Board game reviews incoming: Essen Spiel 2015

Essen 2015 suitcaseEssen Spiel 2015 has been and gone and was, once again, a fantastic show – and a real suitcase filler in terms of review copies. So now I have started the mammoth (but fun) task of playing them all.

Unless it’s one of the ‘One Play’ blog posts (which kind of speak for themselves) I like to play a game at least four times before reviewing it, so don’t expect these to arrive too quickly. However I’d hope to have most of them up by Christmas.

I got around half of my Essen Spiel wishlist this year – and if I’d had another suitcase, and more free time, I could’ve doubled that haul. Most publishers are very generous with review copies if you approach them in the right way (a blog post on that is incoming), but I only took what I thought I could do justice to – and carry!

Here’s what to expect in the next few months – I’ll try to remember to update this page with links as and when they go live:

Essen 2015 Concordia SalsaSomething I’m yet to do is board game expansion reviews – but I now have Concordia Salsa, Tash Kalar (both expansions) and Pickomino – Extra Worm to cover – plus Keyflower Merchants from before Essen.

I need to find a format for these expansion, so all suggestions are welcome! What would you want to see in an expansion review? What are the key things you look for when considering buying one?

It wasn’t (quite) all freebies or discounted items collected for review though. I also grabbed Smash Up with two expansions (from AEG), Onirim (€3 in a bargain bin for the first German edition) and Thurn and Taxis (€12 for a very good condition second-hand copy) – so if anyone particularly wants a review of those, just let me know!

Essen Spiel wishlist 2015: My board and card game top 10

Essen 2015 logoWith less than a month to go until Essen Spiel, it’s time once again for me to gather together a list of the 10 board and card games that have caught my eye out of the 600 or so (you read that right – 600) being released at the show this year.

I’m super excited to have Empire Engine coming out in German this year from Pegasus Spiel, while I’m also incredibly nervous about having ten or so publisher meetings in the book to show off prototypes of three games I’ve been testing all year – finger’s crossed!

But as much as I’ll enjoy seeing Empire Engine on the shelves once again, and the thought of maybe more of my games hitting the show next year, I’m just as excited about coming home with another suitcase full of games. So having gone through the entire list (I know…), these are currently the most likely to be on the train home with me.

My Essen Spiel 2015 Top 10 anticipation list*

Antarctica1. Antarctica

Dodgy rulebook aside, Antarctica is ticking so many boxes for me and will probably be my first port of call on day one of my Essen trip.

First up, it will be discounted for the show (down to €30); second, the publisher (Argentum Verlag) was responsible for one of last year’s surprise hits for me (El Gaucho) and generally has a good track record; third the game has both interesting looking rondel and weather mechanisms; and finally, it has really great artwork.

Shakespeare2. Shakespeare

Ystari is another publisher I can generally trust. At €40 Shakespeare is at my high end for price (I go for quantity at Essen!) but it looks like a great mid-weight euro game and will possibly be my ‘big’ purchase.

I’m not sure it’s offering anything sparklingly original, but the unusual theme; the tension of competing for limited resources, and the pacing of scoring very much appeal.

The Bloody Inn3. The Bloody Inn

Another interesting looking game and another publisher I can trust – this time Pearl Games, who published my game of the year last year (the still brilliant Deus).

The Bloody Inn has a great theme – you’re knocking off your guests for fun and profit – and a fantastic art style, while costing just €25. The mechanisms of this little card game also look as if they’ll throw up plenty of tough decisions while keeping the atmosphere tense.

Inhabit the Earth4. Inhabit the Earth

I’ve sadly arrived pretty late to the R&D Games party, with my first experience being the excellent Keyflower. Their 2015 release sounds really interesting – a typical mass of mechanisms that will hopefully blend together beautifully. I’ll definitely be getting a play of this one.

Isle of Sky5. Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King

Released by euro stalwart Lookout Games and with art from the legendary Klemens Franz, Isle of Skye seems to mix up key mechanisms from both Carcassonne and The Castles of Mad King Ludwig.

I love tile placement games and like the idea of putting values on tiles that other players might then buy, as used in Ludwig – even if it was poorly implemented in that game. So even at just €30 this will need a test run, but I have pretty high hopes for Isle of Skye as it looks like having a much better take on that mechanic.

Lignum6. Lignum

Coming from way off in left field, Lignum is a two-hour euro from an unheralded publisher (Mücke Spiele) and designer – and at €45 the price is far from appealing. So why is it here?

The game takes the ‘walking down a road’ mechanic from Tokaido – a nice idea in a dull game – and adds worker placement to the mix. This could be a great mix and it looks really promising – but I’ll definitely be after a demo.

Celestia7. Celestia

In this sea of euro games I thought I’d better throw in something lighter – so here’s a cheap (€25) 30-minute push your luck card game. Celestia reimplements old game Cloud 9 and looks really cool, with great components and a few new twists on the original game. Pre-orders are signed by the designer and have a €2 discount, but I’m going to want a demo before I commit as it could be just a little too basic to bother with.

CVlizations8. CVlizations

My surprise hit from Essen 2013 was CV from Granna and this year they’re back with another cheap (€25), light game – the terribly titled CVlizations.

Once again it has great art from Piotr Socha and looks like a fun game; this time centring on cards rather than dice. But it seems like there could be way more luck than judgement going on, making it a bit too insubstantial, so I’ll be looking to grab a demo.

Stem Works9. Steam Works

This two-hour Tasty Minstrel release from Cambridge designer Alex Churchill is one I got to play once at the Cambridge Playtest Meet Up group. Steam Works is a really thinky tile and worker placement game – a proper brain-burner, but in a good way.

TMG is a publisher you can trust and it looks like they’ve done a great job on the artwork and components. However it sounds like it has changed quite a bit since I tried it, so I’ll still be looking to try before I buy.

The King is Dead10. The King Is Dead

I’ve popped this one in last place here because it is both an old game and an insta-buy, so isn’t getting my juices flowing as much as when I saw it was coming to Essen a while ago.

The King is Dead is a re-theme of brilliant old abstract game King of Siam, but instead set in the UK. The new artwork looks brilliant and there is an interesting variant thrown in for those already well familiar with the game – and of course the map is different. And to top it all, it’s just €24 euro. Sold.

Bubbling (just) under

Stronghold Games are doing the English version of The Golden Ages, which looks like it might actually be that 90-minute civ game many of us have been waiting forever for. This is definitely one I’ll be looking to get a play of.

Porta Negra looks like the pick of three good looking euros coming from Pegasus this year (alongside My Village and Mombasa). I think I’ll be spending a fair amount of time at their booth getting demos of these and I’m sure at least one will come home with me.

And finally Quined Games are bringing 2012 release Xanadú to a larger audience – an interesting looking small box card game that seems to pack all the punch of a bigger worker placement euro game; with plenty of player interaction thrown in.

* All games claim to run between 50-90 minutes unless stated

It’s coming! 5 Essen Spiel off-piste newbie tips

Essen 2015 logoWith the number one event on the worldwide board gaming calendar – the Internationale Spieltage Spiel ’15 in Essen – just two months away, I’m already getting stupidly excited.

This year’s event will be the biggest yet, moving up to 63,000 sq m of convention hall space (from 58,000 last year), with a staggering 850+ exhibitors flogging they’re cardy, dicey and boardy wares. This will be my fourth time attending, but each time feels just as good as the previous visits.

But if you’re heading to Essen Spiel for your début gaming Mecca experience, here are a few things that I feel shouldn’t be missed but that may not be immediately obvious to the goggle-eyed and overwhelmed first-timer. I’d also suggest checking out my Essen Guide for travel, hotel and Spiel tips. See you in the mad throng!

  1. Österreichisches Spiele Museum: The Austrian Boardgame Museum is a charity that hosts a collection of more than 25,000 board games. Each year the charity has a stand at Essen with a couple of new games on sale, donated to support the charity and often from highly reputable designers. Recent offerings include the original version of Port Royal (Handler der Karibik) and a Bohnanza variant (Sissi!) from Uwe Rosenberg – plus the games are usually cheap, the money goes to a good cause and they’ll throw a bunch of other promos into your bag if you smile sweetly.
  2. Istra Steakhaus: Germany is well known as a carnivorous nation and my favourite restaurant in the city so far is the traditional meat fest of the Istra Steakhaus. Handily located on Rüttenscheider Straße – the nicer of the roads that connects the Messe to the city centre – I’ve had several meaty meals there over the years and never been anything other than well satisfied with the food and also the beer. Expect a ‘traditional’ German welcome (ie, surly) but hey – it’s all part of the experience and they’re a friendly bunch once you engage them.
  3. Adlung-Spiel: If you’re from outside Germany you may not be aware of this little card game publisher, who always has a tiny booth squirrelled away in a corner of the Messe. Its games are always in a traditional single card deck-sized box, but can vary from drafting and hand management through bidding and bluffing to children’s and dexterity games. Much like an OSM game above, these are great Essen mementoes. Classic titles include Meuterer, Vom Kap bis Kairo and Blink.
  4. Grugapark: Depending on how you arrive at the Messe, it can actually be easy to miss the fact that the north and west sides of the huge conference centre are dwarfed by a huge and lovely country park. Even if you don’t have time for a wander around, or if the weather isn’t playing ball, you can sneak out of Hall 2 on its western edge onto a balcony (mainly wasted on smokers) that has a lovely, peaceful view over the greenery, deer and other tranquil sites – perfect for taking a 10-minute break away from the bedlam inside the main halls.
  5. Toys ‘R’ Us: This one may only apply to us Brits, but wandering into this store (which is just a five minute walk from the central Essen Hbf station) its a sobering indictment of the state of the high street for board gamers in the UK. Where in England its wall-to-wall Barbie, Lego and Frozen, at Toys ‘R’ Us in Germany you’ll also find everything from Arkham Horror and Dominion through to the latest Spiel des Jahres nominees. You may find some classics cheaper than at the Messe – but remember language dependency!

My first Essen Spieltage, aged 42-and-a-half: board game paradise

Thursday morning, Essen 2012, just before the floodgates opened.

It’s hard to know where to start when talking about my recent trip to the world’s premier board gaming convention, the Internationale Spieltage 2012 in Essen, Germany.

My first ‘Essen’, my first trip to Germany, my first European train adventure, meeting tonnes of cool folk, playing a whole bunch of games, finding great bargains.

Maybe I should just blather on as I usually do? That seems a safe bet.

When I started getting back into board games a couple of years ago, I hadn’t considered going to a convention full of them at all – unless it had been at the bottom of the road.

In fact I still haven’t bothered going to the ones in either London or Birmingham, despite having easy access to both cities. But as I bought more and more games, and met more people that were ever so slightly obsessed with the hobby in the same way I was, the word ‘Essen’ had begun to loom larger and larger.

Last year’s coverage of the event on the Spiel podcast finally pushed me over the edge (thanks guys…). I punted the idea around my local group (there was no way Zoe was going to be able to go, as it was in term time – not that I think she’d want to anyway), but while a few ears twitched nobody would pull the trigger. But the second some friends from London on Board made an Essen Facebook group I knew my wallet had lost. I was going to Germany.

Choo choo!

I booked a room in the ‘English’ hotel, the Ibis (more of which later), booked time off work, then turned to travel plans.

I’m not sure what inspired me to look into the train; it just seemed like a good idea. I guess having had many boring hours in airports and sweating on horrible planes, compared to some very nice experiences on Eurostar, it just seemed the sensible thing to do – right until I was standing at St Pancras, alone, with three trains ahead of me.

It certainly wasn’t a cheap way to travel, but nor did it break the bank; I got the Eurostar from London to Brussels for £99, Thalys from there to Cologne for £80 and then a local DB train the rest of the way for £40 (all returns).

The world’s worst planned waiting room? Cologne Station.

I left London at 9am and should’ve pulled into Essen at 5pm – but that was leaving long breaks in both Cologne and Brussels for food/panic attacks over late trains. I ended up being delayed about 30 minutes on the last leg, so it all worked out fine (the trip home was a breeze, taking in five hours sight seeing in Cologne on the way).

More importantly, it was a lovely relaxed trip. The air con worked, the seats were comfy, my luggage was handy (and unlimited) and I never had that horrible feeling of waiting. The Wi-Fi on Thalys was free and worked well (get with the programme Eurostar!) and I was lucky enough to have no one sitting next to me on any of my six trains.

We’re in Belgium then…

In fact, the only downside was the view. I’d picked window seats throughout but the countryside was bland, flat fields the entire way – if we’d pulled into Hitchin at any point across Belgium I wouldn’t have been overly surprised.

I’ll certainly travel by rail next year too, although I may have been lucky with the trains. Looking at the departure boards in Cologne station, it seemed 60 per cent or more of the trains were delayed – I’d expected German efficiency and was wholly let down! Maybe it was just a bad weekend, but I’ll certainly leave the same long gaps between trains next year too.

The show

It was great to meet up with the Alea Apartments crew from Paros, seen here enjoying a game of Coup.

As something of a veteran of massive conferences thanks to my current job, Essen Spiel didn’t blow me away for sheer size as it has some others. However, it was remarkable in other ways.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s big – really big – but not unmanageably so. It’s also well laid out and signposted, with easy access to food, drink, toilets etc.

Sure it was busy, but never unmanageably so – although after about six hours, the tension build-up of being knocked into by huge bags/trolleys/rude people did begin to grate. Overall though, it was well organised. My only complaint would be a lack of taps to fill up water bottles and the heat, but it was an unseasonably warm weekend.

Shafausa designer Christophe Borgeat (right) demos his game.

In retrospect, the best thing about it was the total lack of pressure put on you from vendors.

Maybe it’s a German thing, or a European thing, or simply that the enthusiasm of those attending meant vendors didn’t have to barrack you as you walked by as they were simply too busy.

But whatever the reason, not a single stand monkey tried to catch my eye and foist crap on me – even the flier people smiled and didn’t give you evils when you refused to take one.

Best laid plans

The game list I’d made pre-trip went out of the window pretty early on. I guess I’d listed about 40 stands to find and check out during the four-day trip; I’d completed that list by just after lunch on the first day and bought very little because of it.

Might & Magic: Heroes, the board game. This is going to be an absolute epic.

Essen simply doesn’t work like that; beyond a few key buys and demos, the real fun for me came in bargain hunting, browsing and generally just wandering around and seeing where I ended up.

I wandered around mostly alone, which was great for browsing but less so for getting demonstrations of games. While there were occasions where I just joined a group that was at a table, mostly I ended up watching other people’s demos which didn’t give quite enough of a feel to lead to a purchase – although I did return to a few for a ‘proper’ game. I think next year I’ll set Friday aside to try and demo the hell out of as many games as possible with some friends.

There was a lot of fun to be had in bargain hunting and there were some crazy prices; €5 for games that are routinely more like £40 was commonplace. However, two problems tripped me up; the fact many of the games were German only, alongside my general ignorance of so many of the titles.

The Essen floor plan, which was my screensaver for the weekend.

While those close to me may scoff at the second point, there really are many levels of knowledge/ obsession in the board game hobby and while I may be several rungs above my close friends I’m whole stratospheres away from the real experts. I’ve already lost count of games I’ve enjoyed as original that others have later derided as derivative, or games I had no idea were reiterations of old classics; it doesn’t bother me, it’s simply fact.

But when faced with hundreds of thousands of potential bargains/stinkers it becomes pretty frustrating: so many titles, many of which I know by name but not reputation, and only so much room in the suitcase! Were they good titles – and with some of the German titles, were the parts language independent so I could later just download the rulebook?

Suffice it to say though, I managed to spend plenty of money in the end – €120 on a total of 12 games and two expansions (compared to many, believe me, this was very modest). I’ll save the game info for another effort once I’ve played them all.

Essen and the Ibis hotel

The only nice building in Essen?

After getting a horrible metro four stops to the show on day one, as we were lucky with the weather we walked there and back every other day (30-40 minutes). It actually turned out to be a nice walk, heading south from the city centre through an area they seemed to be gentrifying. It was a long road with plenty of restaurants, cafés, bakeries and poncey furniture shops, perfect for either breakfast on the way down or dinner on the way back.

However, to the north, Essen town centre was a depressing place. I wandered in on Saturday afternoon having had a great morning, but an hour later I was thoroughly depressed (luckily beer and pizza back at the hotel revived me).

Like many German cities it was devastated during World War II, but unlike some of the country’s more prominent locations it seems nothing was done to try and return it to any former glories.

Snowdonia designer Tony Boydell teaches us Suburbia at the Ibis. His game was an awful lot more fun than this one…

Instead it’s a drab and depressing pedestrianised concrete nightmare – think Stevenage, but on a bigger scale. This is not a place to pop to for the weekend for anything other than a convention.

Luckily the Ibis was pretty much perfect for what we board gamers needed.

The rooms seemed reasonably priced (but certainly not cheap), while being clean, modern and comfortable (if a little small). Breakfast was a rip off (how can you charge €10 for a self surface spread of cold food, plus scrambled egg?), Wi-Fi in rooms even more so, and the temperature in the dining room was about 10 degrees above comfortable for me. Otherwise, it was all good.

Rumble in the Dungeon

The wonderfully daft, and mercifully short, Rumble in the Dungeon.

The free lobby Wi-Fi was fast and efficient, working throughout the trip without a fault. The staff were friendly and helpful, snacks and beers reasonably priced, the lighting and décor pleasantly forgettable.

And, most importantly, no one turned a hair as each day the breakfast areas slowly filled with board gamers testing their new purchases.

I didn’t have a night later than 1am, being both knackered and excited about the next day, but each night when I went to bed there was rarely a spare table to be had – and there were a lot of tables.

As mentioned earlier, the Ibis has become known as the hotel the English go to – but I played games with Germans, Aussies, Spaniards, all sorts. It made for a great atmosphere; the child like excitement was infectious, while the openness and friendliness was remarkable for a hobby many deride as nerdy.

Spiel 2013?

Packing to go home. Wot no clothes?

Overall, I had a great time. While a bit of me would like the show to be in a nicer city, mostly I’m glad it’s a complete dump.This is a black and white thing – we go, we game, there is no compromise! It’s a single issue trip where I’m not even going to attempt to persuade Zoe to come along; it’s a games weekend, pure and simple and anyone who wants in on it is going to get just that, by the cardboard box load.

So if you hadn’t already guessed, yes, I’ll be back for more next year. This trip proved that board gaming is probably more than just a hobby for me now, although hopefully it’s not yet an obsession.

And finally, a word from our sponsors…

But more than this it proved that the vast majority of board gamers are nice people too; friendly, fun to be with and not as smelly as you might think (although I did have a bit of a cold).

Will I do anything differently next year? To be honest, not an awful lot.While it was expensive to have a room to myself (that hadn’t been the plan – I’d hoped one of my local lot would come along) it was worth it; it’s a long day and a good night’s sleep was a big help. The hotel was fine, the train journey a pleasure, the event a blast – thanks to everyone I played with, demoed with or just shot the breeze with – you’re all awesome. See you next year!