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, Draw Labs, 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 older titles Hanamikoji and Roundhouse (with expansion), 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.

Nuremberg Toy Fair versus Essen: Spielwarenmesse for game designers

I’ve wanted to go to the Nuremberg Toy Fair since I started down the game design rabbit hole and finally made it happen this year – so thought I’d pass on a few thoughts on my experiences in case any other fledgling designers were considering making the trip.

For the uninitiated, the fair (official snappy title: Spielwarenmesse) is massive: almost 3,000 exhibitors showing a million products to almost 75,000 trade visitors.

While the board game halls are just about two of the 20 or so on offer, the list of publishers in attendance is impressive: alongside all the key German players (Kosmos, Huch, Haba, Pegasus, Queen, Alea, Amigo, Schmidt etc) you’ll find many of the world’s finest on hand – from Asmodee and Granna to Blackrock and Mayfair, and many more in between.

Below I’m going to compare my Nuremberg experience, in as much as I can, to going to Essen – as both a game designer and a game fan/blogger. The two are very different experiences and both have their advantages (or perhaps disadvantages, depending on your point of view!).

Nuremberg versus Essen

1. The great unwashed: One of the great joys of Nuremberg is that it isn’t open to the general public. This means that, in terms of crowding, it is far more relaxed – especially because the board gaming areas aren’t the most heavily trafficked (that’s reserved for Lego and the like).

This also translates to the public transport to and from the show (the price of which is handily included in your show ticket), which is far less packed, while it’s easy to find short food queues once you find some of the more hidden away cafe areas (no, I’m not telling!).

2. The atmosphere inside: After the lower numbers in the halls, the next thing you notice in comparison to Essen is the subsequent volume level. This is a huge boon in terms of trying to have meetings as you don’t have to shout over the crowd the whole time; and the lack of crowding gamers means it’s easier to get from one meeting to the next – not to mention almost all the publishers you’ll need to see being in two adjacent halls.

3. Relaxed meetings: As stands aren’t all hands to the pumps, it means games developers can concentrate purely on taking meetings. And better still, they don’t need to fill said stands with tonnes of games to sell – meaning the stands are much more geared towards meeting spaces with tables and chairs. Having seen games pitched at Essen anywhere from a window ledge to the floor, it’s a welcome change!

Also, as the show lasts a full week, there are usually plenty of time slots to be had (mileage may vary here though). This means you can go for less time, but still squeeze a lot in – we managed to take a dozen meetings in two days, while still having time to eat and wander around the halls a bit – and it never felt as if we were having to rush a pitch.

4. More time for your games: Better still is the logistics of the European game release year. Most hobby publishers will release a lot more games at Essen than at Nuremberg – and the gap from Nuremberg to Essen is longer, meaning that publishers are feeling the pressure is off a little at this time of year (February/March).

This means they have more time to play prototypes – and yours will be fresh in their minds if you show here, rather than Essen. You can also improve on ideas between the two, or work towards ideas they may have hinted at back in October. And publishers will generally be more patient as you bumble through!

5. Outside the fair: Comparing the cities culturally is a total mismatch: Nuremberg has a fantastic medieval castle and district, a great train museum, art of all kinds and German history museum – as well as a bustling shopping centre and some decent restaurants and bars. Essen has something of the latter. However Nuremberg has an accommodation market well used to Spielwarenmesse being in town, so staying during the show is eye-wateringly expensive. That said, as there are way less publishers than at Essen – who have more time slots – you can stay for a shorter break.

So which is better: Nuremberg Spielwarenmesse or Essen Spieltage?

I don’t think it’s possible to say one is better than the other, as every visiting designer will be different. But what I can say for sure is that the two complement each other beautifully: I’ll try to continue to do both, but think Essen will remain the priority.

I fell for Nuremberg as a city and would love to head back for a touristy visit (when it’s less expensive!). I had some great publisher meetings, met some great people and – money permitting – will return next year (perhaps commuting from a nearby city).

But, despite any perceived slights, for my money you just can’t beat Essen. Every publisher worth their onions is there, a thousand new games are released, its organised chaos and something always goes wrong – but it’s the most exciting and exhilarating gaming weekend of the year.

It’s like the difference between a folk festival and a rock festival. One is better organised, has better toilets, you’ll be able to see, things will run on time, and you’ll come away from it with most things you took with you. But the other – once you submit to its rakish charms – will give you the memories you’ll treasure for a lifetime.

Con report: LoBsterCon XII, Eastbourne, December 2016

marine-eastbourneDespite the best efforts of freezing winds and the utter incompetence of Southern Rail, around 100 hardy souls managed to make it to Eastbourne for the winter leg of London on Board’s bi-annual board game extravaganza.

Returning to The Cumberland was like warmly hugging an old friend, despite it only being our second time here. It has that creaky, tired charm you tend to find in English seaside resort hotels – all creaking floorboards and wobbly staircases. But it’s friendly and we have the place to ourselves for four solid days of drinking gaming.

I’ve been having a crappy time of late, so it as nice to get away from reality for an extended weekend. But geography can only take you head so far and I found myself playing a lot fewer games than usual, preferring to spend quite a bit of time just relaxing and emptying my mind. The Marine’s Christmas grotto (pictured) certainly helped for an evening out and about, while the nearby Victoria was also lovely. Even the dodgy looking American diner in town served up some pretty great food.

I love our Eastbourne trips the way they are – a big room of gamers playing, drinking and trash talking. So the addition of a bring-and-buy, secret santa and probably some other newfangled ideas for the kids totally passed me by (but were apparently enjoyed by those who got involved). And I’m glad I didn’t get involved, as I was probably hiding away in my room while they were going on anyway.

I did manage to play 17 games (13 different ones) over the four days, including quite a few gems I’d missed from Essen 2016. But as always it was more about the people – catching up with old friends and making new ones. To everyone I gamed with, and/or had a beer/meal with, thank you – and see you next time.

terraforming-marsNew game highlights

  • Terraforming Mars: This was comfortably the game I most regretted not bringing home from Essen – and it turned out to be everything I’d hoped it would be. It has the tough decisions and massive card stack of Race for the Galaxy, but without the confusing iconography. It also adds a board, a mild ‘take that’ element that works and about two hours more playtime per game – but it genuinely flew by. This is definitely a game I will be getting my hands on as soon as they manage to get it back in print.
  • Lorenzo il Magnifico: Another I’d had my eye on at Essen, I’d cooled on it after being pretty bored by the design team’s previous release, Grand Austria Hotel. This is also a dice-based action selection euro game, but a great improvement on its predecessor – it halves the game time by largely eliminating the AP downtime. It does this by reducing the game space considerably – there are fewer wordy options, but the decisions are much more meaningful and it still feels as if you’re all traversing different paths. I have some doubts about its longevity, but if I get 5-10 plays out of it that are this much fun it’ll worth the entrance fee.
  • Fabled Fruit: The latest idea from the unique mind of Friedemann Friese, I’d decided against pursuing this at Essen because you can never be sure if his games are more about a concept than actually having any fun. But post-Essen reports had been positive, so I made sure to get a few games in. It proved to be a great little simple card game, where you stayed engaged because the mix of available actions changes a little every few turns. It’s not a crazy change, as in Fluxx, but much more subtle – it keeps you on your toes, but never feels complicated. I won’t be seeking a copy out, as I don’t think my regular groups will car enough, but I look forward to exploring it more when I get the opportunity.
  • Manhattan Project – Energy Empire: The spiritual successor to Manhattan Project polishes the kinks out of the original design, making it a much smoother ride. But in doing so it takes out all the take-that and the end game tension, making it a rather solitary engine building affair with a set number of rounds. I really enjoyed my play and would play again, but was left feeling the perfect version of this game is somewhere between the two – and hopefully still in the making.

Other ‘new to me’ games

  • Oh My Goods – Longsdale in Turmoil: I’ve enjoyed my plays of Oh My Goods and was keen to try the expansion. You can absolutely see what he was trying to do here – but unfortunately it seems he wrote the ideas on the back of a fag packet and they published them by mistake. Much as with Manhattan Project above, a reprint of the original with a lot of this included (after some serious work on it) could be awesome – but this feels wholly unfinished. Each player could’ve won, depending on which interpretation of the rules you decided to throw up in the air.
  • Dale of Merchants: Sometimes you start playing a game and just think, Kickstarter. This is one of those games. There’s nothing wrong with it – there’s just no point in it existing. From the mediocre mechanisms, terrible title and clichéd fantasy animal setting to the mass of options that will never make the game different enough each time to care about, it’s just an over-complicated exercise in draw one, play one with way too much AP-inducing card text. Really, really average – never again.

The Dwarves boxGames I brought and played

  • The Dwarves: Once again Sean and Natalie joined our latest attempt to save the world from trolls, orcs and dark elves – this time joined by Hella and John Mitchell. We played the ‘Book 5: Triumph of the Dwarves’ mini expansion on ‘difficult’ and, after a relatively simple start to the game, I decided to spruce things up with some epicly bad Sean-esque dice rolling. Luckily I redeemed myself (a bit) in the final battle to secure a very narrow win with just a couple of turns to spare. Love it.
  • Armageddon: I explained the rules (poorly) to Hella, Sherine and Teri – and then Teri showed us how to play the game. I was lucky to end up joint third, but more disappointed to find a couple of the end game tiles are problematic balance-wise. Don’t look at me! Also gave everyone a chance to mock me as they wandered past – which was much like I imagine it feels like being in the stocks! Hats off especially to Jacob who mocked me, came back and told me how much he actually enjoyed his one play of it, before walking away – and then thinking better of it, doubling back, and mocking me again.
  • Planet Defenders: I’m still reserving judgement on this one, because it has garnered such mixed reactions – weird for such an innocuous game. It’s a cleverly designed puzzle game where you’re essentially trying to fulfil cube combos to capture robots. But the art is cute, it plays fast and there are some nice little tech cards to differentiate the players. It may be a layer short of holding the imagination of more experienced gamers, but I don’t think that makes it a bad game – more a family or gateway game that doesn’t overstay its welcome. More on it soon.

Other games I’d played before

  • Navegador: In a year dominated by review plays, my three plays of Navegador make it stand out as one of the most popular of my oldies – and this was another fantastic play through. The builders (Karl and me) got going faster than the explorers (Anne and Adam) and we were about 10 points ahead of them by the end – with Karl pipping me by three for the win.
  • Acquire: Another old favourite, this turned out to be my 10th play of the 60s classic – but I didn’t have it my way. A great start was scuppered mid game as my stock of hotel making pairs dried up – leaving me holding a lot of stock in a dead chain and my influence dwindling. But it was great fun, as always. This is a game I very rarely reach for on my own shelves, but am always happy when someone else suggests it – so thanks for doing so Simon!
  • 6 Nimmt!: I entered a LoBsterCon tournament for the first time – and ended up coming third. I really don’t like tournaments, they can really drag, so I’ll probably end up going out on a high. Three went through to the final table from the two starting tables, from which I progressed in second place. Two players fell early in the final and I was in a strong position, until one bad hand left me adrift of the top two. The final hand saw one card I played (I couldn’t have seen it coming) really stitch up Rocky (which is always fun) and ultimately it handed Marcus the trophy. But despite it going very long for what should be a short, fun party game I did really enjoy it.
  • Race for the Galaxy: Can this really only be my sixth play of the year of my favourite game…? Shocker – and it shows what a strange year it has been for me. It was an enjoyable five-player game, despite a couple of newbies struggling their way through making it very slow (never something I really care about). I used the contact specialist to spam out a bunch of military windfall worlds, guaranteeing myself a regular stream of cards to choose from and a steady flow of points. Laying the nine-point grey rebel world sealed a narrow win in the final turn. And what better note to end a con report on, than with a scrappy victory?

Adrenaline: A four-sided game review

adrenaline-boxAdrenaline* is a big box abstract ‘euro’ game with a futuristic FPS (first person shooter) console theme. A game takes around an hour and it can accommodate three to five players.

It’s listed as ages 12+ but a brighter youngster will have no problem with this – I presume the age restriction is more likely to do with the fine array of choking hazards on display.

Speaking of which, in the box you’ll find: two game boards (which are put together as you choose, giving four configurations to choose from) five large and colourful plastic minis, 50-ish cards, some plastic cubes and damage tokens, plus various cardboard tiles. The artwork and graphic design is thematic and nicely done throughout, giving reasonable value for its sub-£40 UK price point.

Teaching

adrenaline-in-playAs any gamer familiar with Czech Games Edition (CGE) products has come to expect, the rulebook for Adrenaline is simple to follow and well laid out, while also being funny to read: it definitely helps bring the theme of the game to the fore.

The 12-page A4 rules are heavy on images and examples, with a great setup guide and a walkthrough of a shorter game for your first play. It also comes with a handy separate supplementary guide to all the various weapons and power-ups on offer (this is an FPS simulation after all – what it be without a bunch of crazy guns to choose from?).

Adrenaline is fairly straightforward to play. The board is separated into five to six rooms, made up of a total of 10-12 large spaces (rooms vary from one to four spaces in size). Each space will either have a ‘spawn point’ (where players materialise, and can pick up weapons) or an ‘ammo crate’ (where you’ll find both ammo and power-ups).

On a turn (taken clockwise around the table), a player will take any combination of two of the three available actions (so you can repeat one if you wish): move fast, move and pick up, or fire. Picking up will either be an ammo crate or a weapon – you can reload any of your weapons at the end of a turn as a free action (using a power-up is also a free action).

One of the nice things about the game is pretty much everything is done in threes, making it simple to learn quickly: you can have a maximum of three weapons, a maximum of three of each of the ammo types at any one time, and up to three power ups. It won’t stop at least one player repeatedly asking you though!

adrenaline-weaponsThese very basic core rules allow two key elements of the game to shine through: the variety of weapons (every one of the 20 available works differently) and the way players score victory points.

Weapons range from close combat (you need to be in the same square) to long range – some even need you not to be able to see your opponent to be able to shoot them! The ones that do more damage cost more ammo to reload – while most weapons also have extra effects you can utilise by spending extra ammo (some effects are even free – especially on lower damage weapons). The weapons stay on theme too, so anyone used to using the likes of tractor beams, sniper rifles and rocket launchers will be right at home.

But what really gives it the FPS theme is the way you score. Each player is essentially an area you’re trying to control by doing damage to them. Players can take 11 points of hits before having to respawn – at which point they’re ‘scored’. First hits, majority, and ‘overkill’ damage is rewarded before the player gets right back into the action. But on their return they’re worth a few less points (although they keep all their gear), making players who have yet to be defeated more tempting targets.

The four sides

adrenaline-player-boardThese are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Adrenaline has its name for a reason: as you take damage your adrenaline builds, making each action a little better the closer you are to defeat (for example, once you’ve taken six damage you can move a space before you fire). But there is nothing you can do in terms of healing, taking cover etc – this is a knife fight in a telephone box and any thought of strategy needs to leave you mind once you’re tooled up and ready to go. This is purely tactical from then on.
  • The thinker: Despite its shiny exterior and plastic minis, Adrenaline is really a maths challenge in FPS clothing – but that’s not a bad thing. I’d be tempted to describe it more as an abstract than a euro, but the theme does find a way through – just not in the pacing. There is definitely room for analysis paralysis here, as the area majority scoring mechanisms mean you’re constantly calculating where you can eek out an extra point. Games will be close, so every point can really count.
  • The trasher: Designer Filip Neduk is clearly an FPS fan, as the game covers all the right bases. As well as what’s mentioned above you’ll find overkill (kick them while they’re done for extra points), tagging (extra damage you’ll do later as you’re familiar with the target) and final frenzy (everyone’s actions ramp-up in the final round). Played in the right spirit, and more importantly at the right pace, this can give you something close to that shooter feel – but if players start to try and grock it, the game goes from FPS to chess. Luckily the barrier to entry is low, so you can easily teach it to non-board gaming computer game friends.
  • The dabbler: The minis make Adrenaline bright and colourful, the simple rules make it accessible, and the way players immediately come back after running out of health keeps everyone in the game throughout – all big positives for me. You can get a bit of smack talk going too, but if anything the game lacks a little bit of mayhem: there are no random factors and very few laugh-out-loud moments, which I really was expecting when I came into it and looked at all the big weapons. But as someone who doesn’t usually like area majority games, I was still pleasantly surprised and would happily play the game again – especially as it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Key observations

adrenaline-miniDuring your first game, you’ll realise your combo of weapons is the key to success. There are a number of ways to go – all cheap and low damage, weapons that work well in tandem in a turn etc. But this strategic element is likely to be done in your first two or three (of many) turns. From then on, its a rinse-and-repeat tactical battle all the way.

Some love it. Adrenaline is described as simple, smooth, fast and fun by many; an exciting and innovative take on euro game mechanisms (area control and resource management) that captures its theme with skill. The good range of weapon combos offer good replayability, while each turn offers a unique combination of tactical choices as players move around the board.

Others, not so much. The weapon use iconography is a mess, meaning you’ll have players queuing up for the gun manual – especially in your first few games. And once you know what your weapons do, it can become ‘analysis paralysis’ time as you try and work out who to shoot and in what order. And of course, as everyone moves/collects ammo/dies each round, there’s zero chance at forward planning.

For those not sold on the theme, it can quickly become repetitive despite some clever mechanisms (the moving area control element is particularly compelling). It can be seen as a min/max puzzle – rendering it boring, rather than adrenaline fuelled.

I should also mention the extra modes of play that are in the rules: ‘domination’ and ‘turret’. Both add a few extra rules, but really much extra fun – they make it more tactical without adding the strategy some players might be craving. You can also add a ‘bot’ to the mix, but all this really does is prolong each player’s turn a little while doing minimal damage and adding equally minimal enjoyment.

Many would like to see a bigger map and a longer game time as an option, which could certainly appeal, adding a genuine layer of strategy (and perhaps interesting team play) – although you’d need one hell of a table to put it on.

Conclusion

adrenaline-battleFor me, this is one of those rare occasions where I’ve fallen for the hype. The original theme, the look and the publisher’s credentials made me sure I’d love it – but my radar was definitely off on Adrenaline.

The tight map doesn’t sit well with the abstracted euro damage dealing, while there’s an almost palpable lack of chaos: more like a maths test in a library than a knife fight in a phone box. I’m not usually a big fan of random, but this game is surely crying out for misfires, splash damage rolls and random effect cards.

But at the same time I have no complaints. It looks fantastic, is easy to learn and quick to play, with a great rulebook and some innovative design mechanisms. Sadly though, there just isn’t quite enough adrenaline in the box for me – and I’ve never been an FPS fan, so it holds no nostalgia value.

I for one won’t be keeping it, but it’s is a game I’d urge everyone to try. I’ve been unable to predict which of my friends would like it, and while no one has hated the game it has been about 60-40 like-meh. In the end, I find myself asking: if this is the best way to simulate an FPS game as a euro? The answer is probably yes – but that doesn’t automatically make it a great game. But I’m sure many will disagree.

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

X Nimmt: A four-sided game review

x-nimmtX Nimmt!* (that’s the first and last time I kowtow to it’s official exclamation mark) is a small box family card game for two to four players which takes 20-30 minutes to play (and should cost you less than a tenner).

As with all Amigo card games it is very light on rules, but does have a little extra to think about than many of the games in this series – making the ages 8+ on the box feel about right. That said, you can easily introduce it to non-gamers.

You’ll find just over 100 high quality, linen finish cards in the box, along with the rules – that’s it. I have to say I wasn’t overly taken with the colour schemes on a lot of the cards (purple and green? Yum…), but the numbers and symbols are easy to read so the colours weren’t a hindrance. They aren’t even necessary, as they have no impact on play – they simply help you spot cards of different scoring values.

Teaching

x-nimmt-in-playAnyone familiar with 6 Nimmt will be on very familiar ground here – especially for the first half of the rules explanation. All the cards are shuffled and each player is dealt eight.

Three cards are also placed face-up in the centre of the table to show the start of the three scoring rows – with the rest of the cards put to one side for the rest of the round. You’ll play two rounds, with the player having the lowest total score winning the game.

On each turn, each player chooses a card from their hand and places it face-down on the table. Once everyone has chosen these are revealed simultaneously and then placed onto the scoring rows in number order – not player order – with the lowest card placed first.

All cards must be placed sequentially onto their most suitable rows (ie, the one with the closest number to it): so if the 25 and 23 cards are currently at the front of two of the rows, if you play your 30 it would have to go on the 25 – while if you played the 24 it would have to go on the 23. It’s easier to do than explain, and people pick it up in no time. You only get to choose where to lay if you play a card lower than any of those at the heads of rows: you win a row of your choice, and replace it with the card you just laid.

But it’s not only laying low cards that wins you cards- and this is where X Nimmt starts to differ from 6 Nimmt. Each row has a card heading it which are numbered 3, 4, or 5. If you place the card that would be the third, fourth or fifth in the appropriate row, you win the cars there are the card you play starts the new row.

x-nimmt-x-rowAs you’ve no doubt realised, ‘winning’ cards is a bad thing. As well as its number (between 1-100) each card also has a number of bulls heads depicted on it (between one and seven). Those will be your score at the end, with a score of 0 being a perfect round.

In 6 Nimmt, cards you won simply go into a score pile to be totalled: but X Nimmt adds a layer of strategy to the mix. Each player also gets an ‘X’ card (see what they did there?) which they lay in front of them; this counts as the start of their own personal row, which works in the same way as the others (cards in it must go in ascending order).

When you win cards, you choose one of them to add to your X row – the others go into your hand. If you have to add a card to your X row but can’t do so sequentially, the cards already there become your score pile and a card you just won starts a new X row.

A round ends when one player plays the last card from their hand. Any cards left in your hand are worth the bulls heads on them, while those in your scoring pile count double (ouch). But cards still in your X row don’t score at all – so it is possible to win several rows of cards, but still end up with a 0 score thanks to good management of your X row.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: While I love the daft fun of 6 Nimmt, X Nimmt just feels like a better game to me. I’m still more than happy to play the original, which is at its best with five or six, but at the same time i’m a little confused while this version was limited to four players. Perhaps because 6 plays so well 5-6 and they didn’t want to cannibalise their own audience? Maybe it will say 5-10 on the box in future? Either way, I’ll be tempted to play X Nimmt with five and six, adding a six-card row to replace the three-card one, so see how it works.
  • The thinker: I was a little on the fence about 6 Nimmt, as while it is well designed it felt a little too ‘random party game’ for me. But X Nimmt gives far more opportunities to be strategic – both thanks to having to place cards into your hand and into your X row. You need to be considering the game state (how many rounds do you think are left?) to make the right decisions, and the times where there is a definite one card worth playing have drastically reduced.
  • The trasher: I love 6 Nimmt because its hilarious watching players pick up massive scores on cards – and because there’s not a mountain of skill involved, it’s even funny when it happens to me. But with X Nimmt you can sometimes actually choose who to stitch up – especially when you’re laying a low card, so getting to choose which row to take. This can make it a little bit personal if you want it to, which as far as i’m concerned can only be a good thing!
  • The dabbler: I love 6 Nimmt, but it was very poor with two or three players (it says it plays from 2-10 on the box) as the rows took too long to fill up and while it kind of worked, it was very unsatisfying. The simple change to three different lengths of row – especially with the super-short three-card one – means you’re getting to the fun of the game (picking up the cards!) much more quickly. However this does mean people think more, which slows it down – there is real room for ‘analysis paralysis’, as players try to work out their best moves.

Key observations

x-nimmt-x-345-rowsIf you didn’t like the abstract card play behind the original 6 Nimmt, this is unlikely to convert you – unless you just saw it as a luck-fest, in which case you should definitely give X Nimmt a try.

The potential flip-side of this is the fact people can now grock things more now – especially as cards go into your hand, meaning people start to remember what still has to come out again. It’s only a small memory element, but it will annoy some; while AP players may well slow things a little, compared to the original.

While X Nimmt generally seems to have been received as an improvement on the original, the low player count is raising some eyebrows – especially as it doesn’t seem to be necessary. Most of the game is still simultaneous, so more players shouldn’t add to the game length by much – especially as the game is shorter now anyway.

Conclusion

Overall I’m very happy with X Nimmt. The new rules add a small amount of complexity but a lot of strategy and interesting decisions, while bringing a good ‘nimmt’ game to the lower player counts. I think the two should sit side-by-side in any good game collection, and certainly will be doing so in mine – X Nimmt compliments 6 Nimmt, rather than replacing it.

* I would like to thank Amigo Spiele for providing a copy of the game for review.