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!

The World Cup Final of board game awards: Spiel de Jahres vs The Dice Tower

The Golden PooFor many years The Spiel des Jahres, or German Game of the Year Award, has been the undisputed gold standard for the games industry.

It was first awarded in 1979, so has history, while the winners see a massive swing in sales – making it worth entering for any publisher. And as Germany has long been the spiritual home of modern board gaming, what better place to turn than Europe for the awarding of the industry’s top prize?

But for a decade or so now there have been rumblings from the West: a rising growth in gaming from the US led first by Board Game Geek and now The Dice Tower – Tom Vasel’s little media empire that, despite the odds, has seen the world’s least humble former missionary attain cult status (and make an enviable living from it too).

In 2007, in typically modest fashion, Tom declared all other board game awards rubbish and set about setting up his own board gaming Oscars, calling them The Dice Tower Awards. So, eight years on, has the Dice Tower toppled the SdJ – and if it hasn’t, is it ever likely to do so?

The Spiel des Jahres (SdJ)

SdJ 2015The SdJ is judged by a jury of German board game critics. Publishers enter games for consideration, as long as they have been available to the German public during the previous 12 months.

The main award is for the best family game, because in Germany the hobby is very much still a family one. There is a separate award for children’s games (the Kinderspiel), while since 2011 there has also been the Kennerspiel award (roughly translating to ‘connoisseur’ – meaning more advanced than a family game).

Many of the award winners from over the years are considered genuine classics. Early winners included Hare and Tortoise (1979), Rummikub (1980) and Scotland Yard (1983), while 90s winners included Manhattan, Catan and El Grande. More recent classics to bag the SdJ include Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, Dixit, Qwirkle and Hanabi – a list of titles I’m sure no one could argue with.

There have been some choices that seemed odd – in both good and bad years for design (some heads are still spinning at last year’s win by Camel Up) – but generally the SdJ winners are hanging around in the 1,000 games on Board Game Geek, proving their longevity as well as their quality.

The awards themselves are announced at a summer press conference, with the nominees invited along (and from what I can tell most go – designers and publishers). It isn’t a showy event, but it is professional; a typically German understated breakfast. People really want to win this thing!

As a non-German it can be a good wake-up call for games not already out in English, while the vague ‘family game’ description means anything from a little card game to a big box board game can win. The decisions create debate, which is surely the point, while they normally pick a strong set of winners (the Kenner has been won by the likes of Village, 7 Wonders and Istanbul).

The Dice Tower Awards

dice tower awardsThe Dice Tower Awards are also chosen by a group of gaming journalists and enthusiasts, but the bias is very much towards the American, English speaking gamer (as should come as no surprise).

It now has a total of 14 awards, from Game of the Year right down to ‘small publisher’ and ‘new designer’ – with no less than 11 different titles scooping awards this time around. Over the years, only 7 Wonders and Dominion have won the big one for the Dice Tower and also bagged a German gaming award.

All eight of the Dice Tower Game of the Year Award winners so far are highly regarded on board Game Geek, with only Small World having fallen out of the top 100 (just) since its 2008 win. Impressively, all the rest remain in the BGG Top 30. The first winner was even Race for the Galaxy – my favourite game.

Despite a seemingly strong roster, the list feels a bit too ‘Ameritrash big box’ to be taken seriously outside of the states. But The Dice tower is very much an American production – so arguably, as with the SdJ feeling German, this is the way it should be.

But with thematic games Star Wars X-Wing, Eclipse and Dead of Winter winning three of the last four awards they’ll soon be handing the awards out of the back of a pick-up, rather than at the Dice Tower Convention – where those that have been on the voting panel (and mostly Tom, of course) take centre stage rather than the actual winners. For the ‘Best Art’ award, they didn’t even read out the artist names…

As a non-American some of the lesser awards can throw up some interesting names in the nominations, but as their positions in the game rankings suggest the games nominated and picked tend to be largely predictable. But if they’re the best games for this audience, there is absolutely no harm in that either.

And the winner is… The SdJ (by miles)

I’m sure you noted the, erm, ‘hint’ of sarcasm when it came to the Dice Tower Awards. But when you come out and criticise every other award, and say you’re going to make your own – then create something as bland as The Dice Tower Awards – you deserve it.

Despite the restriction of being for families, since 2007 the SdJ has gone to games as diverse (and brilliant) as Qwirkle (abstract), Hanabi (co-op, cards), Dixit (imagination, party) and Dominion (genre creating card game). The main Dice Tower Award has gone to eight big box gamer’s games – six of which have fantasy/sci-fi themes (and two of those essentially re-themes of older games). If they read ‘Dork Tower’ rather than dice tower, I don’t think anyone would turn a hair.

By having such a huge range of awards, The Dice Tower panellists can hide their prejudices for what they ultimately want (minis and spaceships and dice) by dishing out minor silverware on all sides. But the problem with this is that the more awards you have, the more watered down they become – people outside of the winners’ families only ever really remember the BIG winner. And with Tom always seeming to want more of everything, you can only see more – not less – awards in the future.

But don’t think I’m saying The Dice Tower Awards are without worth. As already mentioned, these are all highly ranked games on Board Game Geek and a lot of people get a lot of joy out of them (including me in some cases). I don’t think most of them are worthy of awards, but if they help new gamers choose them over opting for some Kickstarter crap then more power to them!

In the end I see it as a cultural difference: a country, in Germany, that never gave up on board games – versus a country, in America, that is seeing its nerds and geeks start to become justified in their hobby as it starts to go mainstream. Both these things are awesome, but when you step back one of these looks (and is) a lot more mature than the other.

As a Brit its easy to fall into either group – and I happen to have ended up more on the European side of the fence. But I’d like to think that even if I hadn’t I’d still see the SdJ as the more meaningful award. Quirky, yes – but more interesting for it.

Adventure Tours (AKA Mai-Star): A four-sided game review

Adventure Tours boxAdventure Tours* is a ‘take-that’ and hand management card game from Seiji Kanai (Love Letter, Brave Rats/R) that is both a little larger and a little longer (40+ minutes) than his rather more illustrious micro games. It takes three to six players.

It was originally released in 2010 under the title Mai-Star in a small box format with a geisha theme, which didn’t sit well with some. While still available in this format, Adventure Tours addresses some problems with the original and has higher production values – while costing about the same (£10-15).

The original had 75 cards, six geisha cards and some score sheets to write on; while the re-released Adventure Tours boasts thick cardboard player mats with some lovely artwork, more than 100 cards (with good if unexceptional art, but good iconography), cardboard victory point chits and some useful player aids – but a much bigger box.

As you may have guessed though, the theme is wholly irrelevant in terms of the rules – this is an abstract card game with some nice, colourful art plastered on top. And this is cutesy artwork too – which very much belies the rather nasty nature of the gameplay.

Teaching

Adventure Tours player boardAs we’ve come to expect from Seiji Kanai, Adventure Tours is a simple game at its heart which relies much on player interaction to make it sing.

It is also very luck based and swingy, but enough so that things should balance out over the game.

Each player is dealt six random cards (from one big shared stack) at the start of play. In the basic game, your player board starts you with three of each of the game’s three ‘resources’ to get you going.

On your turn you will lay one card – either for its resources or as an explorer (for its action and also end-game points). If you lay a card for resources it will allow you to play more powerful explorers later, as cards cost between 1-9 resources to play.

Cards played as resources mean you have to pick up a new card from the stack to replace it, so you’re not reducing your hand – but you are giving yourself more chances to lay better explorers later. When you lay an explorer, you do not draw a new card.

Explorer actions are very much what you’d expect from a ‘take-that’ style game: make player players draw more cards (to stop them going out), or force opponents to discard/hand you explorers or resources. But some also benefit you more simply – letting you lay another card being the most common.

The advanced game sees you use the flip-side of the player boards, each of which has a special ability and different starting conditions – so that powers that seem stronger leave you starting with hardly any resources.

The real trick to Adventure Tours is to balance getting rid of your cards while also scoring enough points to make ending the round by doing so a good idea, or to just stockpile points regardless – neither of which are as easy as they sound! The nice player aid and simple icons mean everyone should be up to speed within round one.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: This is a rare time when I’m still on the fence despite multiple plays. I enjoy the mood Kanai’s games create and he has worked the same simple magic here – but this is on the cusp of being too long for the game experience it creates. I do enjoy playing, but where the luck of the draw makes me laugh in Love Letter it can have me cursing here, which suggests a slight mismatch in fun and complexity.
  • The thinker: There is really very little for the strategist in Adventure Tours. Games instead become about bashing the ‘supposed’ leader – which is more about those with good chat talking the meeker participants into thinking a particular player is winning. The only real strategy seems to be: don’t be leading after round two, then try to have a big third round very quietly. Not for me.
  • The trasher: I like this one! It’s all about table talk and hitting the right players at the right times, which is much like spinning plates. Both ways to lay cards make you a potential target, but for different reasons – going out or scoring big. You have to be a hawk, pointing out anyone who is edging an advantage – except yourself of course! And yes, I’m echoing the strategist – but from the complete other side of the table.
  • The dabbler: While aggressive games aren’t usually my thing, this one is so nice, bright and colourful that I just got swept along with it. Also the take-that cards never devastate – more hinder – so nothing you can do will put someone out of a round, for example. There is room for clever combos and lots of table talk and laughter, so for me what’s not to like once you get past the fear of being a bit snidey!

Key observations

Adventure Tours cardsIf we ignore complaints by people who were never going to like it in the first place, the most common issues with Adventure Tours are that it’s repetitive and that it drags, even for some who enjoy the game.

But simply shortening the game from three down to two rounds (or even one) will solve this – I don’t see how you really lose anything, and it brings the game much more firmly into the ‘filler’ category that the mechanisms suggest it belongs in anyway.

A bigger and related issue is that too many cards make the game last longer. Giving people more cards, for example, rarely feels ‘fun’. It feels like a necessity, while there’s no guarantee it’s even giving you an advantage – you could be handing them the perfect card. But again, this is something that wouldn’t feel like an issue if the game played shorter.

And without wishing to sound like a broken record, for a game lasting close to an hour if played ‘properly’ (ie, three rounds) there are too few options in turns of card options. Essentially they boil down to pick up cards; add extra or take away cards; defend; have an extra go, or get bonus points. You see these cards a lot – probably too much – but over a round or two instead of three I think this is mitigated.

My final concern is the advanced player powers: it’s too early to say for sure, but some of them seem really overpowered. now in the right group this isn’t a problem, as players will realise this and pick on the players with the best powers accordingly – it can actually add to the fun of the table talk. But in less boisterous groups it may be an issue.

And a quick word on the original, Mai-Star. While I haven’t played it I have seen the cards – particularly the advanced player cards – and there have definitely been adjustments made for balance. Have they worked? No idea! But they’ve certainly tried to address well publicised issues with the original and I certainly didn’t think anything in Adventure tours was ‘game breaking’. My fear is they balanced the game by making it longer.

Conclusion

Adventure Tours aidAdventure Tours isn’t a game I feel I can wholly endorse, but at the same time wit the right group I’ve had a lot of fun with it.

‘Take-that filler game’ is already a niche, so when you put it in a big box (despite nice production) and make it last more than 30 minutes you’re going to scare some people off.

But underneath is a typically simple and fun Kanai game – 12 different cards that interact with each other in interesting ways and get the table laughing and chatting. If you’ve enjoyed his previous titles this is certainly worth a look – although I’d give it the ‘try before you buy’ (where possible) caveat just in case for the reasons discussed above.

* I would like to thank Coiledspring Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

Sushi Go!: A four-sided game review

Sushi Go boxSushi Go!* is a light-n-fast card drafting and set collection card game originally released in 2013 and reprinted in its current form (in a swanky little tin) in 2015 from Gamewright.

Designed by Phil Walker-Harding it accommodates two to five players easily, takes less than 30 minutes, plays as young as six to eight-years-old and should cost you less than £10.

While the theme has no relevance to game play the cards (there are 108 of them) are super cute and high quality (linen finish), while the tin is nice if you like that sort of thing (I’m a box man myself!).

Teaching

The rulebook is colourful, nicely laid out and simple to follow. If you took out the cringe-worthy ‘jokes’ (which I can only hope are for the younger audience) and extraneous art they’d probably fill a single side of A4 – including several variants (one of which is great for two players).

As for teaching, it couldn’t be much simpler: deal everyone the appropriate amount of cards (dependent on player count), choose one each simultaneously, reveal and place into your tableau, then pass the remaining cards to your left. The only wrinkle is the ‘chopsticks’ card, which allows you to play two cards in your turn instead of one if you pass on the chopsticks card, but otherwise it’s rinse and repeat until you run out of cards.

Once all cards have been laid, you add up the scores. Scoring is again simple, with several standard set collection scoring methods applied across the different sets of cards. The exception are ‘pudding’ cards which are, of course, only scored at the end of your meal – which is three rounds long. No surprises, at the end the highest score wins.

The four sides

Sushi Go two cardsThese are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While I think there’s a lot of design space still to be explored within the drafting mechanic, Sushi Go! is the perfect ‘bare bones’ usage of the mechanism: clean, fast and simple. It’s a shame about the end-game pudding scoring, as it’s the only thing stopping you finishing when it suits you; the perfect fillers can be put down at the drop of a hat when that extra player arrives, or another game finishes.
  • The thinker: While the chopsticks do add a bit of thought to the game, this is just too simple for me to really enjoy. I’m not averse to a filler game, but I’d prefer them to either test my brain or be super silly and light – for me, this game falls between those into a murky middle ground. I can see younger gamers enjoying it, but it won’t be a keeper for my groups.
  • The trasher: I enjoyed the push your luck elements here – especially with the ‘wasabi’ card which allows you to triple the score of a ‘nigiri’ card if you place one on top of it – potentially nine points, or potentially none if everyone else denies you the good ones, as wasabi is worth nothing on its own. Despite the cutesy images, this can be a nasty little take-that game in terms of denying scoring opportunities.
  • The dabbler: I love the Sushi Go! art, love the simplicity, love love love it! The two-player game doesn’t get much love, but the variant is pretty cool. You have a dummy third hand, which you take it in turns to draw a bonus card from. This throws in much more luck, but can add some really great moments when you take a risk and the perfect card drops into your hand from the third pile. Great fun!

Key observations

Sushi Go rulesFor such a simple card game, it is impressive to see Sushi Go! sitting in the top 500 games at Board Game Geek. Filler games, fairly or unfairly, average lower scores there so for such a light game to get an average above 7 is impressive. But like every game, it still has its detractors.

As this is a card drafting game, there are the inevitable comparisons to 7 Wonders. Sushi Go is often described as 7 Wonders without the depth, or 7 Wonders lite – but on the other hand, many say it ‘fixes’ 7 Wonders by taking out the pretend complexity and shortening the game considerably.

To those who say it lacks depth, may I remind you – its a filler! And to those who say it just copies 7 Wonders, may I remind you that if anything it copies Fairy Tale (from 2004) – a game it is much closer to in play style and which 7 Wonders (from 2010) also largely copied, simply adding a layer of ‘engine’ on top of a perfectly good game. If you think Sushi Go is a little too light for your tastes, Fairy Tale is definitely worth a shot.

Conclusion

Sushi Go cardsAs an exercise in distilling the idea of card drafting into a simple set collection game, Sushi Go! ticks all the boxes. Whether that’s the game for you is of course a very different question, but there really isn’t anything to hate here if you know what you’re getting into.

Personally it has reminded me of how much I enjoyed my plays of Fairy Tale, which really is a game I should add to my collection (its more of the same, but with an extra layer of complexity). But until I get around to picking it up, Sushi Go! will be hanging around on my shelves. If you’re looking for a light family game and have kids in the six to 12 age group, I’d definitely recommend it.

* I would like to thank Coiledspring Games for providing a copy of the game for review.

Board game design: Three ideas inspired by heist movies

I tend to have ideas for game mechanisms most days – and of course most of them are terrible. Others hang around long enough without being dismissed for me to want to write them down, while still fewer make it from my phone’s note-taker app into my ideas document at home.

These few borderline cases kind of shared a heist theme, so I thought I’d write about them here just in case anyone else can make something useful out of them. Maybe I’ll get round to them, maybe I won’t – or maybe they’re terrible after all. They’re far from fully formed too, but maybe they’ll inspire someone.

batman jokerA co-op with evolving roles

The first idea came to me when watching the Batman movie where The Joker is getting all the people involved in the heist to kill each other off once their particular job is complete – but could equally be applied to any fast moving and dangerous situation. The game would be a co-op (although wouldn’t need to be, I guess) in which every character starts with a roll – in this example it could be the muscle, the safe cracker, explosives expert etc.

As the game goes on, players will need to decide when to change to their other roll – perhaps the getaway car driver, the van driver carrying the lot, the guy causing a road block/distraction, or tampering with traffic lights. Once you switch roll your old character is still in play, but becomes a hindrance – slowing down play and getting in the way.You’ll get a better final score if you get everyone home, but can you succeed while dragging along this dead weight…

Safe-cracker

In my mind this is a very simple mechanism requiring two players that would be used in a role-playing type scenario – say in our co-op heist game above. Both roll the same amount of dice of different colours, lets say three – red, blue and green – but one of them roles them behind a screen. The person playing the safe-cracker has to match their dice, by colour and number, to those rolled behind the screen.

The safe-cracker would’ve been able to spend skill points on raising their skill at the start of the game – with each point letting the second player give them a clue (say, ‘blue higher’). The safe-cracker can opt to change any dice as much as they likes, then asks if they have the right number for each dice. The player with the dice behind the screen will say ‘higher’, ‘lower’ or ‘cracked it’ for each dice – and then the safe-cracker goes again. Each failed attempt will use up time units.

Lie detector

This feels more like a party/werewolf-style game idea, where one (or maybe two) of the players are questioning suspects and trying to get to the truth. The potential felons all have a few parts of the story, which could potentially save their skin – but of course one of them did it (and knows it).

The questioners will have a limited time scale to grill the suspects for information, and will then have to decide who to charge – you could even have people in different rooms. The suspects can give up as much info they like, or lie as much as they like, to try and work out who did it or just frame someone at random. Maybe one of the questioners could have a preferred victim to throw to the wolves – or a prisoner could be under cover…

Introducing… The Disagreeable Designers

Statler and waldorfAs much fun as playing and designing board and card games is, we all need a break sometimes. Which is of course when we argue about board and card games.

And why have an argument in private when you can have it publicly and messily on the internet for all to see – and let others join in with it themselves?

We’ve got an oddly large group of board game design enthusiasts in Cambridge and it’s fair to say we come from very different schools of thought. Six of us (from four different countries, no less) have gotten together to spout off about a different board game topic each week – under the guise of The Disagreeable Gamers. Why not come say hello (or tell us how WRONG we are)?

The first post went live this week. It’s not a very argumentative topic, as it happens: asking us which game do we wish we’d designed, and why? I think it was a question more designed to give readers an idea of what we’re like rather than to fuel a big debate in itself, but answers still managed to range from snakes and Ladders to Arctic Scavengers…

The regulars will be Andrew Sheerin (War on Terror, Crunch, The Hen Commandments), Brett J Gilbert (Divinare, Elysium, Karnickel), me, David Thompson, Matthew Dunstan (Elysium, Relic Runners, Empire Engine) and Trevor Benjamin. While currently unpublished, both David and Trevor have games signed with publishers which we all hope to see on the shelves in the next year or so.

While we can always find something to argue about, we are of course open to ideas for topics – please post any ideas in the ‘comments’ section of the début post. Along with why we’re so wrong, of course (especially David). Or if you want to call me a terrible, money-grabbing capitalist for choosing Magic: The Gathering, you can do that right here instead!

My top 50 board and card games (2015 update)

Here we go again – nine new entries since last year’s début top 50 alongside plenty of ups and downs between top and bottom. I’ve kept the same format, except I’ve wittered on even more, so without further gibber jabber…

My Top 20 board and card games 2015 (last year’s position in brackets)

  1. Race for the Galaxy(1) Race for the Galaxy (2007) While my plays of this have dropped dramatically after I stopped attending my old regular midweek group, it still sits comfortably at the top of the tree. You may need to be tied to a chair and forced to play 10 games before you really ‘get’ it, but it is absolutely worth it.
  2. (3) Terra Mystica (2012) I have played some good medium/heavy euros over the past year, but none of them have come close to Terra Mystica. Pasted-on theme aside, this is a masterful mix of strategy and tactics that’s chock full of meaningful decisions from start to finish.
  3. (4) Ticket to Ride (2004) Thanks to its many maps adding just enough variety and rules tweaks to keep things interesting, Ticket to Ride remains my gateway game of choice. Few games can be so easily taught, then played while chatting, but still give you the feeling you’ve been doing something competitive.
  4. (2) Ra (1999) Like Race, my plays of Ra have dropped off since leaving my midweek group and, thanks to not feeling quite so satisfying in plays since, it has dropped a couple of positions. Three-player is its sweet spot for me and I just don’t enjoy it as much with four or five – which is how I’ve played most recently.
  5. (-) NEW Deus (2014) The stand-out game of 2014 for me, by miles. This is in a similar place for me as Race for the Galaxy, being tactical and card driven and playing out in under an hour and having several routes to victory. But it has a much lower barrier to entry, meaning it is easier to get to the table.
  6. (20+) Endeavor (2009) A big jump for Endeavor, which had been a little forgotten in 2013. I’ve had three hugely enjoyable games since and it is firmly back in the rotation, being enjoyed by everyone in my weekend group. It always feels too short, but that in itself adds to the excitement. And it can be really cut-throat.
  7. (6) The Downfall of Pompeii (2004) Gateway game number two – and the only thing holding it back from more plays is the fact it’s limited to four players. The switch in game style half way is genius and works brilliantly, moving from placement to mayhem and murder on one fun little step.
  8. (20+) The Castles of Burgundy (2011) Castles has risen to the position of number one Feld design on the list by dint of being one of Zoe’s favourites. It plays pretty fast for its weight, while two-player it feels very tactical as well as strategic. While a bit of a point salad, importantly it always feels like the best player on the day won.
  9. (8) Copycat (2012) While not the most popular game on this list, I enjoy the way Copycat uses mechanisms I love from other great games and really makes them compliment each other. It plays fast but also thinky, having a great mix of luck, strategy and tactics that I keep wanting to come back to.
  10. (5) Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (2012) While Castles and Endeavor have jumped up the table due to working in my regular groups, Tzolk’in has fallen a little for the opposite reason: some simply find it frustrating and it can be very punishing score-wise if you play poorly. But I’m still a big fan, so it’s staying in the top 10.
  11. Deus box(9) Through the Ages (2006) While I still really enjoy my plays of Through the Ages, I find the power of military in the game a little frustrating at times – but not as much as my inability to be any good at it! Still my favourite three-plus hour game, but there is definitely room in my life now for its successor.
  12. (14) Snowdonia (2012) While a few euros tumbled a few places due to tough competition (see below), Snowdonia has held its own thanks to the variety of tracks and its simply ingenious ‘game plays you’ mechanisms. The weather constantly ruins my life, players steal MY actions and I love it every stinking time.
  13. (20) Pizza Box Football (2005) I’ve had two more plays since last year’s top 50 – one an epic, crushing defeat and the other a close defeat after an oh-so-close onside kick failure. Both games were epic in their own way and no matter how stupid this game may be, it never fails to deliver.
  14. (16) Twilight Struggle (2005) I now own my own copy of this classic, but sadly it has only been played once – must try harder. I’m hoping I’ve found a regular playing partner, but h wasn’t 100 per cent convinced after our first play. But as this is a proper cold war card play classic, I’m sure someone else will step in if need be.
  15. (-) NEW Bora Bora (2013) I skipped this on its release as it looked like a day-glo dog’s breakfast, but one play and I was hooked. The dice mechanism is worth the entrance fee alone, but the agonising decisions of which bonuses to give up on as you move forward really makes it shine.
  16. (11) Notre Dame (2007) Despite being relegated from first to third Feld, I still love me some Notre Dame. Card drafting is a mechanism I love in theory but in truth this is the only game I own that really uses it well. And it plays fast, every decision counts, and you’ve never got quite enough to do exactly what you want.
  17. (-) NEW Navegador (2010) I’m not sure quite where Navegador will end up in the long run, but right now it is my favourite Mac Gerdts game. It’s super crunchy and right now I’m enjoying that – but the jury is out on whether it will become too dry or just right. I love that rondel, but it clearly hates me!
  18. (17) Can’t Stop (1980) The 80s are still being represented in the top 20 by this evergreen push-your-luck classic. Zoe thrashed me in our last two games but I still thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’m not sure hat says more about me or the game, but either way I’m still smitten by this daft family game.
  19. (7) Concordia (2013) Gerdts’ momentary meander away from his beloved rondel is still a game I love, but it isn’t drawing me to the table quite as much as it was a year ago. I still enjoy the tricky decisions you are forced into each round, but it may be a little too dry and a little too solitary to keep a place in my top 20.
  20. (13) The Manhattan Project (2012) The great integration of theme  and the clever, edgy worker placement have kept this in the top 20 despite me only getting it to the table once since last year’s top 50. And people like it too – what have I been playing at? A game that may well bounce back up in next year’s list.

21-30 (alphabetical)

  • Archaeology The Card Game boxAcquire (1963) A steady hold for Acquire, which I still can’t believe is as old as it is and remains the granddaddy of the list. Luck, clever play and speculation all play their part in this light economic gateway game.
  • Archaeology: TCG (2007) A big two-division jump for this, which didn’t look likely a week or two ago as it hadn’t been played for ages. But a few funny, swingy games have reminded me just how good, light and fun it is.
  • Ingenious (2004) A drop from 12 for Ingenious, largely due to a lack of plays over the year. Still a favourite for sure and one that may head back up the chart if I find others who like to play more regularly.
  • Maori (2009) A one division jump for Maori, whose tile-laying charms continue to entice me despite my regular ineptitude at the game. Simple to teach, tough to master – well, it is for me anyway! The fourth and final Feld on the list.
  • Merchant of Venus (1988) A big drop from 10 for Merchant of Venus, again due to lack of plays. I love it, but not enough to set it up! I can’t help thinking a shiny new version may break that but I can’t justify pulling the trigger…
  • Port Royal (2013) A hold for Port Royal, although it is teetering on a division drop. I still enjoy it but almost feel as if I’m waiting for a slightly better push-your-luck card game to come along. Right now, Archaeology (above) has edged ahead of it.
  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (2003) A small jump for this free Knizia game as I now tend to enjoy it a little more than Pickomino (below) if Zoe and me decide to go head to over the dice tower. I still mostly lose, but hey – that’s dice.
  • Rosenkönig (1997) A small drop from 15 for this fascinating two-player abstract, but nothing really to worry about. The thrill has gone a little now that I’ve finally found my own copy, but I still get a kick out of it when I get to play.
  • The Boss (2010) The Boss is hanging in there, no problem. I’ve played with several groups over recent months and everyone has been that great blend of initially baffled, then delighted, then crushed once more as they get their head around it.
  • NEW Yspahan (2006) Nine years old, outside the top 250 and I’ve never seen it on the table anywhere else – but it has captured the imagination with everyone I’ve played with so far. A very clever design and I look forward to exploring it more.

31-40 (alphabetical)

  • Alhambra 004Alhambra (2003) The expansions are definitely keeping Alhambra fresh for me, pushing it up a division by giving a new lease of life to this classic tile buying/laying game. I’m not sure the original on its own would still be in the top 50.
  • Brass (2007) A drop in division for Brass, simply due to lack of plays. My opinion of the game hasn’t changed: its one of the best heavy euro games out there. But the fact I haven’t played it for months has to say something. It may well rebound up.
  • CV (2013) This is another title that’s expansion has helped it up a division, but its charm is still very much in tact either way. The Yahtzee style dice mechanism fits the theme really well, while the cards just pile on the charm.
  • Kingdom Builder (2011) The Android app of Kingdom Builder has helped it hold its own, as I haven’t played the ‘real’ version much. I’m still terrible at this clever and quick area scoring game, but love it all the same – even without expansions.
  • Macao (2009) I think Macao has largely dropped a division under the pure weight of Felds and other good euros. My opinion of it hasn’t dropped – its more that games are just slotting in above it in the medium weight category.
  • NEW Manhattan (1994) With three games under my belt now, this is now in my ‘must buy’ category. Fast, nasty, light on rules and deeply table talk inducing, it succeeds despite looking bloody awful and having no theme. A true classic.
  • Manila (2005) Manilla holds its own thanks to no other game I’ve played so perfectly blending the betting and racing genres. Lots of luck, sure, but also lots of interesting decisions to make each round.
  • NEW Oltre Mare (2004) This turned out to be a great acquisition, taking the ideas of Bohnanza and adding more strategy, some nastiness and more real thinking to the mix. Must… stop… thinking… about upgrading my perfectly adequate copy.
  • Pickomino (2005) Another hold, this time for one of Zoe’s favourites. We don’t play as often as we used to, and the chicken gods still hate me, but you can’t beat the look on Zoe’s face as she crushes me again and again. And again.
  • Power Grid (2004) Oddly this has gone up a division despite very few plays over the last year – where Brass has fallen for the same reason. I think they’ve found their level – I was just newer to Brass this time last year and a little jaded on Power Grid.

41-50 (alphabetical)

  • Ancient Terrible ThingsNEW Ancient Terrible Things (2014) Despite being a year older I’d still reach for CV before ATT, hence its lowly position here. But I do very much enjoy it and look forward to exploring its dice-rolling Cthulhu goodness more throughout the year.
  • Basari (1998) Basari has dropped two divisions largely due to a few lack lustre games, which have seen some of my friends fail to get into it at all. I’m still keen, but everyone needs to be on board to make this negotiation card game truly shine.
  • NEW El Gaucho (2014) Six months ago this clever dice/set collection game may have made the top 20, but multiple plays have become a trickle. Played out? Maybe, but its still in the 50 because I think a break will be enough to reinvigorate it for me.
  • NEW Johari (2014) While I love Johari’s mix of gem collection, action cards and turn order manipulation others have been less enthusiastic. I would rate this game higher if I could find some enthusiasm for it in others when we play!
  • Nefertiti (2008) This unique and clever bidding game has dropped down a division purely due to a lack of really fun plays. The game isn’t at its best with two and, like Basari, I’ve struggled to get it played with the right group of people.
  • Puerto Rico (2002) The game that just beat the drop. While I still very much enjoy a play it rarely rises to the top of the pile now and sometimes plays out very poorly, even with people who enjoy the game. A classic, but for me a slowly fading one.
  • Stone Age (2008) Anther ‘I love it but others fail to share my enthusiasm’ game. I like the random element and big points of this classic worker placement game, but it either baffles or bores most of my gaming pals. A big drop from number 19.
  • Thebes (2007) Another big drop, this time from 18, but for more gamerly reasons. I still enjoy a game of Thebes, but you can’t escape the fact that despite it being thematic there is far too much randomness for it to be a ‘good’ game. But I like it…
  • Tikal (1999) A two division drop for this great area control game, largely because it feels too long – while the ‘mini’ version we tried was too short. I’ll always enjoy it in the right mood, but not often enough for it to stay in my own top 30.
  • Uruk (2008) Another falling from the top 30, Uruk will always be in my collection but is fading a little because of its lack of variety; something that will never be fixed now that the inferior reprint has come along. Still great, but now just occasionally played.

The new entries

As you can probably tell, I didn’t think too much of 2014’s new releases. There was some real nonsense (Imperial Settlers and Madame Ching in particular), a massive pile of ‘OK’ games (Mad King Ludwig, Imperial Assault, Splendor, Star Realms, Istanbul, Mangrovia etc etc), one that flattered to deceive (Dead of Winter) and some that may yet make the grade (Roll for the Galaxy in particular) – but overall, I think it was a ‘meh’ year.

There were still nine new entries into the top 50 this year – but five of them were older games. Bora Bora was 2013, so is hardly old, but the likes of Manhattan, Yspahan, Oltre Mare and Navegador continue to show me there are decades worth of gems out there still waiting to be discovered and that I should never judge an old game by its cover (or nasty pink and pale blue pieces!).

Out of the 50

  • Blueprints box contentsArkham Horror (2005) This was replaced by Dead of Winter earlier in the year – but after a few plays of that I came to the conclusion that Ameritrash games like this simply aren’t for me: too fiddly, too luck dependent, too ripe for a poor experience.
  • Blueprints (2013) A good game for sure, but it very rarely hits the table – making it hard to justify leaving in my top 50. I have no intention of getting rid of it though.
  • Bruges (2013) This burned brightly for a short time, but in the end the level of luck/frustration just outweighed the fun factor for me and it disappeared from my wishlist. I’d play it more, but don’t want to get my own copy.
  • Cards Against Humanity (2009) Another game I’m glad I own, and will play when the time is right, but that isn’t very often and in truth its just  bunch of rude words on some cards with a borrowed game mechanic. Top fun, but not top 50 material.
  • Escape From Atlantis (1986) This is another game I’ll play any time, and am happy with my £1 charity shop copy, but I need to play with some variants to really find its sweet spot. I like it, but it isn’t in the same league as Pompeii, for example.
  • Hamburgum (2007) Again, still a great game – but Navegador simply replaced it in this top 50 as the Gerdts rondel game of choice. Having more than one on the list felt like overkill, especially with Concordia on here too.
  • Le Havre (2008) I played this at the weekend, enjoyed it again, and even won – but it has fallen from my wishlist. For me the games goes just a little too long to fall in love with – the decision space gets a little too big, it becomes work, and I struggle.
  • Rialto (2013) Having had an enjoyable game of this over the weekend it almost snuck back onto the list, but like Blueprints I just find it a little hard to love. Fun on occasion, and very clever, but not quite a classic.
  • Revolution! (2009) Like Blueprints, a lack of plays has seen this fall below the 50. It’s a very silly, luck riddled game that I enjoy immensely despite its flaws but it needs three to play and just never seems to be the best choice available.

Top 50 potential

Red7Entdecker, Caverna, Age of Empires III, Africana and Lords of Vegas (both now owned), Sentinels of the Multiverse and Amun Re all impressed me after a single play.

They are all games I look forward to exploring more – hopefully sooner rather than later.

Roll for the Galaxy has been fun so far but the jury is definitely out. Maybe its too close to Race to make a big enough impression yet, but it has potential. Red7 I have enjoyed too, and own, but need to play more before deciding just how much I like it. But until next year… I’m out.

LoBsterCon, April 2015: Gaming goodness by the sea

Best Western EastbourneFor nearly a decade the world’s largest board game meet up group, London on Board, has been spending two weekends a year by the seaside.

Each spring and autumn a growing number (almost 100 this time) of gamers head down to the York House Best Western Hotel on Eastbourne’s seafront for a mix of games, food, ice cream and alcohol – with quantities varying depending on the individual. I tend to skip the food and ice cream as much as possible to save money for booze, but do take plenty of gaming breaks (Match of the Day, for example, is a must).

York House Hotel

I’ll keep this brief, but did want to give the Best Western a plug. The first time I went five years ago it seemed a little old and tired, but all those board gamer pounds have been spent wisely and the rooms are now really nice. It’s right on the seafront, has a comfortable bar area and a pretty good breakfast too – there’s even a little pool.

We take over two large conference areas and pretty much need to be served all day, every day (and most of the night) while we’re there. The staff are always polite and pleasant, even when run into the ground, and beyond a few human error mistakes (which we all make) I’ve never had a bad word to say about them. The best I can say is that I genuinely hope we never change venue.

Thursday: Tricks and tables

EntdeckerA late arrival, but some great plays convinced me it had been worth it. Despite having a massive ‘want to play’ list I kicked off with a game of Abyss; a game I had no interest in after reading so-so reports since its release.

It actually turned out to be pretty good, but the gorgeous art and general over production do not turn what would be fairly priced as a £10 card game into a £30 big box game. Pretty fun, but a terrible rip-off.

As the beer started to flow I sat down with Soren, Tom and Karl for what became a back-to back session of Entdecker, two plays of Artus (first basic and then advanced) and a (post Karl) game of ebbes. Entdecker has been on my ‘want to play’ list forever, while the other two I own but don’t play enough.

Entdecker was fantastic. It was doing tile placement four years before the classic Carcassonne and while I can see why it didn’t make a similar sized splash, on this play I enjoyed it more. Like Carcassonne it is light and plays in less than hour, but adds more player interaction – and laughs – because of it. Now a must-buy.

Artus is madness – especially with four. The game looks pretty innocuous, but it only takes a couple of rounds to realise how dastardly it is and you really have to be ready to be screwed over. The basic version is fast and light, but you have no control: the game involves playing a card to move a piece around the edge of a circular board, scoring points for the space you moved the piece from. Your choices are limited as the game goes on, making for some tough decisions.

The advanced version was longer but even nastier, adding some cards which could lose you huge points – but giving you more control, as you place two cards on your turn allowing you to set yourself up for the second card. Getting rid of those nasty cards as early as possible seemed key, as Karl learnt the hard way – losing half his points and going from first to last place in the final turn in the day’s gaming highlight!

Ebbes is an interesting little trick-taker but it was very late and it kind of fizzled out as we did, but it was a nice wind-down at the end of a really fun evening.

5 plays. Game of the day: Entdecker (just beating Artus)

Friday: Booze and baseball

XiaWhat better way to start a gaming day than with a great big space sandbox game? And they don’t come much bigger that Xia.

They also don’t come much stupider than Xia, but it’s a good kind of stupid – the kind of stupid that wears its stupid on is sleeve, loud and proud. The kind of stupid that walks up to you and says ‘Hi, I’m stupid”. The kind of stupid in which rolling 20 on a 20-sided-dice at any point in the game, for any reason, gets you a victory point. Yeah, its that stupid.

But importantly its stupid right off the bat and never lets up. It has the kind of rules where you think, ‘What would I make up if I was 12?’ and that’s what’s in the rulebook. Run out of energy to shoot? Ram them. Need to take a short cut? Roll to see if you blow up in the asteroid belt. Blow up in the asteroid belt? No problem – start from a random respawn point. Roll 20? Have a victory point. Flip a random tile? Have a victory point. Kill your defenceless neighbour? Have a victory point. Dumb, but a lot of fun.

Next I sat down with John B for a game of Baseball Highlights 2045 – a nice little future sport sim based on a light deck-building mechanism. It’s a little clunky in places and you need to take a few leaps of faith in terms of fitting the theme, but I had a good time playing it and its a must buy for sci-fi loving, deck-building baseball fans (just you then John!).

Rich joined us for a game of Viticulture – my third ‘new to me’ game in a row. I did enjoy playing this rather innocuous wine themed worker placement game, but was struck by two thoughts: one, what does it bring to the party? And two, why did I win when I didn’t really play better than the other two? The answer to the second question is the incredibly swingy random cards. The answer to the first question is very little. Pleasant enough though.

After this Karl and I left to meet our better halves and head out for dinner. This turned into three courses with plenty of chat/booze and by the time we got back to the hotel we just crashed out for the night, fat and happy.

3 plays. Game of the day: Xia: Legends of a Drift System

Saturday: Wars and woodworm

MythotopiaThis was a pretty odd day all round, starting with an unlikely random pick up game that tuned into my game of the day.

Vika, simon H, Pouria and me found ourselves standing together in front of the games mountain and for whatever reason Mythotopia ended up on our table. I’d played half a game at Essen and quite enjoyed it, so was more than happy to give it a go.

It’s a clever mix of deck building with an area control war game, taking some other ideas from Martin Wallace games such as not being able to do certain things unless you’re in a winning position at the start of your turn. This works well and, coupled with moulding your strategy with cards you pick up – plus some random victory point conditions in each game – makes for a very good game. I definitely want to play again.

Next Paul A was good enough to teach me my first, and possibly last, Phil Eklund game. The theme of Greenland sounded fun and several friends are really keen on his games, so what could go wrong? A part from terrible graphic design, unbalanced cards, massively swingy luck and players being out of the game by half way. I’m sorry, but this is the worst kind of Ameritrash and no amount of ‘historical simulation’ makes up for a poor design.

We then had games of Royal Palace, Welcome to the Dungeon and Der Dreizehnte Holzwuurm (The 13th Woodworm) – the latter of which is a clever little card game I’ll definitely pick up if I see on sale. Welcome to the Dungeon is vastly improved by the new edition having lots more tiles, but it still got old pretty fast. Royal Palace was fine, but I’m now sure that’s all it’s ever going to be and its on the trade pile.

Ann was also good enough to take some time out to play the prototype I’d brought along with me, helping change a few of the new cards and get me thinking of some new directions for them. But by 10pm I was all gamed out, heading back to our room for Match of the Day and something of an early night.

8 plays. Game of the day: Mythotopia

Sunday: Pillars and prototypes

AfricanaThe day started with two plays of Africana with John B – a game he’d taught me a year earlier that I’d not managed to get out of my mind since.

I wanted to see if Zoe liked it and after one play it got the seal of approval and authorisation to add it to the collection. In fact it was the only game we played together all weekend! Job done.

With Zoe heading home I jumped in on a game of six-player Pillars of the Earth with Sean, Natalie, Ronan, Tom and Paul F-O. I’d played once before, four years ago and sans expansion, but soon got back into the swing of it. Beer started flowing and with it came the swearing; somehow I managed to grab everything Paul (sitting to my left) wanted, but it didn’t help me win (but did wind Paul up, so it was worth it). Sean seemed to win by going in the ‘2VP’ spot every round, but I’m sure he’d tell you different… Another really fun game in great company.

With Sean and Natalie heading home the drinking continued into Elysium (with the addition of Lloyd); a game I played ages ago as a prototype that looks staggeringly good now. It played well and I’m keen to explore it further, but I’m not sure it was the best choice for the moment – which was proved by us having at least as much fun gossiping like girls and drinking more beer in the chip shop. Gee arrived too late to join us, but was eating just in time for us to watch him being attacked by seagulls on the beach while trying to talk to us – definitely the funniest no-gaming moment of my weekend.

Paul A then taught me another game: this time Dual of Ages 2. It was every bit as stupid and swingy as Greenland and was almost as stupid as Xia, but not quite. We only played a little skirmish battle (its a card-based hex battle game) rather than a full scenario, but I saw enough to make me want to play it again properly another time. What’s not to like about a fight where Spartacus, a unicorn and a non-IP infringing Crocodile Dundee took on a hick, a WW2 soldier and some weird little space aliens – and lost?

Paul A then gave me some useful feedback on my prototype (working title: War!Drobe) before Paul F-O and Ronan stepped in to put it through its paces. I can only guess this started at around 10pm, but I know that it was past 2am when we finally finished talking about it – a massive thanks to them both for a valuable evening. Luckily I wrote plenty of notes and also got to play Ronan’s own prototype, which certainly had plenty of potential.

8 plays. Game of the day: Africana (but Pillars of the Earth was funnier)

Monday: Gaming eyes bigger than beery belly

Eastbourne games roomSunday night ended with drunken promises of more cards, more games and more testing. Monday morning started with rough guts, the realisation five ‘full Englishes’ in a row is probably a little calorific, and thoughts of a four to five hour trip home – especially as it was Zoe’s birthday and she’d be home by five. Decision made, I headed for the train.

As always I got home feeling I needed a holiday to get over the weekend, but with some great memories – both gaming and non-gaming related. As I don’t get to London on Board often now, due to rarely needing to be in London, a good half the fun is catching up with old friends; whether that’s over a game, a coffee or a few pints. I expect some people play 20+ games a day while here – I played 24 in total, but didn’t care one bit.

And finally a big ‘thank you’ to organisers Paul, Ronan and Tom (alphabetical chaps, no favourites!); who kept almost entirely below boiling point all weekend (although one particular chat in a chip shop was hilarious) – and to anyone who played with me.

Cheers!

Apology: I didn’t record my games accurately and haven’t included the names of everyone I played with – forgive me if I missed you!

Shameless board game podcast self promotion ahoy!

me me meThis is a tad overdue, but I’ve been on a couple of podcasts over recent months that I really should’ve given a plug – so here goes.

First up was my début appearance on The Game Pit, A UK show all about board games, card games and tabletop gaming.

It’s a great podcast which I hope to be on again in the not too distant future. I was on ‘Episode 40 – Council Chamber Mega Review of 2014‘ in February with hosts Sean and Ronan, plus contributors Teri, Nathan and Paul. We all picked our board gaming highs and lows of last year and I thought it all turned out pretty well.

Also in February I was honoured to be the first ‘special guest’ on relatively new podcast The Cardboard Console. I expect the fact I met hosts Matt and Andrew at my local game group probably helped, but it doesn’t take away from the fact its a really good show.

The usual format sees them cover both computer and board/card games, as well as a section on anything from TV shows to apps to weird fighting disciplines I’ve never heard of. Episode 15 was largely about the design and publication process of Empire Engine, but I did get to witter on about Deus, Divinity: Original Sin and Person of Interest too.

Both shows are on iTunes and if you like board game podcasts you should certainly check them out; its really nice to hear a growing podcast voice from the UK. Both shows are also covered in my ‘Guide to board game podcasts‘, which covers all the best shows out there (and some crappy ones too, just for balance).

If you’ve got your own podcast I’d love the chance to spout off on it. I’ve got the interwebs, Audacity installed, a reasonable mic and an opinion on everything – you know where I am!

Essen guide: Travel, hotels and Essen Spiel itself

Essen 2015 logoEvery year tens of thousands of gamers descend on the German city of Essen’s huge ‘Messe’ convention centre for its annual celebration of all things board gaming, the Internationale Spieltage – or Essen Spiel to most English speakers.

As the biggest board game convention in the world* people travel from across the globe to visit it – many for the first time. If you’re one of them, especially if travelling from the UK, hopefully this run-down will give you some useful tips.

Go: Travelling to Essen

Essen trainsBy air: Unfortunately Essen doesn’t have an international airport, so unless you intend to fly in by light aircraft you’re going to be looking at arriving in Essen by train.

Düsseldorf International Airport is a 40-minute train ride from Essen, with regular flights arriving from Europe (including Birmingham and Manchester). Cologne is also less than an hour by train, with Dortmund about two hours from Essen.

By rail: Seeing as you’re going to have to get on a train anyway, another solid option (especially from the UK) is to go via Eurostar. Brussels is just over two hours from London Kings Cross, which has occasional direct trains to Essen and a regular service to Cologne (three to four hours more). I personally use the SNCF site to book tickets.

This is now my chosen mode of transport. While five hours on the train sounds like a lot, you need to remember you don’t have to be at the Eurostar terminal as early and there’s no waiting for luggage as you have it with you – and far fewer luggage restrictions. If you have a few going, you can book a table too – and game all the way!

By road: If you intend to pick up so many games that rail or air won’t cut it, or if you simply like driving, jumping in the car is of course an option. You have to be 18 to drive in Germany and (of course) abide by its road regulations but I’m reliably informed that it is an easy country to drive in.

This also then gives you the option to stay a little further from the Messe itself, as well as the option to drive to in each day (perfect for those who drag a pallet truck, with pallet, around all day). Parking (5,000 spaces) is just five minutes from the halls, costs five euros, and you can stay as long as you like (pay in cash as you exit).

Stay: The city and accommodation

It’s fair to say that while Essen isn’t the most appealing city you’ll visit, it’s very welcoming to the annual invasion of the gaming community.

On the plus side the city centre is compact and the railway station is at its heart. It has a good number of shops and restaurants and an inability to speak German isn’t much of a hurdle.

On the downside, it has very little to offer the tourist – this is not a convention I’d suggest bringing a non-gaming spouse to, unless you stay outside of Essen (see below) or book a very good hotel indeed (and they like staying in).

But again on the plus side, one of the main roads joining the town centre to the Messe, Ruttenscheider, is now a real hub of bars, cafes and restaurants. From the trendy to the Irish to the traditional, there’s a bar along here for everyone.

If you are from the UK and staying in Essen itself, its worth popping into the town’s Toys R Us just to get jealous of the kind of things the average German can expect to find in a normal toy shop!

Near the Messe: If you’re just here for the games, have a good budget and get your booking in VERY early indeed, there are several large hotels in close proximity to the Messe itself. You will be a good 30-minute walk from the town centre, but there is a regular metro service (just four stops on the U11) which will get you there in just a few minutes.

The Atlantic Congress Hotel is practically on the Messe’s doorstep, while several others are within a very short walking distance (less than 10 minutes). I’m yet to try any of these, but will be in the Mercure Plaza this year (20 minute walk to the Messe). I love a walk in the morning, and it also makes me think twice about buying more than I can carry!

You can find an Essen Metro map here.

ippCentral Essen: The most common option is to stay in the town centre and travel to the Messe each day via the Metro (about five minutes once you’re on and moving). You can get on the U11 at the central station (Essen Hbf) and get off at Messe West/Sud Gruga.

Walking is another option, taking just over 30 minutes from the central train station – or up to 45 from some central hotels.

Large chain hotels including Ibis, Movenpick and Holiday Inn are all present near the station offering the typical big hotel experience, alongside many smaller, cheaper options.

I’ve enjoyed stays in both the Movenpick and Ibis – you simply know what to expect. But my one experience with a small budget hotel did not end well and I’ll avoid that option in future. Hotel breakfasts tend to be continental and overpriced. There are many bakeries in the town centre and I personally prefer to grab something on my way in to the halls each day.

Further afield: If you travel to Essen by car, or are on a holiday with non-gaming friends or partners, there are cheaper, more picturesque and more interesting locations to stay if you don’t mind travelling in each day. As mentioned above, Cologne and Dusseldorf are both less than an hour from Essen by rail and have much more to offer in terms of tourism.

Play: Essen Spiel itself

Essen balconyEssen Spiel is unlike any other big board game convention. Its all about retail, which means the vast majority of space is dedicated to taking your money, with small bits set aside to let you demo new releases. Don’t expect talks, competitions etc.

On the plus side, this makes it cheap. It’s only a few euros to get in each day, with a discount available for the whole four days – and additional discounts if you can buy in bulk, so its worth getting a group of you together (even if you make friends outside just to get the tickets). I’ll post prices nearer the time.

There is no – I repeat, NO – open gaming areas for you to play inside the Messe. Luckily the local hotels are very amenable to letting gamers use their often vast breakfast areas for gaming. People scuttle home from the Messe with their purchases, hurriedly read the rules over dinner and are in the hotel bars and restaurants playing a while later – and late into the night.

It’s actually a really nice part of the experience, once you get used to it. People are friendly and it’s usually easy to find a game, and I personally enjoy the idea of going shopping in the daytime and then playing my new purchases in the evening. All the big central Essen hotels are very amenable (I’ve played into the small hours at the Ibis, Movenpick and Holiday Inn), as are the smaller ones I’ve popped into to meet friends.

If you have heard talk of 10+ small halls that are a nightmare to navigate, this is in the past (at least for now). Due to refurbishment of the smaller halls, Essen Spiel currently uses the largest four halls in the Messe which makes it much easier to find your way around.

Wednesday to Sunday: When should you go?

  • Thursday and Friday: These are definitely the best days to go if you can travel over to Germany midweek. The halls are quieter, meaning you’ll have a better chance of sitting down at some demos – as well as picking up those hot titles that sell out in the first day or so (it happens every year).
  • Saturday and Sunday: Saturday is the day to avoid if you’re coming for the whole weekend, as people travel in from across Germany and its absolutely manic throughout the day. Sunday morning also tends to be busy, but it thins out a lot in the later afternoon. However don’t expect too many ‘last minute bargain’ rewards for hanging on until the end, as I’ve seen little evidence of it happening.
  • Wednesday: Since 2011 there has been an Essen Warm Up Day organised by Spiele Gilde. It costs 30 euros but is open 10am to 11pm and includes free food and non-alcoholic drinks all day. It’s a great opportunity to extend your stay and get to play some of the new releases a day before heading into Essen Spiel itself, while being easy to get to in the centre of Essen.
    Wednesday is also Essen press conference and manufacturer set-up day, so you’ll find plenty of gaming types in the city on the Wednesday evening – many toting new gaming swag picked up early from the halls. And even if you don’t want to do much after arriving, it’s worth coming on Wednesday just to be able to get into the Messe first thing on Thursday morning.

The new games

Essen is primarily about new releases, but you’d be amazed at how many companies fail to get enough copies to the show.

Much of this is blamed on production issues and shipping, but its not as if those are surprises in the board game industry. Anyway, the point is if you really want something you’re normally best off pre-ordering it.

Depending on the size of the manufacturer, pre-orders may be handled through a prepaid service via their website – or via names written on the back of a cigarette packet after sending the designer an email and keeping your fingers crossed. Either way, the best way to find out about them is directly via the website of each game you’re interested in – or more conveniently through Board Game Geek.

Each year the site runs an amazingly detailed Essen preview page which lists pretty much every game that’s coming out and any appropriate links. This is the 2014 link to give you an idea of what to expect – I’ll try to remember to come back and update it here when the new one lands (or please remind me nearer the time!).

If you are the type who wants to check out every game before you go, another great website is Essen Geek Mini. This takes the Board Game Geek list and lets you rank how interested you are in each game – and then brilliantly plots all the manufacturers onto printable maps, along with your games listed by rank. Geek heaven!

Language dependency can be an issue, as you’ll often find different versions in German and English, but also perhaps French, Polish and others. The biggest issue can be differences in pricing – German editions at the show are often cheaper, so it can be easy to grab one by mistake thinking you’re getting a bargain. And you might think there are thousands of copies of a game at the show – when there may only be a very small number in the language you need.

Another issues is demos – and how difficult they can be to get. While companies such as Days of Wonder have huge stands demoing a single game, many smaller companies – or those releasing multiple titles – have much less room. You may even find just a single demo table for a game you really want to try (or worse none at all).

While some booths will let you book a demo time, many won’t. In these situations you have the choice of waiting for a spot (a bit boring) or hoping for the best (less boring, almost guaranteed to be unproductive in terms of the demo). Your way of dealing with this is up to you – I just want to let you know so you won’t be (as) annoyed and disappointed!

The old games

Manhattan boxWhile Essen is largely about new titles, you’ll find a good number of secondhand games traders in the halls – as well as large sections dedicated to older discounted titles.

These can be brilliant for those of us outside of Germany who only ever see discounts in online stores, and have never seen a living, breathing secondhand board game shop!

But do be on your guard for the obvious pitfalls – the big two being missing pieces (for secondhand) and language dependency. If you’re thinking about picking up some titles, do your research and see if they’re language independent – and if so, whether the rules are freely available to download and print. If so, you’re golden.

You may find staff on the secondhand stands don’t have great language skills beyond German, while there can be a lot of individual games that are hard to sift through – or behind the counter where you can’t get at them. If there are specific titles/editions you’re after, its well worth printing images of the covers and taking them with you – its the simplest way past any language barriers.

I’ve found these stands most useful for older Spiel de Jahres winners, which get massive print runs in Germany when they win the award and many of which are still very popular today. You’ll find piles of old copies of games such as Elfenland, Manhattan, Tikal and Thurn and Taxis for 10-15 euros – all of which are language independent.

And finally… some other stuff

  • As well as board games, one of the halls is dedicated to other geek culture habits including comics (ithe Comic Action convention is included in your ticket), RPGs, miniature gaming, CCGs and even a bit of costume/LARPing. But these are squeezed into one hall and very much a small part of the overall show.
  • The food selection is far from brilliant, especially if you’re a healthy type. You should be able to find a beer, a sausage (apparently the currywurst is particularly good – I’ll report back this year!) or a pretzel – with varying degrees of cheese attached – all of which are actually excellent. But I’d suggest a good healthy breakfast pre-con and a proper meal on the way home!
  • I’d also suggest you bring cash (very few stands will accept cards and there aren’t many cash machines inside) and bring water – as well as wearing comfortable shoes. The convention space is massive, you’ll be on your feet a lot, and it can get pretty hot inside. Water and good shoes are essentials. On the plus side, Essen has great tap water so you’re quite safe filling up your bottle from the tap rather than spending a fortune on bottled water.

What have I missed?!

I want this guide to be as useful as possible, so please comment below or contact me directly if you have anything you think I should add or update. Cheers! (Thanks to Louise McCully and Christian Gienger for their contributions.)

* There are bigger conventions that include some board and card games, but Essen is comfortably the biggest that concentrates almost entirely on the hobby.