Essen 2021 board game mini reviews: Caesar’s Empire, Furnace, Goetia, Grasshopper Poker & Riverside

With more than 1,000 games released at this year’s Essen Spiel, I guess it was inevitable my lazy team of one would miss a few of them. And that’s not to mention the limited the logistical nightmare of getting 1,000 new board games into two suitcases. So I’m embarrassed to admit that around 98% managed to get away…

You can find a full list of the Essen 2021 board games I’ve reviewed here – alongside a list of others I’ll be reviewing in the coming months. But as a little bonus, below you’ll find five mini reviews of games I’ve also played that were at the show. I only played each of them once, for a variety of reasons – so please bear that in mind when reading. But they’ve all had a fair amount of buzz, so I thought they were worth giving a little detail on here.

All were available via board game comparison website Board Game Prices at the time of posting. And using this link before you purchase games will help my blog. Cheers! The ‘age’ mentioned below is my interpretation – not the one printed on the box.

Caesar’s Empire (2021, 2-5 players, 30-60 mins, ages 8+)

This was a bit of an exclusive as it wasn’t on sale at the show – thanks to the awesome Peter from Tabletop Together for teaching. (The game is starting to become available at time of writing.) Caesar’s Empire is a light family game. It combines simple route building on a main board with a basic set collection end game scoring system.

Starting from Rome (in the centre of the board), players take turns adding their armies to a route heading to a new city. You collect a resource from the city you arrive at. Then each player with armies on the route to this new location (back to Rome) score points. That’s pretty much that.

While basic, there are genuine decisions to make, making it a great family game. And there is a definite game arc. You know what resource is in each city. So you can plan to try and get lots of the same type, or a full set of different ones (both score on a sliding scale). But as everyone can see how this is panning out, you can try to scupper each other’s plans. Or get in on a route early you think will be popular, to score residual points as it grows. The board is clear, the Asterix-style minis cute, and overall I was extremely impressed. For a game I’d say is simpler than Ticket to Ride, but with no luck beyond setup, it could be a real winner. Although I would question replay value over a large number of plays.

Furnace (2021, 2-4 players, 60 mins, ages 10+)

This became one of my top wish list games of Essen 2021 after reading about its clever draft/auction system. Limited cards are available each round and players take turns placing bidding chips on them. Each player has four chips numbered 1-4. And no two chips of the same number can be placed on the same card. So if you place a four, you know you’re winning that card. But cards you place a chip on but don’t win give you a one-off benefit – and you may want that more than the card.

Cards you win are used to build a euro game style engine. You use a resource (often gained from those one-off benefits) with a card to turn it into another resource, which is then used to gain points etc. Rinse, repeat. The game is rating highly on Board Game Geek and has proven popular. So other opinions are available – but I really didn’t like it. The auction part was exactly what I’d hoped for. But I found the engine building part incredibly tedious. It was as dry as its lack of theme suggests. And worse still, everything turned into everything else. I could see no way to genuinely differentiate yourself. And variation between plays will be minimal at best. A real disappointment, as it’s a great mechanism looking for a game.

Goetia: Nine Kings of Solomon (2021, 2-4 players, 2+ hours, ages 12+)

I usually target one or two heavier euro games each Essen and this one didn’t make the wish list cut. Unknown (to me) publisher and designers, plus a dark demonic theme, didn’t get my heart racing. But I was happy to get a chance to sit down and play it recently. What you get, theme aside, is a relatively straight forward worker placement game. But it has just enough little quirks to keep things interesting. Rather than having a board, action spaces are on cards. These move, get flipped and generally misbehave during the game, but not chaotically. So it keeps you on your toes, but in a good strategic way. Generally, you’re collecting resources to unlock extra workers, unique abilities or victory points.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Goetia. I like the idea of moving card-based worker placement spaces, such as in 1906 San Francisco, or The Sanctuary. And this similarly uses the concept to encourage and enhance passive interaction. For example, some actions around the edge of the card grid get cheaper as spaces in the middle are filled with workers. So you can set yourself up – or an opponent accidentally – for cheap actions. What stops me pulling the trigger on getting a copy was the length. While there was a pleasant arc, it went too long and dragged a little. But if you like a long and involved worker placement game, you should definitely check this one out.

Grasshopper Poker (2021, 2-4 players, 20 mins, ages 8+)

Only currently available as Heuschrecken Poker, this is the latest game from the makers of the fabulous Cockroach Poker. However, this is nothing like that. In so many ways.

Firstly, this is a simple trick-taking game with none of the bluff and silliness of Cockroach Poker. At least that game had bluffing, which partially explained the ‘poker’ reference in the title. Here, the only connection I can think of is to milk the popularity of that older game. In Grasshopper Poker, you have a small hand of cards and you play tricks to gain resources flipped over each round. Some you want, some you don’t. That’s about that.

I think having a famous elder sibling can work both for and against you. Sure, it will open some unexpected doors. But once those doors are open, you have to live up to the hype. Here, the grasshopper bares only artistic similarities to the cockroach. It works fine as a light trick-taking game. But it doesn’t feel fresh or original. So for me was disappointing. I didn’t hate it, but equally felt no desire to play it again. That said, I’ve played a lot of trick-takers over the years. And those that taught me it had really enjoyed it – so your millage may vary.

Riverside (2021, 1-6 players, 20-60 mins, ages 10+)

It has been nice to watch the evolution of roll-and-write games over the past few years. And Riverside is another nice step along this path. It has the usual personal sheet where you’re marking off boxes in the hope of triggering bonuses and combos to score points. The twist here is a central board with a river/boat you’re all travelling along. Where it randomly stops each turn limits your scoring options, while also acting as a game timer. The variability of the boat’s movement also means you’re not sure when the game will end, which can add a nice push-your-luck element to the end game.

I very much enjoyed my play of Riverside (shout out to the lovely Semi Co-op guys who we played it with). It almost came home with me – but I thought it would be the game that literally broke the reviewer’s back on the journey home. It’s pretty, well designed and felt just the right length and complexity for what it was. Having the central board also created a bit of table talk, which is always nice in a game which otherwise could easily become multiplayer solitaire. Sure, it’s a conceit – but we were genuinely chatting as we played, which is often a fault with roll-and-writes. For me, Riverside is one of the more interesting games in the genre right now.

Thanks to the lovely Tine and Mark, who between them taught four of these games to me in Essen and Eastbourne respectively. Cheers! I’ll beat you next time…

Essen Spiel 2021 reviews incoming: The aftermath

Essen Spiel 2021 reviews game pile

Despite a mountain of bureaucracy, the threat of ever changing COVID threat levels, and all the anxiety that went with both, I’m home. Now the more pleasant pressure of the Essen spiel 2021 review pile kicks in!

As the lovely folks over at the Semi Co-op webcomic so rightly point out in this week’s strip, its most definitely a first world problem. But with so many COVID restrictions still in place, getting games to the table is still a genuine issue.

I got through some hot titles while in Germany. I played Riverside with the Semi Co-op guys – a great roll-and-write with an added board element. I demoed euro game Hippocrates (solid) before it sold out and knocked Furnace off my wish list before I picked it up (nice auction mechanism, but the engine-building is meh and I can’t see any replay value). Ten was an OK (but unremarkable) lighter card game experience. While What’s That Sound? is a proper giggle of a party game (think charades, but you’re making noises to describe what the cards depict…). But there are a lot left to play…

Wednesday’s press event

Essen Spiel 2021 reviews (and incoming)

This might be the highest number of review games I’ve brought home in one year. I filled an entire massive suitcase and that included most games being packed Russian doll style, with expansions and smaller boxes crammed into every nook and cranny. Sixteen games in total, alongside two expansions – plus another two that arrived later. Anyone fancy a game of something…?

I’ll link these titles to the reviews as they happen, so feel free to bookmark the page and check back to see how I’m getting on. I’ve already played four of them at least once, which is a pretty good start. But if you’re jonesing for any of these in particular, let me know on Facebook or in the comments below and I’ll sneak them to the top of the pile.

A unique Essen Spiel experience

COVID clearly hit Spiel 2021 hard. There were around half the usual number of exhibitors. And an event that is usually heaving only occasionally felt busy, despite a marked increase in the spacing of stands and width of walkways. There was a noticeable lack of Americans, from press people to publishers. While Asmodee told all its companies to stay home (although a lot of them had representatives sneaking about having meetings).

It was a shame some hot games, and good friends, weren’t able to make it – but I loved the knock-on effect. A lot of smaller publishers got the extra love they so richly deserve. While it was much easier to get meetings. And once booked, they were much less stressful to get to! Moving around was a breeze and, generally, it all added up to a slightly more chilled con vibe. Without exception, those I spoke to about Spiel 2021 were really glad they’d made the (often considerable) effort to attend.

I usually avoid Kickstarters, but got a long overview of Federation, next year’s euro release from The Specialists (see below) publisher Explor8, at Spiel. It’s a colourful sci-fi worker placement game with several cool and unique twists.

It’s one of those games where the rules get out of the way quite fast, but the complexity comes in how and where you trigger actions. There are lots of ways to do the same thing – but each triggers different end game scores, majority influences or individual bonuses.

If you love this kind of passive interaction, this is a must to check out. The tense, interactive, clever and already funded Federation is on Kickstarter until October 30.

Essen Spiel 2021 games – My Top 20

Essen Spiel 2021 games

With the convention now just a few weeks away, I’ve put together this list of my Top 20 Essen Spiel 2021 games. I’ve been through to look at around 400 titles so far (thanks to the Tabletop together Tool) and narrowed it down to these, my top targets.

Of course, there will be loads more great games at the show and who knows what I’ll actually end up loving or hating. But these are the games that had the personality to make me want to definitely take a closer look. So please remember that as you look through the list. I have read the rules, watched a video, or read a pre-release review. Please don’t take these as recommendations.

don’t know much/anything about Essen? You can check out more details in my Essen Spiel 2021 preview. This post is purely going to be about the games. And it’s also going to largely be games that ma be a little more obscure, or less talked about. Because it’s often the hidden gems that really win me over at the show. Finally, I’d pay no heed to the age ranges. Many publishers put higher numbers on to avoid having to pay for expensive children’s games checks.

UPDATE: My game reviews linked by title below.

Essen Spiel 2021 games – under 60 minutes

  • Almadi (2-5 players, ages 10+). A simple yet restrictive tile-layer with clever, brain burning scoring makes this look right up my street.
  • Bad Company (1-6, 8+). Use your gang (dice actions) to pull off heists (complete cards) while staying ahead of the police (or instantly lose).
  • Furnace (2-4 players, ages 12+). A short and classic-feeling engine-builder, fuelled by a series of auctions where the losers get cool compensation effects instead.
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth (1-50, 10+). Cool looking flip-and-write with gorgeous art and some nice looking nice push-your-luck touches.
  • Matcha (2, 10+). Smart looking two-player game of bluff, where players secretly play then reveal cards in the hope of winning bids to make sets.
  • Neko Harbour: The Card Game (2-4, 12+). Beneath a cute penguin theme hides what looks like a clever, thinky, drafting and planning card game.
  • Neoville (2-4, 10+). A typically simple and elegant Phil Walker-Harding design, where players try to optimise a 4×4 tile grid to score points.
  • One Card Wonder (2-6, 8+). A light but thinky engine building, hand management and set collection game with asymmetric player abilities – all in a 15-minute experience.
  • Twinkle (1-4, 8+). Cool looking abstract dice game where you build constellations to score points in various ways (depending on dice colours).
  • Winter Queen (2-4s, 10+). Collect crystals to match patterns and score points in this interactive abstract strategy game.

Longer games (over an hour)

  • Ark Nova (1-4 players, ages 14+). A typically complex euro game from Feuerland Spiele. It’s card driven, with a clever action selection mechanism to manage.
  • Betwixt & Between (1-4, 14+). Clever and thinky tile layer, where players collect resources and place them in patterns to trigger spells ands abilities.
  • Bitoku (1-4, 12+). Stunning looking euro using cards and dice as actions, gathering resources and points while improving your hand cards to more powerful ones.
  • Messina 1347 (1-4, 12+). Build up the city and collect resources, while saving people from the plague. All the fun of the 14th Century…
  • Pessoa (1-4, 10+). A hand management and worker placement game with a nice theme (the Portuguese poet). Much like the man himself, it has some crazy but interesting ideas.
  • Settlement (1-4, 10+). Players draft tiles (terrain/buildings) and cards (artefacts/heroes) to build then activate their settlements in this territory building euro.
  • Shinkansen: Zero Kei (1-4, 10+). Collect cards to build up your bullet train, with each new carriage adding another ability or action – while also adding to your network.
  • Squaring Circleville (1-4, 12+). A rondel-style euro action selection game, where players ‘build’ in areas to gain majorities (for scoring) and improve their actions.
  • The Specialists (1-4, 14+). Use dice to recruit your ‘specialists’, putting together the perfect team to pull of the heist (via cascading skills and set collection).
  • Witchstone (2-4, 12+). Route building, an interesting domino action selection system, while making patterns with resources to trigger effects. all in a wizardy environment.

Some bigger Essen Spiel 2021 games also on my radar

Some classic franchises are getting milked a bit more this year – but they all actually look really interesting to me:

  • Azul: Queen’s Garden (2-4 players, 45-60 mins, ages 10+). This fourth version of the brilliant Azul changes things up with players needing to build their board, as well as collecting pieces to fill it. While also retaining some scoring/placement aspects from Summer Pavilion.
  • Kingdomino: Origins (2-4 players, 15 mins, ages 8+). This looks like a cute revision of the base game, with a few extra rules. I’ve not been overly taken by the previous iterations, but the original Kingdomino is an absolute classic.
  • Sobek: 2 Players (2 players, 10-30 mins, ages 10+). I enjoy the original Sobek – a light set collection card game with some clever ideas. This two player version is also set collection, but this time in the form of a card grid. you can play it now over at Board Game Arena.
  • Welcome to the Moon (1-6 players, 30 mins, ages 10+). I really enjoy the original Welcome To, but haven’t been overly impressed with the expansions of the Las Vegas version. But this has a campaign mode, alongside other big changes from the original.

Essen Spiel 2020 releases – game reviews live and incoming

The box art for Essen 2020 release Lost Ruins of Arnak

So the reviews are starting to come in for the Essen Spiel 2020 releases. I wasn’t massively excited about the list of titles this year, but there are bound to be some great new board games. And with just one review in from me so far, things are looking more hopeful than I’d thought.

This will be an evolving post until about March, so please bookmark and pop back once a month so. I’d love to go faster with the reviews, but the new UK lockdown is making things more difficult. I’ll update the list as review copies are confirmed and when reviews go live. As you can imagine, it’s quite a task for publishers to have to deal with all this via post/email rather than face to face, so I’m not holding my breath. But given time, the games will come! Some are already on the shelves, and more are on the way.

Essen Spiel 2020 releases: Game reviews – live

  • Anansi (1-5 players, 30-60 mins)
    Reprint, with new art, of clever trick-taking game Eternity.
  • Aqualin (2 players, 20 mins) Very light abstract with both players scoring the same pieces, but in different ways.
  • Bonfire (1-4 players, 1-2 hours) Point salad-y Stefan Feld euro game, at the high end of complexity for his game designs.
  • Calico (1-4 players, 45-60 mins): Mini review. A cute abstract featuring cats on quilts. Oh, and pattern matching.
  • Gods Love Dinosaurs (2-5 players, 45 mins) Light tile-laying game where players create sustainable food chains.
  • The Isle of Cats (1-4 players, 60-90 mins) Cute drafting and polyominoes game game about filling a ship with, erm, cats…
  • Lost Ruins of Arnak (1-4 players, 1-2 hours)
    Deck building, action selection and resource conversion combine in this well constructed midweight euro game.
  • Red Cathedral (1-4 players, 60-90 mins): Mini review. A light euro/gateway game with a dice-driven rondel at its heart.
    Remember Our Trip (Being played – 2-4 players, 30 mins) A drafting and pattern building game, with a clever evolving central ‘memory’ board.
  • Under Falling Skies (1 player, 20-30 mins)
    Sci-fi/save the world solo dice puzzler, including full campaign mode.
  • Welcome To New Las Vegas (1-9 players, 45 mins): Mini review. A more complex version of the excellent Welcome To, for those who need such a thing.
  • Winter Kingdom (2-4 players, 45-60 mins): Mini review. Kingdom Builder revisited, with some fixes for things that weren’t really broken.

Spiel reviews incoming

  • Baron Voodoo (Being played – 2-4 players, 45 mins) Gorgeous strategic abstract where you’re collecting dice and using special abilities.
  • Curious Cargo (Being played – 2 players, 45 mins) Pick up and deliver, tile placement and route building in this factory-based one-on-one puzzler.
  • Kompromat (Incoming – 2 players, 30 mins) A gamers take on Blackjack/Pontoon/21, with an element of Schotten-Totten thrown in.
  • Royal Visit (incoming – 2 players, 30 mins) Reprint of designer Reiner Knizia’s 2006 tug-of-war style hand management card game, Times Square.

Board game Top 10: Essen 2020 wish list

It’s about that time for my annual Essen 2020 wish list. But it really isn’t the same, is it? Despite enjoying Castle TriCon a few weeks back, the levels of excitement for this event are a long way the norm. Essen may not be glamourous as a city, but it beats my poky office…

I suppose you just have to think positive. Sure, my favourite recurring event of the year has been taken away from me. But I got my hotel money back and a voucher for Eurostar. And there are still hundreds of new board games being released in the run up to Christmas. So here we go again.

Of course for a board game journalist, not getting face-to-face time with publishers is an issue. As I’m not a big-time Charlie (read: YouTuber) I have to work pretty hard sometimes to get a look-in for review copies. Which is made much harder when the publisher is having to ship the games, rather than me collecting them at their booth. So for that reason, I don’t expect to get nearly as many first choices this time out. But finger’s crossed…

As for titles, the law of diminishing returns continues. I got the list down below 100 quite quickly. And from there I got it down to about 25 with little fuss. The lack of ‘live’ playing opportunities – especially with more than two – was a factor. But largely it was, “…and?” when looking at rulebooks. There seemed an even bigger dearth in originality this year. But again, when you’ve played hundreds of games, it’s going to be harder to find the ‘wow’ factor. And I should probably be happy. Those old favourites still need a lot of love!

Essen 2020 wish list – Top 10

I’m going to be very brief here, instead linking to the games on BGG for more info. In almost every case here I’ve simply flipped through the rules or watched a short video – so it’s probably better to let you draw your own conclusions! I’ll just list what drew me in.

  • Alma Mater (Eggertspiele, 2-4 players, 2-3 hours) – Lorenzo-ish looking euro, with decent looking player interaction and lots of tricky decisions. Worker placement, resource management and engine/tableau building.
  • Baron Voodoo (Lucky Duck, 2-4 players, 45 mins) – Gorgeous looking abstract, where you’re jumping over cubes (dice) to capture them. But also to use their special abilities. The basic mechanism looks nice, while the extra actions may elevate to the next level.
  • Beyond the Sun (Rio Grande, 2-4 players, 1-2 hours) – This spread sheet euro looks very cool. Tech trees open up new actions, but these arrive semi-randomly creating a lot of scope for genuine replay variety.
  • Bonfire (Pegasus) – Looks like a typical Feld euro; so what’s not to like? Spend tiles to do actions, gain resources, and (of course) score points. Timing looks crucial, which will hopefully create some light player interaction.
  • Gods Love Dinosaurs (Pandasaurus, 2-5 players, 30-45 mins) – Tile laying game where you expand and score different species. Looks light but thinky enough to draw you in, as you try to balance predators and their prey.
  • Mariposas (AEG, 2-5 players, 60 mins) – The new game from Elizabeth Hargrave, which looks a lot more interesting than Wingspan. The theme this time is butterflies, but what drew me in were some interesting movement and scoring mechanisms.
  • Monasterium (dlp, 2-4 players, 90-120 mins) – A dice-powered action selection euro. An absolute ton of choices and a proper victory point salad. Is going to stand or fall on how interesting the dice placement actually is. But looks like it could be a winner.
  • Remember Our Trip (dlp, 2-4 players, 30 mins) – A typically quirky Japanese theme that impacts the mechanisms. Draft tiles to score areas, which are then transferred to a growing central ‘memory’. Others can then replicate those memories for additional points.
  • Ride the Rails (Capstone, 3-5 players, 45-60 mins) – Super light-on-rules economic route builder. Competitive, fast moving and interactive but in a family level title. Seems a step sideways, rather than up from, the likes of Ticket to Ride
  • Warps Edge (Renegade, 1 player, 30-45 mins) – A direct competitor for CGE’s Under Falling Skies (below), this bag-building solo space battler looks deep enough to hit the target.

The next 10

In many ways these were just as interesting. And who knows? Maybe the real gems will come from here. I usually totally fail what turn out to be my eventual favourites anyway! I doubt this year will be any different…

  • Caretos (Mebo, 2-4 players, 45-60 mins) – Scare and capture people you move on a map.
  • Castles of Tuscany (Alea, 2-4, 45-60 mins) – Yes, it’s another Feld euro…
  • Codex Naturalis (Bombyx, 2-4, 30 mins) – Clever looking hand management game.
  • Curious Cargo (Capstone, 2, 45 mins) – Create pipes, fill trucks, screw opponent.
  • Glow (Bombyx, 2-4 players) – Gorgeous looking dice, set collection and racing game.
  • On the Origin of the Species (Artana, 2-4, 60 mins) – Interesting looking euro.
  • Pan Am (Funko, 2-4, 60 mins) – Routes and stocks with an Acquire-style twist.
  • Red Cathedral (Devir, 1-4, 30-120 mins) – Interactive looking euro game.
  • Rollecate (Gam’inBIZ, 1-4, 15 mins) – Light card/track building/luck pushing game.
  • Royal Visit (IELLO, 2, 30 mins) – Knizia’s ‘manipulate people on a track’ game (reissue).

Honourable mentions

I’m also looking forward to trying Aqualin (two-player abstract), Lost Ruins of Arnak (deck builder), Under Falling Skies (solo space battler) and Anansi (trick-taker). I haven’t included them above, as they’re already on the way. It’s going to be another busy winter…