LoBsterCon XVI: 5 short Essen Spiel one-play game reviews

I’ll write more about LoBsterCon when I’ve got more time (spoiler alert – it was awesome), but as I was writing/thinking about the games I’d played over the weekend elsewhere last night I got my thoughts down here too.

These are all games I had some interest in before I went to Essen Spiel 2018, but that didn’t come home with me. Will they be making it into my collection – or was I right to leave them off my final list? I played each once over the weekend, so take that for what it’s worth: these are first impressions, hence ‘mini’ reviews.

Fool

(4-8 players, 45-60 mins)
Don’t be fooled (ho ho) by the 15 minutes on the box: it will only be that short if you have a player who is terrible, or incredibly unlucky. If you’re used to trick-taking, it’ll likely go a lot longer.  Fool (formerly ‘Foppen’) is more trick making than taking though, as you don’t collect tricks won: your objective is to get rid of all your cards, which you do by by staying in as many rounds as possible – if you have the worst card in a trick, you’re the ‘fool’ and miss the next hand. A typically clever Friedemann Friese design which I’d pick up if I was likely to play this type of game more often.

Decrypto

(4-8 players, 45 mins)
This is being described as a ‘Codenames killer’ by many and I can see why. While I love Codenames Duet, the multiplayer Codenames can be a little fragile: it puts the clue giver under a lot of pressure while having the potential for long downtime. Decrypto partly fixes this, giving shorter time in the hot seat for each player and keeping both teams engaged simultaneously. It’s a clever design which I’d happily play again, but I don’t feel the need to own two games in this genre (I don’t play them enough) and am happy to keep Codenames for now.

Coimbra

(2-4 players, 90-120 minutes)
I only wanted to bring back one dry euro from Essen this time, and I chose Crown of Emara over this – and I think I made the right decision, just (review incoming). Coimbra is a really solid euro design, with pretty standard card play, light engine building and point gathering being supported by an enjoyable and competitive dice auction mechanism. It reminded me a little of Lorenzo in weight and decision making, but I think I enjoyed Lorenzo a little more – but that’s a game very near the top of my wish list, so that’s no criticism. If you like auctiony sub-two-hour euro games, check it out.

Underwater Cities

(1-4 players, 2-4 hours)
This has gone from ‘how did I miss it?’ to ‘top of my want-to-play list’ to ‘dead to me’ in a weekend. Vladimír Suchý designs tend to be clever but too dry for me, but this had been compared to Terraforming Mars so I really wanted to try it. Sadly, it fell well short of my expectations. I suppose the varied cards led to TM comparisons, but they’re lazy comparisons at best: the game play is miles from it. The card play starts out engaging, but the player board (which should feel like a puzzle) adds nothing and things soon started to drag as no arc emerged. We went nearly four hours: it justified about two.

Passing Through Petra

(2-4 players, 60 minutes)
An ugly game, which wouldn’t bother me if I’d enjoyed it – but I really didn’t. For me it got the luck/strategy mix all wrong. If I play a 60 minute euro I want fun/luck/tactics or thinky/strategy: with Petra, I was thinking hard but relying on luck (cards and tiles). Get good cards or combos, you can do well – if not, you won’t. Sure, you’d get better with practice – but it will still be too luck driven. It is also very fiddly, while the ‘clever’ movement grid isn’t – you have to do a bit of everything, so moving in a grid is largely arbitrary (and done much better in Ulm).

So, my wallet is safe! For now… Apart from Petra I did enjoy my plays of the other four games (although maybe only the first two hours of Underwater Cities) and would recommend those to players who think they sound interesting – especially the top three. But I’ll definitely be passing on Petra (I’ll get me coat…).

Oh, and before anyone accuses me of liking/not liking them because I won/lost, let me assure you that is not the case and I can prove it: I didn’t win any of them 😀 And they were all played in good spirit with good people (cheers all).

Con report: Cologne & Essen Spiel 2018

Luckily this year Essen Spiel coincided with the school half-term in the UK (and will again next year) – so Sarah and me took the opportunity to spend a lovely long weekend in Cologne.

Afterwards I went on to Spiel 2018 and she headed home to be a responsible adult (them’s the breaks). And while we didn’t do much gaming in Cologne, we did find one of the best board game stores in all the land – for more on this, skip to the bottom of this post. Suffice it to say that each trip to Essen from now on is going to have to coincide with a Cologne pit stop…

My Essen Spiel 2018

As always, I had a brilliant if exhausting time in Essen. I only had publisher meetings on Friday, dedicating the rest of my time to simply looking, playing and picking up review copies of games – as well as socialising and catching up with as many people as possible.

I also spent chunks of time on both Saturday and Sunday on the Drawlab booth, talking about and signing copies of Witless Wizards: so if you were one of those that bought a copy, and particularly if we had a chat, thank you so much – it was great fun meeting and chatting to you all. The game did well and pretty much sold through the copies they had with them, which is all I could have hoped for – and all the guys (and gals) working on the booth did a brilliant job of explaining and selling the game – thank you all (again).

In terms of organisation, this was the best Essen Spiel I’ve been to (this was my seventh). While numbers rose once more (more than 190,000 came through the doors over the four days) it rarely felt ridiculously crowded. The one exception was the Galleria, which has become an unfortunate bottleneck. I understand why they fill it with kids’ stuff, but they really need a new solution for next year so this area can simply be used a smooth funnel between halls.

With the addition of a new entrance via Hall 6, it also meant there wasn’t really a hall where games went to die. Some smaller publishers in Hall 6 may dispute this, as it was mainly dedicated to everything from weird beer to cuddly toys, but overall it felt as if there was more of a flow between halls.

Games and gaming at Spiel: Hits and misses

I felt, in terms of new releases, it was an average year. The games generating buzz were often those which had limited copies, rather than the ones people were looking forward to most. I don’t think people wanted Newton more than Coimbra, for example – it’s just there were less copies of Newton available.

It’s a shame poor management by publishers still generates more buzz for a title than it actually being a good game (not to say Newton isn’t one). People – it will be in the shops soon, and it’s not as if there weren’t another 1,000+ other new games to choose from…

In terms of innovation, you don’t expect to be saying Fantasy Flight stole the show – but they did. Both KeyForge and Discover have been troubling the top of the Board Game Geek Hotness list for months and were very highly discussed, played and coveted at Essen Spiel. I’m hoping to get hold of copies of both, but the idea of every box containing unique content – but with a shared rule set – is fascinating. Even if it isn’t perfect this time around, the idea computer algorithms are starting to make their own games (in a way) is a fascinating one.

But beyond Fantasy Flight, the output from the larger publishers – for me at least – was largely disappointing: it felt more mass market and largely bereft of imagination. Titles such as The River (Days of Wonder), Azul: Stained Glass (Next Move), Solenia (Pearl) and Blue Lagoon (Blue Orange) felt derivative and unoriginal (if fine to play), which suggests to me the larger publishers are – probably quite rightly, in a business sense – targeting the ever-growing number of players new to the hobby.

My hunt for interesting mechanisms and ideas kept leading me out to halls four and five – and the great majority of games I brought home were from smaller publishers (see my list of incoming reviews here). But again, this isn’t a criticism of the big boys – more an acknowledgement that, as the market continues to grow, the priorities for the larger publishers will change in terms of what they’re aiming at this new, uninitiated public. The fact masses of new gamers seem to think Century: Spice Road is a ‘game’ (to me it’s a mechanism at best) suggests I’m part of the past, not the future!

Outside the halls: Essen itself

Finally, a few words on Essen the place, as I’ve been mean about it in the past. My first few visits to the city (2012, 2013) were a real struggle in terms of finding anywhere nice to eat or drink, but things have certainly come on in the past couple of years.

Fritzpatricks (pictured) still serves a great pint of Guinness and is the go-to place to meet up, while the Istra Steakhaus is still my favourite place to get a plate of meat and a lovely cold German beer on tap. But they’ve been joined by an ever-growing list of solid eateries on Rüttenscheider Straße and also Alfredstraße. Special mentions this year to the burgers and craft beers at Kohle*Craft*Werk and the hot dogs at Pan’s BeBop.

And finally, a hotel bombshell… After seven years in seven different establishments, I have finally booked the same place two years in a row for 2019! Congratulations, Boutique 019. You may not be in the best location, and you may not have a bar, but the fact you have a nice breakfast included, good free Wi-Fi, comfy bed and good shower makes up for that. And better still, you have single rooms at under £100 per night – pretty much gold dust in Essen during Spiel.

Cologne: Second-hand board game paradise

Being the world’s most mature board game market, Germany has a thriving second-hand game trade that stretches back into the nineties and beyond. It means you can find some amazing bargains alongside reasonably priced games that are super hard to find (and/or expensive) elsewhere.

While we largely did the tourist stuff in Cologne she did humour me for a morning in what many describe as the best second-hand board game store in all of Germany, Spielbrett. Owner Nadine Pick was great company and I could’ve spent all day in the shop.

The place really needs to be seen to be believed (check out the video snippet of one of the rooms below). An unassuming entrance leads to a series of small but jam-packed rooms full of games new and old, both in German and English, covering the history of the hobby. And I mean full – we’re talking floor to ceiling here, and some of the ceilings are pretty high. The actual collection stretches beyond 10,000 titles, with perhaps a third of that on display – but everything is catalogued, while you can enquire and even order much of it online (via Board Game Geek).

Via Spielbrett and the second-hand traders at Spiel, I managed to pick up the following:

  • Kupferkessel Co: (2001) A two-player game from Maori designer Günter Burkhardt that uses the same ‘move around the outside of a tile grid’ mechanism. I’ve been on the look out for it for ages, and this copy was still sealed. It was a SdJ ‘recommended’ back in 2002, but never got an English language release.
  • Balloon Cup: (2003) This whimsical looking yet mean two-player game has been on my radar since playing it on Yucata – but I couldn’t bring myself to get the horrible Rio Grande reprint (as Piñata). I instead picked up the original German version, in perfect condition, for a cheaper price.
  • Manhattan: (1994) Another classic (surprisingly aggressive area control) with a reprint that is no more appealing than the original; surprising in this case, as the original wasn’t exactly stellar in the looks department. Found the original German version for way under the price of a ‘new’ copy, again in great condition.
  • Thurn and Taxis: Power and Glory & All Roads Lead to Rome: (2007/8) The original Thurn and Taxis is an enduring favourite, so I kept a lookout for its two expansions. I found both second-hand for less than 20 euros each, so snapped them up. Now to get all this new nonsense played so I can get to the old stuff!

Overall, it was another brilliant trip to Germany. I just need to remember to book a few days off afterwards next year to recover…

Essen Spiel 2018: Reviews incoming!

So the four days of gaming madness that is Essen Spiel are over for another year: 1,200 new games were released, 190,000 people crammed into the halls and I had what feels like about five hours sleep – while eating my own weight in meat and drinking a few too many beers.

A full report on my trip is in the works, but for now I’m simply going to list the games I picked up over the weekend to review over the next couple of months. Do bookmark this page if you’re interested, as I’ll link to the reviews from here as I post them on the site (and over at BGG).

Overall, it seemed like a pretty average Spiel (average = great fun). There were plenty of interesting games, but while the number of new games keeps going up it simply seems to be adding to the mediocrity rather than increasing the level of greats, or innovative titles. I still lay the blame for this firmly at the door of Kickstarter: anyone can push their derivative game out the door with the greatest of ease, muddying the waters for everyone and making the gems even harder to find.

But I digress. I hope to have all these reviews done before the end of the year, but I’ve said that before… And thanks to all the publishers who either gave me a big discount or gave their games for free – I couldn’t do this without your support.

  • 1906 San Fransisco: City building via a card-based action selection mechanism, but in a super small box.
  • 5 Colors: Great little majorities card game from Japon Brand.
  • Adios Calavera: A three-player board, plus two more expansions, to add to the brilliant base game.
  • Color Monster: A children’s game encouraging your kids to talk about their emotions.
  • Estates: Prettier reprint of the celebrated and super mean auction/area control game Neue Heimat.
  • Fertility: Tile placement set collection/resource management game. Pretty much family level, but looks interesting enough to appeal to gamers too.
  • Gnomopolis: Worker placement/bag building and set collection. Cute pieces and simple rules, but something about it just spoke to me.
  • Orbital: Space station builder with a super tight economy. On one play, I think this is finally the Suburbia-style game that doesn’t have any rules I hate.
  • Prehistory: My heavy euro for Spiel 2018. Mechanisms listed as area control, modular board, set collection, tile placement and worker placement. Blimey.
  • Showtime: Light but mean card game with a great theme. First play was fun, despite poor iconography and even worse politics…
  • Tsukiji: The latest entrant in my search for a small, light and short commodities speculation game that really works for me.

There will be quite a few more (Including Raids and Crown of Emara) arriving by mail in the coming months too, so expect plenty of post-Essen goodness!

Close – but no cigar

These are the games that didn’t make it – and why:

  • Tales of Glory & Welcome To…: These were high on my list of games to review, but neither publisher was willing to give me a discount in return for a review. This is not a complaint – its their prerogative. Its just that I have very limited luggage space/funds and there are a lot of good games, so I’d rather just get something else. Hopefully I’ll get to play these later and if I like them I’ll pick them up.
  • Underwater Cities: I have no idea how I missed this in my research, as it sounds right up my street and I heard good things about it during the weekend. This is the game I most want to play of those that I saw, and I’ve got a spoken appointment to play it in a few weeks’ time, so finger’s crossed. You can’t have enough card-driven tableau/engine builders.
  • Hardback: I’m almost certain I’ll like this, and Sarah may like it too, but there’s something about word games – they just don’t do it for me without a play. I tried to get near it almost every day but the booth was always busy (great news for them) – and somehow the people on the booth just didn’t look very approachable. I’m sure it was me, and not them, but again I’ll look to get a play of it soon.
  • Newton & Coimbra: I didn’t really want to come home with more than one super dry 90-minute euro, but ended up overlooking both my original picks for this category and instead opted for Crown of Emara. I expect to still play these two and again, if they really do it for me, I may pick them up. But I’ve been saying that about Lorenzo since its release and still haven’t bought it, despite really liking it.
  • Expancity: On the last day I had four games I’d been told I could get 50% off for review, but only really enough room for one of them. I liked the look of this a lot, but already had Estates and Orbital in my suitcase (both of which had a bit of this about them) – so instead I opted for Gnomopolis as my last pick. Hopefully I made the right decision…

Board game Top 10: Essen Spiel 2018 wishlist

So, with Essen less than two months away I’ve been frantically reading rulebooks and watching preview videos of all the coming games.

There have been more than 600 new releases announced for the show so far, and the fantastic Tabletop Together Tool (using Board Game Geek information) has once again been a brilliant way to check them out – it even has ‘friend’ capabilities now, so you can see all the rubbish your ill-informed buddies are going to buy and scoff at them dismissively (ping me a message to get my code!).

But no, I haven’t read 600 rulebooks: there’s an awful lot of games that get written off before I get that far. The tool has loads of useful filters, which are super useful for narrowing things down.

Delete! Delete!

First, I automatically write-off most expansions (I don’t own most games…) and anything marked as ‘demo only’ (I’m patient – there are plenty of other games and I don’t really do/care about ‘previews’).

Next on the ‘delete’ pile are certain categories I simply know won’t inspire games to make it to the final list Some of them may be excellent, but I have limited space and budget – and I know I’ll be introduced to the best ones down the line. So en masse we say goodbye to: dexterity, children’s, humour, memory, miniatures, party, real-time, trivia and war games.

After categories, it’s mechanisms; so it’s ba-bye to acting, co-operative, partnerships, player elimination, singing (?!) and take-that. Next goes anything that needs more than two players, that last less than 20 minutes, anything for players under eight-years-old, and anything unavailable in English.

Next up is a cursory scroll down the remaining games list to get rid of anything that just looks or sounds terrible. I’m sorry, but Big Pharma and Smartphone Inc may be great, but really…? There are original themes, then there’s shitty themes. Scantily clad nonsense goes too, as do stupid looking ‘dark’ (read ‘teenage boy’) sci-fi or fantasy (not all of it, just the dark and earnest looking stuff).

My Top 6 Essen 2018 new releases (so far)

After all that, I reckon I had a good 100 left to plough through. And yeah, I love it. In truth, there are about 20 games still on my list at this point – and I’m still determined to only bring home five to review (OK – let’s say ‘less than 10’…). From here it will be about emailing publishers, or getting demos at the show. But here’s six ‘most likely to’ (in no particular order) – with links to their Board Game Geek pages (Warning: Board Game Geek is currently updating its servers and is experiencing a lot of downtime this week, so you may want to bookmark this and come back later for looking at the links):

  1. Tales of Glory
    (2-5 players, 45 mins)
    I always need to scratch that euro combo itch with a new game, and this looks the best of the bunch (on paper). The game theme is generic fantasy, but nicely implemented: you’ll be drafting tiles and adding them to your legacy (tableau), to create a history of your deeds. Tableau building, drafting, a bit of point salad – I’m totally in. It has a real puzzley element, as you need to put the tiles together in ways to maximise your opportunities. Plus its bright, colourful, chunky and plays in under an hour. I’ve also got my eye on A Thief’s Fortune, which seems to cover similar ground, but with cards.
  2. The Estates
    (2-5 players, 60 mins)
    I love a good abstract auction/bidding game, but don’t own many. This is a reprint of well-loved but niche and hard to find game Neue Heimat. It looks cutthroat and has the added bonus of a closed economy (there is a set amount of money in the game, which is all held by players), which helps keep things tight and tense. While the game will be different every time due to pulling an initial game setup of tiles from a bag, after that you’re playing with fully open information – so the only randomness comes from the moves of your opponents.
  3. Showtime
    (2-4 players, 30 mins)
    While not being a big fan of aggressive take-that games, I do often like them when they come in shorter, smaller packages. I also like to come home with at least one new small box card game each year and this is looking most likely right now: a nice light theme (going to the cinema), a varied set up and plenty of ways to screw with each other as you try and get your cinema goers into the best seats. It’s basically a great theme that anyone can relate to – you don’t want to be behind the tall guy, in front of the person who puts their feet on the seats, or anywhere near the chatty person or the munchy popcorn guy!
  4. Prehistory
    (2-4 players, 90 mins)
    One of the things I have very mixed rewards at is trying to pick a heavier euro, but again I always try and come home with one. I’ve had little luck picking a winner in the last few years, but this looks very interesting. I always like a prehistoric theme, while mechanically this is worker placement and resource management – two of my favourite things, when done in an interesting way. I’m also tempted by Teotihuacan: City of Gods, which has a bit of a rondel going on and is by one of the Tzolk’in designers; but looks like it could be both a little dry and a bit too similar to the original.
  5. Welcome To…
    (1-100 players, 30 mins)
    This is a ‘roll and write’ game without any rolling. Each player has a sheet and a pen (think Yahtzee), but instead of taking turns to roll dice and choose a result, you instead flip a set of communal cards and each player decides which to choose and use (so you can potentially do the exact same thing as another player). Thematically you’re creating a housing estate (again lol), filling in house numbers and using actions to tick off bonus opportunities: thrilling! But it has been almost universally well received since its summer release and looks like a winner.
  6. Newton and Coimbra
    (1-4 and 2-4, 90 mins)
    While you may thing its bit cheaty naming two, there’s method to my madness: I fully expect to end up with one of these, but definitely not both. I’m again scratching the euro itch, but this time the slightly different ‘pasted on theme classic mechanical euro’ one. Well, we are going to Germany: the place we’ve been picking this type of game up from for two decades. It would be rude not to! Both these games see players taking generic looking things to manipulate generic looking tracks in olden times – but what can I say, I love this stuff. I intend to give both a try and grab the best of the two.

Others on the list include Tsukiji, Fertility, Ceylon, Orbis… I’m going to be busy. And I can’t wait! I’m sure I’ve missed things though – or you may be surprised I picked ‘X’ over ‘Y’ from the list. Please feel free to fill me in on the error of my ways.

Plus 4 things I need at Essen Spiel…

Finally, here’s a few things that made it onto my ‘need’ list. You can personalise the Tabletop Together list in loads of ways, adding notes and printing maps showing where your games will be in the halls. There’s even a new friends list, so you can mock your mates for their terrible taste in new releases.

But the most important part is grading/judging all the games across five categories: ‘ignore’, maybe’, ‘like’, ‘want’ and, of course, ‘need‘. Only a few things have made that hallowed list for me so far, and they’re not the shiny things you’ll find on most Essen lists (Gloomhaven this and Scythe that, blah blah blah):

  • Old stuff: While Essen is largely about the new releases, there’s plenty of older games available too. There’s a thriving secondhand market, for example, while there are always some bargains to be had if you’re patient enough to wade through the bargain bins from both publishers and the larger German retailers. I’ve got several games on my wishlist that are old and German, so finger’s crossed!
  • Adios Calavera: This is one of my Top 50 games, so I’m excited about three mini expansions being released for it at Essen. They’re listed as two ‘character expansions’ (both players can move these pieces, which sounds fun) and a ‘three-player expansion’ (which adds a hexagonal board and slightly edited rules). I love this game, so anything that adds variety is a bonus.
  • Dice Fishing: This one is a gift for a friend who likes games but loves fishing. I was taught it recently by GoPlayListen contributor Chris Fenton (it was at UK Games Expo) and really enjoyed it: fast, silly randomness/push-your-luck but with just enough decisions and the right time frame (about 20-30 mins).
  • Witless Wizards: Well it would be stupid to miss a small self-promotion possibility, right? It’s looking likely my first solo design (after the three co-designs) should make the show, so it’ll my fifth Essen in a row supporting the release of one of my games (if you include the German release of Empire Engine). Exciting!

Santa Maria: A four-sided game review

Santa Maria is a dice drafting, tile-laying and action selection euro game that plays in one to two hours, depending on the number of players (it usually plays two to four, but also has a solo variant).

This is definitely a gamer’s game, despite what the cartoon style box art might suggest. The age suggestion of 12+ seems about right, as poor play here can see you get a pretty savage thrashing in terms of scores.

The game sees each player setting up and expanding their own colony in the new world at the start of the 16th century. You’ll be producing goods and shipping them off for profit, conquering the locals for gold, or increasing your religious influence – all in the name of making your colony happy (happiness points equals victory points). It’s a well trodden path and Santa Maria makes no attempt to pretend the theme is anything more than pasted on, so don’t expect to immerse yourself in some deep history.

While this may not be its first rodeo, Aporta Games is still relatively new to board game publishing – and it shows a little in the component quality here: the dice feel cheap (the colour ran on the blue ones), some of the tokens are small and fiddly, and some of the graphic design looks cheap and poorly thought out (the victory point tokens are particularly annoying, being very small and in strange denominations). But despite these relatively minor niggles the game feels worth its £35 price point.

Teaching

While there’s quite a lot going on in Santa Maria, seasoned gamers will recognise all the mechanisms and be able to quickly get up to speed. There’s no hidden information that will impede you helping players out as you go along.

Player turns are short, involving just a single action choice (although this can trigger multiple small actions), so games move at a satisfying pace. Most of your game is played on your own player board, while the central game board is used to track information (more on which later). Your board consists of a 6×6 grid of spaces for tiles and an area for resources.

On a turn, a player either adds a tile to their board from a limited central supply by spending resources (each double tile has a road and a building, plus one more of either on three-space tile); use a building (using money) or row of buildings (using a dice); or pass out of the round – called years (there are three in the game). So far, so simple.

The bulk of the game is spent activating the buildings – but the real trick is in solving the puzzle of getting the right tiles and – more importantly – putting them in the right places/combinations. Building allow you to variously gather resources (which you have very limited storage space for); ship these goods off for points and bonuses; trade them for similar; or move along one of the two central game board’s advancement tracks: monk and conquistador.

The conquistador track resets after each year and is pretty boring, yet tantalising: you get the occasional wild resource (very handy) and those furthest along it gain nice points at the end of each year. The monk track has more going on and doesn’t reset. It gives access to extra dice plus the chance to grab bonuses (both ongoing and points for end-game) or resources.

But where the game shines is in what you can’t do, rather than in what you can. If you use a dice to activate a row or column you have to leave the dice on the final building it activates – meaning you won’t be able to activate it again for the rest of the year. You can do the same by paying a coin (then two for the next building, three for the next etc) to activate a single building, but that blocks it in the same way a dice does.

So of course what you want to do is make a row or column as juicy as possible before you activate it – but here you’re faced with two problems. You can activate a maximum of six dice in a year – three of your own (blue), and three from the communal set (white). You only start with one blue (the others you earn from the monk track) and the communal pile of white dice are rolled at the start of the year – so if you snooze, you lose. It costs money to change dice faces and that is often in short supply.

Take into consideration that there is a very limited number of tiles available in each round too, which are also first come first served. So from the get-go each year you have dilemma after dilemma: how much do you want to risk missing those dice and tiles in the hunt for that perfect dice activation? There’s an almost Feldian array of ways to score points, with some being way more ignore-able than others. And there is also a reasonable amount of variety in bonus tiles and combinations to keep those ravenous for replayability from moaning too much.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: If you come to Santa Maria in search of theme or originality, you’re going to be sadly disappointed: even more so if you want high quality components and art/design. But if you want AP-inducing and brain-achingly tricky decisions, fill your boots. The constant dilemma of row activation versus row improvement makes the game stand out in the fast-growing dice activation crowd, putting it well ahead of many older titles – especially the rather ponderous Dice City. It has a slight feel of Cuba to it, but I prefer this one as it is slightly less punishing if you make mistakes – and all rounds a little more satisfying to play.
  • The thinker: While the game has a solid design and I can see it becoming popular, it isn’t for me. Personally I don’t think the mix of tactics and strategy is quite right for the more serious gamer, which can leave a bitter taste in the mouth.  While there are several ways to mitigate dice rolls, they often simply aren’t available: either because the right monk abilities aren’t in play, or you can’t efficiently generate cash income. You can spend year one building strong rows and columns you simply can’t activate effectively later due to duff rolls. This annoyed me – but will tactically titillate others!
  • The trasher: While Santa Maria can look like a heads-down euro with no player interaction, this is a very tactical game – but only with more players. While the number of dice available scales with the number of players (so everyone can always get three white dice from the pool in a year), the available building tiles doesn’t – making each year quite the scramble for them. Also, you have the same number of monk bonus spaces available at all player counts – but going in later sees you paying a coin to each other player who already chose it. This isn’t much of an issue two-player, but with four its a big deal – at least earlier in the game. But overall, not really for me (but i’ll play it).
  • The dabbler: While there is a little too much going on here compared to my usual tastes, once you have the rules down you can largely concentrate in one major direction and do pretty well – even win. Some strategies are much simpler than others in their execution but still give big pay-offs, which does make me doubt things a little: but not enough to stop me enjoying myself. I found this puzzle surprisingly enjoyable – despite neither the theme nor look of the game doing much to win me over. And yes, it’s a little slow with four – but it just means more chatting time lol.

Key observations (including solo play)

In terms of harsh comments from other gamers, ‘clumsy’, ‘ugly’ and ‘under developed’ are all criticisms I have some sympathy with: more should have come out to make it a more streamlined experience. There are lots of things to do in the game, but many don’t feel different enough to warrant inclusion.

AP and downtime are also important side notes, especially when adding more players. Even with two you notice the very different length in how long a year takes (year three can easily take longer than the first two combined) – and with four players it can be hard to keep everyone focused, as you’re less worried about what other players are doing by then as well.

Finally, there is the issue of the perception of imbalance, especially on the first-play experience. Things you’d expect to be significant scorers (such as end-game bonus point tiles) barely impact your score, while the innocuous looking conquistador track is almost impossible to ignore. I expect the game is actually well balanced, and feels well tested, but there have simply been some odd decisions made. All these are more small nods to underdevelopment, I guess. But that said Santa Maria still manages to be an engaging and fun experience – just imagine what it could have been!

If you like this kind of euro game, the solo variant is very solid. The mechanics lend themselves well to it in a similar way to Agricola (rather than Caverna): what you lose in competition for tiles you gain back in trying to beat your previous solo scores by using different strategies, with the randomness in tiles and dice rolls throughout making each game feel a little different. It also throws in a few goal-style scenarios to beat, so while I’m not sure it will have huge staying power purely solo it’s engaging enough to make me return to it for further plays.

Conclusion

I’m struggling to come to a conclusion about my feelings for Santa Maria. It really doesn’t look good, doesn’t appeal to me with four and the way the scoring flows feels counter intuitive – but especially with two players, I really enjoy myself.

The mechanisms work well together and are well integrated, if largely unoriginal: and you do get that satisfaction of solving a tricky puzzle each play. And while it does have a Feldian ‘point salad’ feel, it can also have some quite big point swings and a well executed turn can feel wholly satisfying.

For these reasons it will be staying in my collection, at least for a few more plays – and because my better half likes it too (despite being quite new to gaming). So I’d recommend at least trying it if you’re a fan of euro games at all – and definitely if you love dice drafting and/or point salad style games in particular.

* I would like to thank Aporta Games for providing a discounted copy for review.

Little Big Fish: A four-sided game review

Little Big Fish is a two-player abstract board game, suitable for ages eight and up, that plays out in about 20 minutes.

As you may have guessed, you’ll be trying to eat your opponent’s fish. That’s about as far as it goes for theme! That said, the production quality more than makes up for it.

In the box you get four modular board pieces (making a 6×6 grid of squares), 16 thick cardboard tokens and 24 fantastic plastic fish in three different sizes. The art has a really professional cartoon style (it could be straight out of a Disney movie) and the gorgeous fish are real head-turners – especially as they’ve made them orange and pink.

The game is currently a little hard to find in the UK, but you should be able to track it down for around £20 – reasonable value for the high production quality.

Teaching

Little Big Fish follows many traditional traits of classic two-player abstracts such as chess and draughts.

On you turn you move your pieces (in this case you can move one fish one space twice (each counting as a separate move), or two of your fish once each), with the aim of capturing your opponent’s pieces (here, capture five and you win the game – while you also win if you reduce your opponent to having just one piece on the board).

You each start with three small pieces (fish) on the board. Fish can be upgraded to medium and then large fish, with each size being able to eat the same size fish (or smaller) of your opponent. While small fish are the most vulnerable, they are also more manoeuvrable: there are eight spaces on the board containing ship wrecks, which medium and large fish can’t enter – but small fish can go straight through them (and they don’t even count as a space of movement).

There are also four each of ‘birth’, ‘plankton’ and ‘surprise’ squares on the board. Landing on a birth square spawns another small fish for you; plankton grows the fish landing on it (but you can only use each space once), while the surprise square sees you flip over a random token and take its action.

There are four types of token: ‘plankton’ and ‘birth’ act as the spaces described above, ‘whirlwind’ allows you to rotate one of the modular board pieces 90 degrees, while the ‘fisherman’ eats the fish that landed on the ‘surprise’ space – but also eats one of your opponent’s fish if they have one on the same modular board section. There are only eight tokens (two of each), but you reshuffle and use them again if required.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Good aesthetics can go a long way in helping a game gain traction, and Little Big Fish has it in spades. Better still this one has simplicity on its side, making a game you could pretty much teach anyone.
  • The thinker: I’m always wary when a design adds randomness to a game akin to traditional abstracts, but here it adds an interesting dimension. As there are only eight surprise tiles you can weigh your odds on the chances of getting a favourable outcome on any given round, with these odds becoming clearer as more tiles are used. I think two serious tacticians would soon tire of the game, but as an abstract game clearly aimed at the family market it does a good job of introducing some more gamery elements.
  • The trasher: While the theme of Little Big Fish is paper thin it does work well, and the funny fish models add charm – but underneath it’s a pretty vicious game. The fisherman, for example, are a nice twist. If you have a good chance of getting one, and opponent has a lone big fish on a board, a small fish can dash across to a surprise token and have the chance of taking the opponent’s big fish out with a single move. Who doesn’t love a great David and Goliath moment in a game? This is a fun game for its time span – especially thanks to its fast setup time.
  • The dabbler: While the game is indeed super cute and easy to learn, it can actually be very hard for newer games (and tired gamers lol) to see some of the better moves. The simplicity of moving through wrecks, for example, shouldn’t be hard to parse – but I’ve seen lots of players simply miss this play and get eaten up over and again. Sure, this means the game doesn’t stall into an AP nightmare but it can also be pretty frustrating. I’m just not sure that once the cuteness factor has worn off and people are really clear on the rules, that this won’t degrade into a slow hardcore abstract puzzle with little fun left for more casual gamers.

Key observations

While Little Big Fish has gorgeous pieces, I’m flummoxed by the publisher’s choice of colours for the fish. Why would you pick pink and orange for the fish, and make them identically shaped?

I have no idea if this is a colour blindness issue (please let me know), as I don’t personally have that condition – but still struggled to tell them apart in poor light.

Beyond this, my only complaint is that you can quite easily get into a death spiral if you fall behind early on and end up with pretty much no good moves. This isn’t too much of a problem in such a short game – and you often have a Hail Mary available with the fishermen – but it can be pretty frustrating.

Conclusion

Little Big Fish is a really solid two-player abstract with enough little twists to stand out from the crowd – both aesthetically and mechanically. While it probably won’t win over those who don’t like abstracts, it works very well as a thinky filler that packs down nicely into a small box perfect for travelling.

When you add the advantage it is simple to teach – so will appeal to children and parents too, as the great pieces and light theme should easily win them over – then this is a great little package. Personally, of the two-player games I’ve played from Essen so far, I still prefer Adios Calavera; but I’ll also be keeping this one in my collection.

* I would like to thank The Flying Games (via Blackrock Games) for providing a copy of the game for review.

Essen 2017 new releases: One-play impressions at LoBsterCon

Last weekend I attended my 10th bi-annual LoBsterCon, where 100+ London on Board Meetup members head to the sunny south coast and take over one of Eastbourne’s lovely old seafront hotels (The Cumberland) for the weekend.

As the winter event always happens a few weeks after Essen its a great opportunity to play some games that came out at the show. I’ll get to my proper reviews (listed here) in the coming weeks, but while you’re waiting for those here are a few of the other Essen hotness titles I managed to get played last weekend. At the time of writing Azul and Ex Libris were available at discounted prices from LoBsterCon sponsor Board Game Guru, so why not go and show him some love – and tell him I sent you!

Azul
2-4 players, 30-45 minutes

I’m not sure why this one hadn’t been picked up by my pre-Essen radar: abstract, a great designer (Michael Kiesling), solid publisher, great art and tile-laying – so many ticks! It was a big hit at Essen and now, having played it, I can see why.

As with all great abstract games you can teach the rules in five minutes – but it is only after a few rounds you start to see the real genius of the game. Tiles in five colours are drawn from a bag and placed randomly, in fours, onto several discs. On your turn you take all the tiles of a single colour from a disc and place any other tiles that were on it into the middle. Alternatively, you can take all the tiles of one colour from the middle (it always has to be all of a colour).

On your player board you have five rows in which to put these tiles, ranging from 1-5 spaces in length. Only tiles of the same colour can go into each row, so it soon becomes tricky to take tiles – and any that you can’t place into rows (you always have to take something) will end up scoring you negative points. Once all the tiles are taken, players slide any complete rows across from into their scoring area – then off you go again. I won’t explain scoring, but it is essentially trying to complete rows and columns in your own 5×5 grid – and once one player completes a scoring row the game ends.

What soon becomes apparent is you have to plan ahead, but more importantly have to pay close attention to what your opponent’s need – and even more importantly what they won’t be able to take. It’s possible, near the end, to be picking up more than 20 points in a round – but early on it is just as easy to lose 10 points or more. With totally open information it makes practically every decision important and interesting, while striking a great balance between scoring and dicking over your opponents. And with a reverse side of the board with another scoring system, it has replayability too. Azul comes highly recommended and I expect to pick up a copy.

Ex Libris
1-4 players, 30-60 minutes

This one made my Essen anticipation top 10 list but by the time publisher Renegade had managed to get any of its game on site I’d already filled by suitcase and spent all of the money.

It’s a shame too, as I really enjoyed my play of Ex Libris. It’s essentially a set collection game but with just the right amount of bells and whistles to make it interesting. The fantasy library theme makes it look gorgeous, while the cards each contain 2-4 books with funny titles – and there’s the extra challenge of keeping your shelves in alphabetical order, alongside trying to get the right colours of books to score big points.

Each player has an individual power only they can use, while in each round four new special abilities are on offer for players to take advantage of (it also has a worker placement element going on). One of these stays in game at the end of each round too, giving players a slightly expanding set of actions to choose from as the game goes on. Turns are snappy (one worker, and done), there are interesting choices throughout and there’s also a decent (although limited) amount of player interaction.

This is another game I’d like to get myself a copy of – but I’ll wait for a reprint, as a printing error has led to much of the in-game text on cards being practically unreadable. All you need to know can be looked up in the rulebook, and there is a downloadable player aid you can print out, but with the cost of board games creeping ever higher (this has a pretty ridiculous UK price tag of £60, but is available discounted to around £45) it’s not really an acceptable solution for me.

Photosynthesis
2-4 players, 30-60 minutes

If you want a game that catches the eye, look no further than Photosynthesis. As usual publisher Blue Orange has done a top job of making this look gorgeous, with the 3D trees making it one of the best looking games of this year’s show.

In an ode to environmentally friendly forest management, the game sees you growing trees to their full height, chopping them down (to score points) – and then planting more trees in their place. It employs a clever weather mechanism where the sun moves around the edge of the board each turn, shedding light on different areas – and if the light shines on your trees you get more points with which to spend actions. But you need to have you trees high enough at the right time, as other trees in front of them may block out your light.

While the game plays smoothly, doesn’t outstay its welcome and could be taught to anyone, I came away from it at the end feeling mostly underwhelmed. While there’s nothing wrong with the game it seems to offer very limited replay value and despite enjoying my time well enough while playing, I certainly won’t be looking out for another play – although wouldn’t turn down a game if someone really wanted to play it. I can see this burning brightly for a short time due to its prettiness, but I’ll be amazed if anyone is still talking about it this time next year.

Essen 2017 new releases: First impressions, part 1

I’ve had the chance to play half the games I brought back from Essen at least once now, so I thought I’d give you a brief first impression of each of them (I’ll do a follow-up on the others once I’ve played all the rest).

Please remember these are just early thoughts: full reviews of all of the games will be heading your way over the next few months. Also, they especially need to be taken in the context of the player counts used (several were solo plays, for example, which often gives a very different impression to a competitive game).

Santa Maria (two player)
When I lined up this medium weight euro I was hoping for a game akin to Cuba, but more fun; on one play, I’ve got exactly what I’d hoped for.

Your points will come from fulfilling contracts for goods and progressing along a few tracks – and you’ll do it via a dice drafting/action selection mechanism. So far so whatever.

But as you activate rows and columns during a round you’ll limit later options in the round, which makes for some tough decisions – and rewards for clever play. There can also be some fierce competition for actions, dice and position; making it highly interactive, but no in a mindless ‘take that’ way. One play verdict: probable keeper.

Space Race (two plays, solo and four-player)
After a solo run through of this fast engine-building card game I thought, ‘I think I’ve just about got the hang of this’. But after a four-player game in which everyone involved was baffled throughout, I’m still not really any the wiser as of what to do.

It’s the kind of game where everything feels as if it’s familiar, but nothing is actually what you expect. You can never play cars from your hand; you can play them into a place where you don’t think you want them, because you can’t use them – but at the end they’ll score you points. And you’re trying to build your engine despite not usually knowing whether you’ll get the cards you want. It’s just totally unintuitive.

Half of me thinks it will reward repeated plays. The other half can’t quite see it ever being fun enough to warrant the time it will take a group of players to become proficient at it, rather than frustrated and baffled. Two-play verdict: unlikely to make the cut.

Ilos (one play, four players)
This was on my radar as a game to play with my girlfriend, who likes tile-laying and other games with a bit of depth but no massive rules overhead.

On first play, I’m hopefully onto a winner. There’s nothing new or clever here, but the combination of simple mechanisms with some meaty decisions – and a bit of luck – seems to be just about right.

You draw cards, place people/ships, and gather resources – all the while deciding whether to spend some of your hard earned stock to increase its end game vale in a light stock market mechanism.

It all comes together beautifully, is really well produced, and plays in the appropriate amount of time for this sort of thing (about an hour with four). One play verdict: probably keeper, but with slightly suspect replay value.

Noria (one play, solo)
I haven’t mentioned rulebooks yet, but frankly I shouldn’t have to. With thousands of games with of practice behind them, surely game publishers can make half decent instructions? Well, so you’d think.

It took me three runs at the Noria rulebook to actually get it played – so no one was more surprised than me to find a relatively straightforward game hiding in the box. Like Ilos its largely a market manipulation game, but with a clever/original rondel/action selection mechanism which sees you both choosing which extra actions you want, but also how often (and powerfully) they’ll crop up and be available.

The solo mode was OK, but I very much doubt I’ll revisit it. For most the fun here is going to come from the competition with other players, rather than the cleverness of the action wheels/rondels – which begs the question: will all the fiddliness be worth it? And will the AP outweigh the fun? One play verdict: the jury’s out.

Little Big Fish (one play, two player)
I’d kept my eye out for a few smaller footprint two-player games and this one drew my eye at the show.

Our first play didn’t disappoint: fast setup/pack down, super cute pieces, typically simple abstract game rules – but plenty of interesting decisions and a short play time.

It feels like a spatial game in a similar way to Hey, That’s My Fish; in that you have to be thinking at least a few moves ahead. But there’s a bit of randomness (which is optional) and variability that should hopefully keep us coming back for more. Verdict: probable keeper.

Pot de Vin (one play, five players)
I really like a good trick-taking game and was very happy with my pick of last year’s Essen crop, Eternity. I love the art on this one too, and the presentation/rules etc overall are great, but what about the gameplay?

I understand you have to do something a little different to stand out in the very busy trick-taking market, and one of the ideas here appeals and works well: cards you win in tricks give you ‘goods’, essentially, and a few (or loads) of a type will score you points – but if you get stuck in the middle ground, you’ll lose points instead.

Now to pull this off, you’re going to need control: which is unfortunately made impossible by the trump changing after every trick – and you have no idea in advance what to. And yes, after every single hand. This made hand control practically impossible, which we all found very frustrating. Maybe more plays will reveal a way to cope with this, but right now I’m sceptical. One-play verdict: trade pile.

Konja (one play, two players)
The third dice-chucker from Pleasant Company Games feels very familiar if you’ve played Ancient Terrible Things: perhaps too close.

Here it’s distilled into a two-player battle, with similarly great art to its predecessor – but also very similar mechanisms. There’s a small amount of ‘take that’ on offer, which is well implemented, while gameplay feels smooth and polished.

But the question remains: do I need this, when I could just play Ancient Terrible Things two-player? The answer is probably going to come from seeing how much the take that element wins us over – and on whether you can quickly enough differentiate yourself from your opponent (which didn’t happen enough here). One-play verdict: the jury’s out.

Hanamikoji (one play, two players)
This isn’t a new game (it was re-released in its current form at Essen 2016), but is one I’ve only just picked up for review. I’d heard a lot of good things about it, and the artwork and presentation are amazing, so I was keen to give it a try.

First impressions are incredibly strong. The game is very short and simple, but every decision is absolutely agonising. You may only take four actions in the whole game and even the very first one feels absolutely critical to your success: the tension starts to build the minute you look at your initial hand.

But having said all that, these positives for me seemed to be negatives for my better half. She looked equal parts confused and perturbed throughout, and at the end was far from won over. I’m hoping it will win her over after a few more plays, but it’s not looking good! One play verdict: good, but Marmite!

Mini review: Pummeleinhorn – The Cookie Marathon

I won’t be giving a full review of this children’s game from Pegasus Spiele, as it has already been handed on to a more suitable audience – but not before I played it twice.

Apparently quite the children’s personality in Germany, here you’re charged with helping our chubby unicorn hero eat as many cookies as possible – while exercising, of course.

The art is cute, components perfectly adequate, and set up is simple. But while the game comes from design heavyweight Reina Knizia, it’s fair to say he phoned this one in.

On your turn you roll a dice and do what it tells you – so far, so standard for a six-plus years children’s game. However, three sides of the dice mean you have no decision to make at all, while another gives you a reroll – so again, no decision. It’s a shame, as the other two sides see you choosing how far to move (which can be an interesting decision for a young child) or playing a light memory game: more of this on the other dice sides and it could’ve been a much better game.

But it has another fun side too. Wherever you move Chubby you remove a cookie card – so of course you have to say “nom nom!” as you do so. This was funny with both the girlfriend and four adult male friends in a hotel after several adult beverages, so I’m presuming this alone will be enough to keep younger kids engaged for a while. But ultimately, despite being a giggle, it feels terribly half-baked.

Essen Spiel 2017 aftermath: Reviews incoming

Another year, another brilliant Essen Spiel. While the ever-encroaching dominance of Asmodee continued, taking over new swathes of the larger halls, there were still plenty of great games – from publishers large and small – to get your hands on.

I had a mixed time getting hold of review copies, but i’m really happy with the crop I came home with. I filled two suitcases, which was a real pain to travel back with – but I managed without any embarrassing incidents and without having to ask anyone to mule anything home for me! They’re even all punched and ready to go.

It’s looking similar to last year in terms of review work load, with about 15 titles sitting in my games room waiting to be played; I’ll list them below and try to update this post with links as I get them done. But first I’ll talk briefly about the ones I missed out on, before finishing with some other thoughts about my trip to the show.

My Essen Top 10 – what didn’t come home with me

Only four of my Top 10 most wanted titles failed to come home with me.

I got to play Heaven & Ale and, while it was a solid game, it failed to really set my heart racing. I’d happily play again, but while I enjoyed the Egizia-style action selection mechanism I just kept thinking, I’d rather be playing Egizia.

I was sorry to miss out on Rajas of the Ganges. Huch! didn’t want to deal with me, despite me having done long and well received reviews of Ulm and Touria last year. But on the plus side I know a few people who bought it, so if it’s a real cracker I may purchase/review it later. And this isn’t sour grapes – it’s purely financial. I can only review so much, so am always going to go for titles I can get a discount on. I’ll pay full price on games I love, but there are just so many games.

Similarly with Heldentaufe, the publisher wasn’t giving out any more review copies. In this case it made perfect sense, as they were just at Essen to shift their final copies and had no plans to print more. I still hope to play it one day though, so will keep my eye out on the trade/secondhand market next year.

Poor old Renegade had a nightmare, as none of their games arrived until Friday. By then I was pretty much full, and they were super busy, so didn’t follow up on my interest for Ex Libris.

From my ‘best of the rest’ list, Altiplano sold out; while demos of Whistle Stop, Clans of Caledonia, Otys, Chimera Station and Dragonsgate College put me off just enough to stop them moving from wishlist to suitcase. I’m still super interested in playing Bärenpark but know people who have it; while the game I’m probably most annoyed about not trying was Wendake. By the time we saw a space on the demo tables I was totally gamed out on Sunday, so walked away. Hopefully someone I know picked it up.

Reviews on the way

Thanks to Aporta, Blam!, Cube Factory, Czech Games Edition, EmperorS4, Meeple Circus, PD Verlag, Pegasus Spiel, Pleasant Company and Quined Games, who gave me heavy discounts* (or better) on the following for review:

Also expect Hanamikoji and the new Ancient Terrible Things mini expansion to be covered soon.

* I can assure you this won’t affect my reviews of the games; but if any don’t make it onto the site, it’s because I didn’t like the game enough to play it the requisite four to five times to make me feel I’ve played it enough to review. 

Non-gaming highlights

I had some really great nights out gaming in both Hotel Motel One and Holiday Inn (cue ‘Rappers Delight’); two of the few hotels I’m yet to stay at in Essen – thanks to the largely Danish contingent who were such a laugh to play and chat with into the small hours. Thanks guys!

It was fun signing copies of Pioneer Days, both in the hotel and on the TMG stand on Friday. They rushed 150 copies over by air and, once a panic about no dice arriving was averted, it was great to get a copy of the finished product. They’ve done a beautiful production job on it.

Myself and David Thompson had some really productive meetings with publishers too. I still can’t quite believe it when walking into a meeting with the likes of Kosmos, Ravensburger, or Hans Im Gluck – I just sit there thinking about the ridiculously famous games my little designs would be sitting alongside if they decided to publish one of them. Not sure I’m ever going to get used to that kind of thing; but who knows what the future holds?

And with the dates for Essen Spiel 2018 already confirmed (October 25-28), all that’s left is to start planning for next year. If things go to plan they’ll be a new game from me at the show then too, with another aimed for 2019. Bring it on!

Board game Top 10: Essen Spiel 2017 new releases

So this time next week, I’ll be both enduring and enjoying my favourite week of the year: the Essen Spiel board game con in Germany.

Enduring, because I’ll be up early and to bed stupidly late for six days on the trot, rushing around packed halls by day having meetings, pitching games, selling games, demoing and playing games, while trying to catch up with old friends – not to mention promote games. Enjoying, because I love every minute of it.

I’m lucky enough for this to be my fourth Essen in a row that will include a new game of mine debuting at the show (if you include the German release of Empire Engine two years ago). This time it is Pioneer Days (co-designed with Matthew Dunstan) from TMG, and I expect to spend a fair bit of time with those guys trying to give it a push. It’s a dice drafting game with a unique (and potentially nasty) twist.

As always, my top 10 is more like a top 25. The 10 itself isn’t in numerical order, but having gone through the 950+ releases coming out this year these are the ones I’m most excited about.

After that will follow 15 or so honourable mentions – and I expect my final haul of Essen goodies will involve a mixture of games from both lists, along with a few that will catch my eye whilst wandering the halls. I’ll do a post-Essen follow up listing my catch soon.

It looks like a light year for me in terms of expansions, with just a small addition to Snowblind on my radar. I’ll definitely be picking up Queendomino as well, which is both an expansion and standalone game alongside the excellent  Kingdomino, while I hope to finally pickup Roundhouse (it sold out last year) with its new expansion.

Finally, a quick mention for Adios Calavera which will be released at Essen but I’ve already had the pleasure of reviewing. And the re-release of Manhattan – a game I’ve been meaning to pick up for five years or so. Maybe this will finally be the year….

My Top 10 Essen anticipation list

There are some similarities between the games in the top 10. All of them will accommodate 2-4 players (one goes to five, while two have solo modes) while they’re all competitive (no co-ops) games which would feel comfortable with a tag somewhere between family and euro game. What can I say? I’ve got a type.

Transatlantic
2-4 players, 60-120 mins

The first properly new game from one of my favourite designers in four years? Straight on the list. Mac Gerdts has made some of my favourite games (especially his last two, Concordia and Navegador) and I’ve never played a duff one.

It’s set in the golden age of ocean steamers (yes, it’s got the Titanic in it) and has the usual historical depth fans have come to expect – and it’s card driven in what sound like a similar way to Concordia; but with a strong economic angle, so you’re making money rather than sailing into icebergs. The theme may not scream excitement, but I’m sold.

Rajas of the Ganges
2-4 players, 45-75 mins

I enjoyed both of the Huch family level euro games from last Essen (Ulm and Touria) and this next offering, designed by the Brands, looks even more promising.

It seems to be action selection on steroids, with a gorgeously bonkers busy board as well as player boards, dice tiles, chits – you name it. It’s as if all your games jumped into one box for a party while you weren’t looking. But the play time is only about an hour? If anyone can pull it off you’d think it would be Inka and Markus, so I’m looking forward to putting this one through its paces.

The Sanctuary: Endangered Species
2-4 players, 30-60 mins

This one has nothing obvious backing its selection: no fancy publisher, amazing art (though the box cover is striking) or designer of pedigree. But it has a rarely used and interesting theme (setting up an animal sanctuary for endangered species) alongside an interesting action selection mechanism.

A row of cards is laid out each round to create the available actions and players place workers on them to choose – but also get the benefit of any actions left or right of them not blocked from their ‘site’ by other players (or some barriers on the cards themselves). This is a great idea in itself, as well as the order changing giving tonnes of replayability potential, so this one is high on my radar.

Santa Maria
1-4 players, 45-90 mins

Norwegian publisher Aporta has put out some interesting games in the past few years but that haven’t peaked my personal interest – but Santa Maria is very much up my alley. It looks like a relatively fast playing dice-driven engine-building game, which incorporates something akin to the action selection grid system seen in Cuba.

I found that totally mind-melting in Cuba; in a good way to a point, but it always felt as if one bad decision early could really screw you in that game. Hopefully this one will be a little quicker, a little lighter and a little more forgiving. But it also looks to have plenty of variability in terms of replay and paths to victory.

Noria
2-4 players, 70-120 mins

This one is high on a lot of lists and looks likely to be one of the hot properties of the show, thanks to a perfect storm of hype: big publishers (Pegasus, Stronghold and White goblin to name but three), beautiful steam punk artwork from two industry heavyweights (Klemens Franz and Michael Menzel) and the first release from Spiel de Jahres fellowship designer Sophia Wagner.

But what attracted me to it is the action wheel building mechanism: what looks like a kind of editable action rondel – one for each player – that can be used to manipulate and optimise your individual action selections. I love a good rondel, so any fresh take on the idea makes it something I have to at least check out.

Heaven & Ale
2-4 players, 60-90 mins

Publisher Eggertspiele has one of the best track records for euro games in the business, so always grab my attention. Add to that a beer making theme, a design partnership including Michael Kiesling (Tikal, Vikings etc), and something that has similarities to Egizia’s ‘no going back’ action selection track and you’ve got me on board.

The Egizia-style track is on a central board, where you gain ingredients and monks (its proper beer, after all), while a personal board will see you using these resources to activate revenue collection, production and expansion of your play area (presumably to make room for more monks and ingredients). It may end up being a little more mechanical than fun, but I’m certainly intrigued.

Heldentaufe
2-5 players, 60-90 mins

At the other end of the scale comes Heldentaufe – a game that would usually set off every alarm bell in GoPlayListen Towers but that has somehow managed to slip through the net.

It’s a self-published Kickstarter game for starters – and a family adventure game at that. But the production looks gorgeous and the mix of tile laying and action selection looks charming. It’s a super light adventuring game, with some resource collection, item creation and combat, which is something I don’t have much of in my collection. It may be too nothingy, but I have a feeling I’ll like it.

Ex Libris
1-4 players, 30-60 mins

This is another title that’s cropping up on a lot of wishlists, thanks to being from a hot publisher (Renegade) and having been well reviewed and previewed since debuting in the summer at GenCon.

I love the fantasy library theme and the artwork for the game is gorgeous. Better still it seems to pack plenty of decisions into a sub-hour game experience, via a bunch of mechanisms I always find appealing: set collection, card drafting, worker placement and variable player powers. The whole thing looks absolutely charming, seems to offer plenty of replayability, while the location of worker placement spots sounds as if it changes each round, adding an extra twist.

Agra
2-4 players, 90-120 mins

Comfortably the heaviest game on my list, Agra from Quined Games looks unbelievable complex – but in a good way. Michael Menzel has done a great job on the artwork, while Quined have gone the extra mile to make a game that looks breath-taking – and will need one hell of a table space to play it on.

From Solarius Mission and La Granja designer Michael Keller it is a worker placement game that looks to take the ‘multiple paths to victory’ idea to its natural conclusion. The amount of options looks almost overwhelming, but early reports describe an experience that leaves you wanting to come back and explore new strategies with further plays – which is exactly what a great heavy euro game should do. If I only come with one super heavy game, I plan for it to be this one.

Pulsar 2849
2-4 players, 60-90 mins

When it comes to publishers you can trust they don’t go much higher than Czech Games Edition (CGE), while designer Vladimír Suchý has proved himself an interesting and accomplished designer.

Pulsar 2849 is a dice drafting euro – there’s a lot of them about this year – that sees players exploring the galaxy with their fleet of star ships, attempting to discover what’s required to meet both secret and public goals. There are the obligatory tech tracks to let players differentiate themselves and, while it looks as if it may be a little dry, the dice drafting and exploration mechanisms could well give it the personality it needs to shine.

The ‘best of the rest’ that just missed the list

The 10 games above were picked from a list of 25 that made my final showdown, and there were often just fractions between them, so I’m sure some of the following will also come home with me – or will pop up later in the year. Roughly in order of how close they were to missing out:

  • Ilos (La Boite de Jeu) A pretty looking tile-layer with a bit of an edge, a bit of depth, plus a super quick playing time (20-40 minutes).
  • Otys (Pearl) Puzzley underwater action selection and set collection from a publisher with a strong track record.
  • Konja (Pleasant Company) A two-player dice game from the makers of Snowblind and Ancient Terrible Things. Should be a winner.
  • Space Race: The Card Game (Bordcubator) Another new contender for the Race for the Galaxy crown, complete with alleged iconography issues.
  • Bärenpark (Lookout) A light and short tile-layer from a solid publisher and by Archaeology designer Phil Walker-Harding.
  • Wendake (Placentia Games) A bit of a civ game with an interesting 3×3 action selection grid reminiscent of Ulm, but individual per player.
  • Chimera Station (TMG) I love the alien theme with the customisable workers, and love worker placement, so want to try this one out.
  • Altiplano (DLP Games) Another euro bag building game from Orleans designer Reiner Stockhausen, so hyped building up for this one.
  • Carthago: Merchants & Guilds (Iron Games) A ‘bit of everything’ card driven euro from the makers of Peloponnes.
  • Whistle Stop (Bezier Games) A puzzley game of tile placement and route building sounds right up my street, but Bezier never quite land for me.
  • Clans of Caledonia (Karma Games) Show me something with ridiculous hype from Kickstarter and I’ll show you something to try before you buy.
  • Dragonsgate College (NSKN Games) A possibly interesting dice pool game from the Yedo designers, but a publisher I associate with near misses.
  • Amun Re: The Card Game (Super Meeple) The idea of a two-player compatible variant of this Knizia classic is tempting – but will it maintain the magic?

Expect reviews of lots of these new titles in the coming months. And if I’ve missed some you’re really looking forward to, let me know why in the comments below.