I'm not actually clear whether the version we played was only the expansion or a mix of the original and the new. Some cards certainly looked familiar.
As far as I could see, the game played much like the original. The only new mechanic I noticed was a one off bonus on some of the cards, actioned at the point that the card is acquired. So basically it's a new deck of cards to spice things up a little if you're bored of all of the old ones.
Looking at the initial setup I thought this would be a little filler. I was wrong.
This is another largely abstract game themed loosely on chocolate production. Its a tile laying game, each hex tile representing a unit for processing one of seven stages of chocolate. The purpose of the game is to progress units through these stages, moving them from a group of tiles representing one processing stage to another representing the next.
It turned out to be a surprisingly deep, thinky game. It also turned out not to be on sale. We played a prototype in lieu of the final version, which hadn't quite made it out of the printers in time. A shame, as this was one of the best I tried at this year's Spiel. One of those where you stare at the board for an hour, and ignore your opponents at your peril. It was a gem with two and I can't see why it wouldn't work well with more.
We were co-opted into a game of this on the basis that we spoke English. That was because the demo chap already had another group keen to play and explained that it was more fun with more players. In a nod to the growing internationalisation of Spiel it turned out that the other group were also English.
This game seems to be quite well known already, but for anyone who hasn't already encountered it it's basically another of those thinly themed abstracts we'd been encountering all day. It's a word based party game with a stick on theme around spy masters. It's quick, cheap, small, works with fairly large numbers and will work with non-gamers. And it's also fun to play.
Code of Nine
This is a worker placement game which I'm reliably informed originated in Japan. The basic scoring is obfuscated by a number of cards which are given out to the players at the start of the game. These range from boosting the value of certain tiles to adding new loss conditions. Fortunately some of the actions allow opponents cards to be peaked at or this would be a crap shoot. Instead, it's just mildly uninteresting.
This is one of those use cards in different ways games. It's based around ancient Japan and has nice artwork and a couple of interesting ideas. Cards allow goods to be produced, which can be used to build other cards. Each can be sold for a varying value, according to the number of resources already used.
Unfortunately it didn't work all that well with two players. The starting tableau didn't introduce enough resources to allow other cards to be easily bootstrapped. However, I can see more players introducing different problems as the need to check all of the small icons on all of the cards would make this a bit slow and awkward with larger numbers. The biggest problem though was that the game just wasn't very interesting.
Steam rollers is a fairly simple dice based pick up and deliver crayon rail game. Each player draws on his own pad, so routes are not shared between players. Dice rolls can be used to draw track, move goods, power up your locomotive or claim a card giving a temporary bonus.
It played well enough, but was a bit simplistic. And it was really crying out for laminated player boards rather than one-shot pads which have to be discarded after use. Though to be fair the game does come with hundreds of pads, and more can be downloaded from the publishers site.
Push a Monster
Now this isn't our normal sort of game. In fact, it says ages 3+ on the box. But we figured that it might be a laugh for 5 minutes so we sat down to have a go. The idea is to push wooden monsters onto a platform, hopefully without pushing off the others on there. Anything that drops off contributes to your opponents score. And ... that's pretty much the full rule set. Actually, we found a few loopholes in the rules which unscrupulous gamers could exploit. But given the advertised game range we were probably over-thinking it. It provided the 5 minutes of entertainment we were looking for though.
7 Wonders Duel
This was one of the hot items of this Spiel. A two player version of 7 Wonders. Gone is the rotating hand method of drafting of cards. This is replaced with a fixed layout of cards which is set up at the start of each age and from which players take turns to draft. Otherwise all of the familiar elements from the game's big brother make an appearance. The designers have done a very good job of replicating the feel of the full game in a two player format. However, I didn't enjoy this as much as I'd expected. I didn't think the rules for resource costs quite worked. Being beaten to a much needed double resource card can be financially crippling.
This is largely a pick up and deliver game with additional ways of scoring. It's sort of a prequel to Fresco. Players sail boats around a circuit of islands and ports, picking up dyes on the way. These can be used to fulfil contracts, which are picked up from a draft. Other tiles can be drafted to boost ship range and capacity, to gain bonus VPs, and so forth. This one was pleasant enough but I wasnít convinced by the balancing of scoring tiles. The bonus VP tiles seemed overly powerful, scoring broadly the same as the contracts but without any need to sail around collecting the right combination of dyes.
Thereís thinly themed abstracts and then thereís thinly themed abstracts. This one is in the very, very, very thinly themed camp. Players build units which are moved around the variable board. These can capture other units, build and upgrade buildings, and capture opponents buildings. This continues until somebody gets enough buildings on the board, and captures enough of the opponents Emperor pieces, to win the game. Very thinky and will appeal to those who like their abstracts but not my cup of tea.
This is a very simple game. It consists of a cardboard tower with windows in the walls and holes in the floors, and a set of wooden pieces for each player. The bits are all poured into a hole in the roof and a sand timer turned over. And then chaos ensues as players frantically poke their fingers into the windows trying to push their pieces through the holes in the floor. Rinse and repeat until the scoring tiles run out. And surprisingly ... itís a hoot when you play it with a bunch of friends. Playing this was one of my highlights of Essen 2015.
We'd had a tip to investigate this, so broke our usual routine of grazing the halls to seek out a demo. The game can be described as a merger of Acquire and a train game. A network is displayed on the board, each position having a letter and number. Players take turns to play tiles into their matched positions on this grid, and may then purchase a share in the cities which form nodes in the network. The completion of parts of the net trigger dividend payments. This continues until a route from one side of the board to the other is complete.
The game was okay, but nothing special and a bit expensive for what it was.
This is set in the same universe as Aqua Sphere but a very different game. Payers take turns rolling dice until they have selected three pairs of dice. These are then used to cross off scoring combinations. Think Yahtzee with octopi and you wonít be too far wrong.
The Prodigals Club
This is a worker placement game in the style of Last Will. The aim is to lose as many resources and friends as possible before the end of the game. In a novel twist, the game has three communal boards from which actions are chosen but only two will be chosen for each game. This should add a welcome dollop of variability and replayability. Actually, all three boards may be used but at the cost of significantly extending playing time. This would have been an easy purchase in earlier years, with a smaller games collection. Now it's the sort of game which Iíd be happy to play but felt no need to buy.
Vaults is a card game based around picking vaults in outer space. The theme didnít make a huge amount of sense but then we missed the start of the rules explanation so maybe that would have made sense of it. Each player has a number of action points which they can use to draft and play crew members on virtual vessels. Each member of crew has a value in one of three attributes, and a special ability. These abilities inject a dollop of take-that into the game. A second deck of cards are used for the vaults. Each needs a minimal value across the three attributes to allow them to be cracked. The player then claims the card, which may or may not be worth an amount of money. This continues until somebody collects enough money.
I'm sure this sort of game will appeal to some groups, but not my sort of thing. We sneaked away whilst the designer was busy elsewhere so we wouldn't have to explain why we wouldn't be buying a copy.
This is a clever worker placement game with a bit of area majority thrown into the mix. Players move their dobbers amongst the six buildings on the board. They can also play cards against locations which they have a presence in, which they - and others in the same location - can then pay to add a marker on for additional benefits. These benefits are usually in the form of more cards, cash or VPs. The card mechanism gives a fresh feel to the familiar worker placement mechanism. The only downside is that the advanced version of the game adds more luck in the form of a location which uses cards which have an outcome determined by a dice roll. This can be somewhat mitigated, but seems an odd choice for an addition to the advanced mode of a game which appears aimed more towards the gamer than the family market. Still, this was one of the best games I played this Spiel.
Now this is precisely the sort of game I go to Essen for. A good game, at a good price, which will not be easy to find in the UK as the designers currently don't have any British distribution channels. Shame that the luggage handlers conspired to manhandle my luggage so badly that a hole was punched right through the box lid.