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

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.

My Essen Spiel Wishlist 2014: The follow up

So, it’s time to compare before and after; to look back at my pre-Essen itinerary and see how many of the games I managed to get played – and how they were. Were my pre-Essen instincts sharp, or shambolic?

What did I get played from my pre-Essen ‘top 10’ wishlist?

First to FightBetween Essen and a London on Board trip to Eastbourne a week after my return, I’ve managed to get more than 20 Essen releases played – not bad. And that included seven of my pre-Essen top 10 ‘want to play’ list.

I unfortunately managed to miss out on Red 7 (sold out – but I could’ve got a copy if I’d remembered. Grrrr), Progress: Evolution of Technology (was always packed – want to try it) and Versailles (overheard a rules explanation and watched a bit of play, but wasn’t inspired – I’d still like to get a play).

Johari and El Gaucho featured in my ‘Biggest hits of Essen‘ report – while sadly Imperial Settlers, Amber Route and Madame Ching all featured in the ‘misses’ section of the same post – so I won’t go over that ground again here.

Which leaves two. If I was a lot newer to gaming, or didn’t have many gateway games, I probably would’ve come home with a copy of Mangrovia. It’s a really pretty and well designed light euro game with an interesting turn order/action selection mechanism – but not enough else to make it stand out for more experienced gamers.

But I did pick up First to Fight after a fun demo with one of the design team and one of his friends. My initial concern was, will it work? And if I’m honest after two plays I’m still not 100% sure. But I’ve seen enough so far, and had enough fun, to warrant it having been my one slightly risky buy.

What did I purchase from my ‘will purchase’ list?

Romans Go Home boxI had six games and four expansions on my ‘will purchase’ list, and managed to come home with all but two of them.

Sadly Pocket Imperium didn’t make it to Essen, while I was only going to buy Bakerspeed as a set with Paititi if they had a deal on – which they didn’t, so I stuck with just getting the latter (I’ve downloaded the English rules but not yet played it).

Romans Go Home and Sail to India were games I’d played before and wanted my own copy of. Both came home with me, and both were better than expected for different reasons: Sail to India was free (thanks AEG!), while the new rules and art for Romans Go Home made it even better than the version I’d played previously. Again, Steam Donkey featured in my ‘biggest hits’ post linked above.

The expansions for CV, Can’t Stop, Snowdonia and Stone Age all made it into the suitcase too, but none of them have been played yet – too many hot new releases to get through first! But as they add to four of my favourite games it’s only a matter of time before they hit the table (although I helped test the Snowdonia one, so I’ve played it really).

Did any ‘also rans’ turn out to be winners?

Kembles Cascade boxI mention a raft of other games at the bottom of my Essen preview post, which turned out to be a right mixed bag. Unfortunately I managed to totally miss The Battle at Kemble’s CascadeLeague of Hackers, Ucho Krola and The Golden Ages but had more luck tracking down the rest.

Having had a rules run-through or watched demos of Planes, Essen 2013 the Game and Onward to Venus I didn’t pursue them any further; none of them seemed like my kind of games and with limited time I set my sites elsewhere. I also ignored La Isla as I know several people who bought it; hopefully I’ll get a game in soon.

The big pluses from this list were Deus and Ancient Terrible Things – but without wanting to sound like a broken record,  may I refer the honourable gentlefolk to the ‘core blimey Charlie weren’t they marvellous’ post linked above. The latter I picked up at the show, the former will be mine by Christmas or I may blub like a baby.

Office 21 is actually pretty charming and if I didn’t already have Love Letter in the ‘five minutes of nonsense’ category I’d probably grab a copy. The choices seem a little more involved – you have three cards instead of two, for a start, with no cards that force you to do anything. But at the same time the right move is usually pretty obvious – and games can be brutally, ridiculously short and scripted (but in a funny way).

Castles of Mad King Ludwig boxWhich just leaves The Castles of Mad King Ludwig – the game I’ve been most on the fence about from this year’s crop of releases.

One thing’s for certain – it’s a good game. The rules are simple, the puzzley aspects engaging and it seems well balanced. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, has plenty of variety and keeps you guessing to the end. And I won my first play – and I’d play again. So why don’t I like it?

Personally, my problem with Ludwig lies in the one interactive element of the game. If you’re start player (which changes clockwise each turn), you get to draw some random tiles and place them in an order of your choosing – going up gradually in cost, with you getting all the profit from the round when other player’s buy things.

It’s important to say here that the game needs this kind of element – otherwise it would be a totally heads-down solo experience. However, the final result just doesn’t work for me. First, I didn’t enjoy making these decisions when they came to me. Second, I felt that poor decisions by other players probably led to my victory – putting tiles in cheap spots that gave me easy points. This didn’t feel satisfying, but is certainly a personal opinion – many enjoyed it and I’d certainly recommend people to play it and make their own minds up.

Essen Spiel wishlist 2014: My board and card game top 10

spiel-14With Essen Spiel 2014 just a week away, I thought it was time to boil my wishlist down to a Top 10 games of interest – or games I’m hoping to demo/play in Germany with a view to purchasing. But before that, here’s what I will be purchasing if available:

  • Steam Donkey: A card game about building a Victorian seaside resort – steam punk style. How can I possibly resist?
  • Bakerspeed and Paititi: This year’s offerings from the Austrian Board Game Museum; cheap prices and a good cause equals no-brainer.
  • Romans go Home, Sail to India and Pocket Imperium: All relatively cheap games I’ve played before and really enjoyed.
  • Expansions for CV, Can’t Stop, Snowdonia and Stone Age: All current favourites of mine where a bit of extra variety can’t hurt.

First to FightBeyond these, it was a small task of whittling the other 500 games being released this year (yes, 500) down to 10. Did I read about each and every one of them? No. I’d say I’m not that sad but in truth, given unlimited time, I probably would’ve done. However instead I whittled many away using the following criteria:

  • Any mention of: dexterity, party, children, trivia, real-time, humour: I know I know, I’m absolutely NO fun.
  • Games that don’t play two-player, or that go more than two hours: I like a lot of these games, and seek to play them, but the ones I own sit largely unplayed on my shelves.
  • Abstract, anime, horror/zombie, war games: These are usually a big turn off for me, with the occasional exception – so if a classic rises to the top I’ll look into it, but won’t seek them out as new releases.
  • Games with an Essen listed price of 50+ euros: Yup, I’m tight as well as absolutely no fun. Why are you still reading this?

That left me with 100 or so games, but many more fell by the wayside after watching videos or reading rules, as they brought nothing new to the party. It’s a sad truth that, right now, it’s so easy to publish board games everyone seems to be doing it (even me). It doesn’t push the bar up – it just puts loads more games into the middle ground.

The 10 games I most want to play at Essen

  1. MangroviaMangrovia (€30): This family game looks lovely and has an interesting action choice mechanism, plus a good price. I have high hope for it from the rules, but do want to see it in action.
  2. Red 7 (€10): This looks like a great light filler and at this price it’s an almost definite purchase. It has a really clever mechanism, where you have to take the lead to stay in the round on every turn.
  3. Progress: Evolution of Technology (€35): A hand management card game which is all about building tech trees – something I’ve always loved in both board and computer games. Some doubts raised about replayability.
  4. First to Fight (€37): The Puerto Rico action selection mechanism is one I like; and this adds an interesting scoring mechanism where you’re all using the same cards to try and fulfil missions. But will it work? Could go either way.
  5. Imperial Settlers (€40): Great art, tableau building and a little bit of messing with other players puts this high on my want to try list – but it’s essentially a card game in a big box with a big price tag.
  6. El Gaucho (€27): Worker placement and set collection, dice and tiles, nice components and art style, reasonable price – many boxes ticked. But there are a lot of euros out there – will this stand out enough?
  7. Amber RouteMadame Ching (€30): This looks an interesting mix of styles, but essentially it’s a 30 euro card game which seems a bit steep for the level of gameplay involved. But if it’s fun enough, it may be worth it.
  8. Amber Route (€tbc): While I’ve enjoyed the app on iOS it is much too luck dependent; but the board game version looks to have made significant changes.
  9. Johari (€25): A low price, set collection and simultaneous action selection pushed this way up my wishlist; but I’m not sure it’s going to be that interesting to actually play – hence needing a demo.
  10. Versailles (€30): Yet another interesting looking family level worker placement game, but with the usual caveats – will it be interesting enough to stand out from the crowd? I have my doubts.

More details of all of these can be found on my Essen Geek List over at Board Game Geek. While I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic Essen Geek Mini tool that helped me plough through all of this year’s releases.

Just behind those were: Deus, Planes, Essen 2013 the Game, The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade, Office 21 and League of Hackers. And then there was Ancient Terrible Things, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Onward to Venus, The Golden Ages, La Isla, Ucho Krola

It’s going to be a long week!

Gearing up for Essen Spiel 2014

spiel-14Essen Spiel is just a month away. It’s the biggest event on the European board gaming calendar and arguably the most important gaming event in the world – so what makes it such a big deal?

Size isn’t everything, but 58,000 square feet of exhibition space across five halls – and over four days – can’t be ignored (that’s the size of Earls Court One and Two put together). And neither can the fact 500+ new games are released here every year; far eclipsing even the big US conventions. In worldwide terms, this is the big one.

Essen is also tied in with both the best board game magazine available (Spielbox, printed in English and German) and the industry’s most prestigious awards, the Spiel des Jahres. Winning the SdJ can add millions to sales and has helped games such as Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride cross into mainstream stores.

It differs from many typical conventions in that it’s pretty much solely about retail – but at the same time isn’t about the hard sell. You go, play and buy games, then leave as if you were at a shopping centre. Then thousands of gamers meet up in the evening to play their new games; but in hotels, apartments and bars – not the venue itself.

It is also very cheap – from memory, last year it was about 20 euros for the full four days. for that you get 800 exhibitors from 41 nations; 850 new releases and world premiers; tonnes of competitions and exclusives. But it’s not for the faint of heart – be prepared to share the space with 150,000 other gamers.

for me this year it may be extra exciting. My first game design, Empire Engine, is being published by AEG and should hopefully make its début at Essen. While it may end up being a small fish in a very big pond there is currently a pretty nice buzz about it despite a low key build up, so fingers crossed!

If you’re into your board games, you owe it to yourself to go to Essen at least once. Tickets for the show are sold on the door and while hotel space is probably thin on the ground now, you’ll certainly be able to find something. It is easily accessible by flying into Dusseldorf or Dortmund, or train via Brussels and Cologne. See you there…

CONtemplation: Essen Spiel 2014

League of Extraordinary BloggersThis week’s league post assignment was CONtemplation, with the idea being everyone would talk about the San Diego Comic Con. But seeing as I couldn’t give a monkey’s about the ‘SDCC’ I figured a nice positive post about a con I do like would be preferable to one criticising one I don’t.

For me, there is but one con: the International Spieltage at Essen, or simply ‘Essen’ for short. It’s a four-day board and card game trade fair in October – with the twist being that, despite being a trade fair, it is open to the public. This gives it a uniquely chaotic feel, as publishers try to juggle paying consumers, business owners and game designers all in one packed convention space.

Over the four days something like 150,000 gamers head through the turnstiles into what feels like the world’s biggest jumble sale. Household names with huge elaborate stands such as Hasbro share the space with tiny one-man-band publishers, and all in the name of shifting units and striking deals. There is not a room to play games, or a series of lectures to attend – this is purely about demos and dollars.

Thursday morning, Essen 2012, just before the floodgates opened

Thursday morning, Essen 2012, just before the floodgates opened

But this is the biggest annual event in the world for new releases (500 games are launched every year), so people come from all over the globe – and come for the four days, taking over every hotel in the city.

Convention hours are for testing and buying – the evenings are for heading back to your hotel, reading your rules, then heading into the packed bar to game with friends and strangers alike.

While it may sound odd versus a normal con, I love this clear delineation between shopping and socialising; when you think about it, it’s actually far more natural. And it really is a standard shopping experience; there are new releases, second hand stalls, bargain knock down stock, plus everything in between – as long as it’s a game. You’ll find a few comics, accessories etc, but it must be less than 10% of the con space.

And the shopping aspect adds another unexpected benefit: an almost total lack of hard sell. The people coming to Essen WANT to give the stalls their money. They’ve been saving up, godamnit, and they are going to spend their entire gaming budget on stuff RIGHT NOW. When you see a booth worker without a customer you can guarantee they’ll be taking a breath, having a drink; they know someone will be along to hassle them soon.

Shafausa designer Christophe Borgeat demos his game.

A typical demo table at Essen

Last year I went as a designer too – at the lowest of low levels. In fact I only attended one publisher meeting, which was scary enough.

Hopefully this year I’ll be going as a designer with a game that’s actually on sale, adding another dimension to my Essen experience. And if I can get some of my games other prototypes to the next level in time, maybe I can take another small step up the designer ladder too.

But whatever happens, I’ll be there first and foremost as a gamer. I will queue pointlessly on the first morning and be swept along by the excited masses, wide eyes and mouth open, as we squirm into the halls. Then once the wave of enthusiasm has broken I’ll just drift around the stands, a stupid smile plastered over my face, keeping a keen eye out for bargains and spaces at interesting looking demo tables.

I don’t think that’s the average Essen goer’s experience, but as someone who has spent much of their former life in crowds I actually find it quite soothing. I spent years living in London, working in retail, working/attending conferences and generally fighting a crowd. It’s novel and strangely peaceful to now bob around in one. I can do it all day, every day, for the whole four days, watching the little changes – a game sold out here, a price drop there.

It’s still three months away, but I’m already starting to plot my bargain and new release lists. My hotel is booked and as today is payday, this weekend I’ll book my trains (Germany is a pleasant train journey from England now, thanks to Eurostar). And no, cheeky, I can’t tell you how many sleeps it is to go. Ask me again in a few weeks…

More extraordinary blog posts:

The Empire Engine: one year on

Empire Engine screengrabIt’s been a year since my first (generally accepted to be) finished card game design crawled tentatively into the world.

I’m pretty proud of it, and it may be the only one that ever makes it past prototyping, so you’ll have to forgive me for going back to talk about it some more (if it’s new to you, the designer diary is here).

In brief: I started the design, Matt Dunstan helped bring it to a playable state, Seb Antoniou added his artist skill and finally Brett Gilbert polished both the rules and graphic design; a stupendously rich team for a very small and humble game. It had been put up on Brett’s Good Little Games print and play website – but what happened next?

The Geek

Seeing the game up on Board Game Geek was a tremendously proud moment – but also a terrifying one. As a journalist I’ve written thousands of reviews; now I was on the other side of the divide with my baby out there at the mercy of all you miserable bastards.

They say never read your reviews, and definitely don’t take them personally. Right. Good luck with that. I subscribed to the page immediately, determined to read everything as it came along, as well as being around to answer queries. Luckily Brett’s popularity meant his site was getting some traction and the involvement of Matt also raised the profile; but it was still ‘just’ a print and play in a world of posh published games.

To date, comments and questions have been polite and each gives me a thrill. As for ratings the way BBG’s are worded I’d decided 6 or above was fine; even 5s for people who don’t like this style of game. But I’d be a liar if I said the first 4 didn’t hurt! It was actually a 3.8, and (last look) was still listed by them as ‘owned/want to play’ – and as they also rank Kingdom Builder a 3.8 I’d say we’re in good company!

And beyond

Good Little GamesI’d essentially designed The Empire Engine for Brett’s website, using his 18-card restriction as a way to try and fuel my game creating juices. This has proved really successful in terms of reach; in just a year The Empire Engine has been downloaded more than 2,000 times!

But with my Essen trip for 2013 booked, Matt and me decided it was worth trying it with a few publishers while there – especially as he had arranged meetings to show off some other games anyway. What did I have to lose?

I only went to one, with Stephen Buonocore at Stronghold, which was as exciting as it was terrifying. Despite Stephen being really nice it was somewhere between a job interview and a first date; luckily Matt did most of the rules explanation as I’d have probably made a massive cock up of it. Stephen didn’t bite, but to my immense pride somebody else did.

We found out the day after Essen, on the Monday. I was halfway home in a bar in Cologne with friends when I heard the news – and duly celebrated with some of the world’s best beers. If things went to plan, my little idea was going to be in the shops!

The slow (but awesome) BGG burn

Empire Engine IlyaAnother highlight was getting a nomination for the BGG Awards 2013 in the print and play section.

Unfortunately it was a crossover year in terms of eligibility, while the rules allowed games that had been P&P but as part of successful Kickstarters to be included, so we didn’t really have a chance of winning. But a nomination was enough!

And it started to become clear people were really digging the game, or at least the idea of it. The P&P community is a truly brilliant one, as well as amazingly resourceful. Both the cards and rules had soon been translated into French, German and Russian – and then Ilya Baranovsky did an awesome sci-fi redesign of the cards (pictured). All of this work was totally unsolicited and hugely humbling.

The first proper Empire Engine BGG review was exciting, getting ranked even more so (4,345th like a bullet!) – as have been the first few bits of podcast coverage (On Board Games, The Game Pit and Printin’ & Playin’). And all this before it has been ‘properly’ announced in any shape or form.

The next year…

So as we approach Essen again, a year later, we know the cards are with the printer and the publisher is hoping to have a copy in its hands in time for showing to some folks at GenCon. I’ve booked a six-day trip to Essen just in case it happens and am determined not to miss a single moment – this could be the one time this happens to me. If there was any way I could afford to go to GenCon too, I’d be on a plane.

Of course so much can still go wrong. A similar game may come out next week and the publisher may cut its losses; it could get printed but the boat sinks; zombie apocalypse. Or worse still Tom Vasel might hate it – or more seriously, most people might hate it. Today we had our 50th rating on BGG – an inglorious ‘5’ to mark the occasion…

But I’m still playing ‘my little game’ and enjoying it and whatever happens, I know that something I created has brought a bit of enjoyment to some people in a hobby I love – and that’s good enough for me.

Top 10 Essen Spiel 2013 wishlist: The aftermath

Essen haul 2013After a surprising number of views of my initial Essen Spiel 2013 post a few weeks back, I thought it would be a good idea to follow it up.

My second trip to Essen proved to be every bit as fun, and successful, as the first. With the exception of a slightly fraught boarding process on the return Eurostar at Brussels, all the trains and accommodation went without a hitch (except for the Wi-Fi, or lack thereof – more on that another time…). But did my top 10 pan out the way I’d expected?

Essen Wishlist Top 10 Revisited

  1. Concordia: “This will be a definite buy for me.” And it was, although it wasn’t as definite as it could’ve been. Once I’d started to pick up some bargains I decided I’d only pick up one 30+ euro game, which Concordia was at 35. So I had a good look at quite a few competitors before finally caving in on Saturday morning after a sadly fanboy chat with designer Mac Gerdts. I’ve now played it twice and its looking like a great decision; it plays much like you’d expect from a Gerdts game (short turns, tight play, tricky decisions) and the usual lovely components (including history lesson).
  2. Snowdonia expansions: “Again, these will be definite purchases.” Actually these didn’t turn out to be purchases, as designer Tony Boydell generously gave me them for nothing (I presume for the help with play-testing, rather than me being an upstanding guy…). Due to the wealth of new games sitting on my table Snowdonia hasn’t yet hit the table, but my experience of one of the expansions previously (Mt Washington) means I’m already pretty sure I’m going to love them. I just have to get all the other shinies played first.
  3. Bargains! “Games at crazy discounts – already on the list: Dakota and Artus.” After reading this a friend generously offered to give me their copy of Dakota in return for a copy of The Empire Engine – even more of a bargain! I did pick up Artus for just five euros, while also grabbing a German edition of The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet for only 10 euros and Briefcase for 14 euros. Best of all was grabbing two older games I’d really hoped to find: Rosenkonig for 11 euros – quite the Grail game for me as its been unavailable since I first played it on Yucata.de several years ago – and Nefertiti (plus expansion) for 15 euros. Lastly I got the very poorly rated Anasazi for only two euros – figuring it has nice bits, so if it’s as bad as people say I can cannibalise it for prototype parts!
  4. Warlock: “Auctions/bidding, deck building, tile placement/tableau building and hand management – it ticks all the boxes.” We managed to get a demo of this one and it did seem to tick all of those boxes. However my friend Matt was just as enamoured with it as I was, so I let him make the purchase. It means I won’t get to play it that much, but it wouldn’t have fitted in the suitcase anyway! And our demo was pretty confused, so it will need some more plays before I make a final opinion on it.
  5. Dice games: “Two are standing out for me at the moment: Blueprints and CV.” My research certainly seemed to pay off this year, as both of these games ended up coming home with me. I’ve played Blueprints three times with eight or nine different people and they’ve all loved it; it’s quick and thinky with a surprisingly small amount of luck for  dice game. CV is simply charming and my two plays so far have again been enjoyed by all participants. The artwork is remarkably comical and whimsical, while the marriage of theme to the game really helps set it apart.
  6. Gritty sci-fi games: “Our group likes gritty sci-fi, so why not give them what they want?” While I still stand by this statement, while looking at both Infamy and Enclave I just kept thinking, “Why should I? Its my money and they won’t appreciate it”. And that’s not a knock on the players – they’re simply not into the hobby as much as me and in their eyes we have more than enough games to play already. Infamy looked OK but just sat on a table and wasn’t being demoed whenever we went past. We did get a play of Enclave but it turned out to be an enjoyable if unremarkable euro with a tacked on sci-fi theme – Waterdeep in space, perhaps. OK, but not 30+ euros OK.
  7. Card games: “Yes, there will be hundreds.” And there were, but the two I’d noted didn’t come home with me – three others did instead. I’m pretty sure Cheaty Mages didn’t make it (we found the stand, but it wasn’t there) while we couldn’t get a demo of S-evolution, which at around 20 euros was too expensive to get on a whim when surrounded by so many other bargains. Instead I found a game Zoe had wanted for ages (Nicht Die Bohn! – or ‘not the bean game’, as it’s known) and paid 10 euros for this year’s two games from the Austrian Spiel Museum: Handler der Karibik and Sissi! The former is a nice light push your luck card game, the latter a new take on the classic Bohnanza – the actual bean game. Strange coincidence!
  8. Nice looking euros: “These are my Achilles heal, so I’m bound to come home with at least one other fascinatingly themed gem.” Well who’d have thunk it – I didn’t crack! Our Craftsmen demo was disappointing, while the tables for both Yunnan and Rokoko (which sold out) were permanently packed. Both Madeira and Bruxelles 1893 also looked really good, but my resolve held. I predict one of those four will find its way onto my shelves some time in the near future, but then I said that about Terra Mystica and a few others last year.
  9. Silly racing games: “Both will need to shine to see me part with any cash.” While The Sheep Race won on cuteness, there was hardly any game there at all – especially for the crazy 30+ euro price. I had a test of Banjooli Xeet and that was enough to sell me on, especially as it was under 20 euros. We’ve only played once so far and it went a bit wonky at the end, but hopefully a little rules tweak will make it sing. The art and components are great, as was the first half of the play, so I’m sure we can make this one work.
  10. Mining games: “Not a topic I am drawn to any way…” but luckily I was travelling with a geologist! Again we failed to get a play of Rockwell, which did look really interesting, but on the other hand we didn’t hear a single report from anyone about it either. We did get to play Coal Baron though and it was excellent. Again I left it to Matt to buy, and then we thrashed him into last place that evening! It’s a really great euro though, so he got the last laugh – and he did the same to me at Concordia.

Of the other games I mentioned I just didn’t get a strong enough feeling to take a punt on Origin, but another friend picked it up so hopefully I’ll get a play soon. Lewis & Clark is also still on my list to play, but sold out, while Nations got a very lukewarm reception.

Matt also bought A Study in Emerald and we got a chance to play on the way home in Cologne. It clearly isn’t meant as a two-player game, but we both saw enough to think it’s going to be a lot of fun with more. Crazy, swingy fun perhaps, but fun nonetheless.

In the end I spent the equivalent of £150 on 13 games and more than 10 expansions and promos – pretty good I reckon! I’ve already played and been very impressed with eight of those, with only the cheapest ones left to come, so I’m going to call it as a win. Now, time to start looking for a hotel for next year.

My Top 10 (well, 25-ish…) Essen Spiel 2013 wishlist

Essen 2013 logoIt’s just two weeks until we head off to Essen Spiel 2013 in Germany. It’s the world’s biggest board and card game trade show, but its just as geared towards the public as it is the industry. This will my second visit and I’m buzzing already.

This year I’m heading off with friend Matt, meeting other friends Lloyd and Sherine on Eurostar and then a bunch of others when we get there. On the way back Matt and me will be stopping off in Cologne and Brussels for a few days too, which should add a bit more blogging juice (unless we spend the whole time in the hotel playing new games…).

You may see board gaming as a niche nerd hobby, but it’s probably a bit bigger a deal than you think – especially in Germany. As a nation the Germans don’t see the basic concept of playing board games as nerdy; good quality tabletop games are an accepted part of family life (but yes, I’m sure most of them still sneer at  role-players).

So when I say big, I mean big: We’re talking 150,000 visitors, 827 exhibitors from 37 nations releasing literally hundreds of new games, covering a conference space of around 47,000 square meters – for four days. Big.

So how the hell do you cut down a 400+ new game list down to a manageable size? Well, you use the Essen Geek Mini website of course. And having studiously whittled it down over the past few months, here’s my…

Essen Wishlist Top 10

  1. Concordia: Board game designer Mac Gerdts is the man behind the rondel mechanism that inspired my only design to date, The Empire Engine. His games tend to be thinky and intelligent, while light on oppressive rules, and this one sees him move away from his beloved rondel and into hand management via cards, while keeping a beautiful board involved. This will be a definite  buy for me.
  2. Snowdonia expansions: It looks like there will be three separate expansions for one of my favourite games, Snowdonia, available at this year’s Essen. One of them I did a bit of play-testing for, while the others all look to add a little more variety to a game I can’t ever see myself getting bored of. I won’t talk about the base game as I’ve reviewed it here. Again, these will be definite purchases.
  3. Bargains! While my friends would say my collection is already ridiculous, I’m actually pretty limited in my knowledge compared to many board gamers. This makes Essen particularly fantastic, as German retailers use it to clear lots of good (but not great selling) games are crazy discounts – although you have to be careful, as they’re often German editions. Already on the list: Dakota and Artus.
  4. Warlock: This is a game that I’ll need to demo, but from what I can garner from the rules it looks like there might be just enough of our favourite midweek game – Race for the Galaxy – along with some interesting new twists to make this a real winner. And at 20 euros, the price is right too. Auctions/bidding, deck building, tile placement/tableau building and hand management – it ticks all the boxes.
  5. Dice games: Both Zoe and me are suckers for rolling dice, so I’m always on the lookout for some nice dice games. Two are standing out for me at the moment: Blueprints is a 30-minute dice drafting game, where you complete patterns on cards with different coloured dice, with different colours giving different benefits. CV is a card/Yahtzee game with nice art and a fun, original theme (the story of your life).
  6. Gritty sci-fi games: Know your audience! Our group likes gritty sci-fi, so why not give them what they want? Two stand out this year to me: Enclave (Polish worker placement game, collecting equipment to complete missions) and Infamy (hire criminals, deploy secret units, screw your friends’ plans, complete jobs). both look potentially fun, but I’ll be looking to try before I buy.
  7. Card games: Yes, there will be hundreds, but two in particular have aught my eye: Cheaty Mages looks like silly anime art fun, where you secretly bid on arena battles while trying to cheat the outcomes. S-Evolution looks to have an interesting tack on trick taking games, adding worker placement and evolution to change what rules each player applies in each round – from playing blind right up to using trump cards.
  8. Nice looking euros: These are my Achilles heal, so along with Concordia I’m bound to come home with at least one other fascinatingly themed gem. These are two to three-hour games where you place workers, gather materials and then turn them into victory points. The contenders: Rokoko (dress making…), Yunnan (tea selling…) and Craftsmen (medieval town building…).
  9. Silly racing games: I don’t have one of these, but there are two coming to Essen that like fun. Banjooli Xeet sees you racing ostriches via bluff and dice rolling, while the equally sensible looking The Sheep Race sees you, well, racing sheep – place your bets, then try to alter the outcome of three races to cash in. Both will need to shine to see me part with any cash – although the sheep one looks gorgeous.
  10. Mining games: Not a topic I am drawn to any way, but oddly there are two mining-themed games that look interesting this year. Rockwell looks like an uneasy co-op, where you need to work together to mine – but are looking to make the most profit. Coal Baron looks a more typical euro, but with some potentially interesting movement decisions to be made to bring up the coal.

Just outside the list was a game I love the look of, am not convinced by at all, but can’t seem to shake my interest in: Origin. It looks beautiful yet simple, while it could offer a lot of interesting strategic decisions – or equally could be incredibly dull. I’ll definitely be after a demo of this one (especially as I’ll be at Matagot anyway to collect a Nefertiti pre-order).

And finally, those games I know I’ll love and lust for but – a) will hardly ever get any table time; and b) will be expensive and not discounted: Lewis & Clark, Nations and A Study in Emerald (I’m not linking them to avoid temptation for myself if I read this back for reference – I know how weak I am).

There are a few more, but you know – I’m getting hungry. And there was me thinking this would be a short post. What a nerd…

(NOTE: Follow up post here)