Game design: With 1,000 games released at Essen, is due diligence still possible?

I caught up with Board Game Geek ‘news guy’ Eric Martin at the Essen Spiel press event. Journalists are a cynical bunch, so it was no surprise we took a bit of a sideways look at the current gaming landscape.

The main point I made was that, in a world where getting on for 1,000 hobby board games are being released at a single gaming event, how can designers, reviewers and even publishers to do their due diligence? Is it any surprise the number of average games grows while the number of outstanding ones stays the same, when it is impossible to track what’s being released?

This thought had started to manifest before the event. After going through a list of Essen 2018 releases, I had a slightly shorter wish list than in previous years. Talking to friends I heard a similar story: more games, less of interest. While you can put a bit of this down to a growing cynicism from being long in a hobby, it seemed too common to be just that. So what was it and why?

This is a bit of a stream of consciousness, so please take it as such.

Are the big publishers getting safer?

The majority of games I wanted at Essen were in halls 4 and 5, where the smaller publishers tend to live. I had practically nothing in halls 1 and 3, which is home to the bigger stands.

As I wandered past those bigger publishers, it was noticeable their games were unsurprisingly family oriented, short and pretty, but also largely bereft of originality. Sure, some had clever little tricks (Solenia being a good example, or The River) but they didn’t offer staying power. These were games that would win win you over with their looks, but that you’d be done with within a few months/plays.

You can argue in the current climate this makes sense: put out a pretty game that’s easy to play and teach (to maximise con sales and video reviewer coverage) and that people will enjoy until next Essen, when you can sell them the next game. Music, film, video gaming – even consumer electronics such as phones – already work this way, so why not board games too?

It feels like a ‘big business’ move into an arena that isn’t used to it – and may not be right for it. When you look at the likes of Hasbro, who have been nailing this market for years, the North Star Games approach (make a few games and back them to the hilt over the years) makes sense. So why are likes of Asmodee, Blue Orange, Iello and the rest seemingly going largely against that philosophy? They do have back catalogues, but the number of annual new releases is very, very high.

More customers – but the same sized print runs?

One reason is clearly the new gamer that has been created by the age of the Kickstarter: hype-hunting, cult-of-the-new driven and desperate for ‘value’ – even if they have to pay £100+ to get it. A game isn’t a real game unless it comes with exclusive content only available on pre-order – even if said content is being made up on the fly as the millions of KS dollars role in.

But then we keep being told we have more new gamers than ever before, so surely the minis companies can continue to have their fun while the rest of us go back to having a fantastic annual crop of games we can actually manage – and that are properly developed and then loved (by both publisher and gamer) on release? Games with enough depth to survive more than a handful of plays?

These still happen, of course, but as I stated earlier – the number doesn’t seem to be growing, despite a doubling of actual games being released each year over the last decade (or less). We’ll always get the Azuls and Gaia Projects, but now we have to wade through so many more mediocre games to get to them: and many really good games are being lost in the malaise, ditched to history after a 5,000-copy print run because they weren’t well supported or covered.

So what do we design – and what do we play?

As a reviewer and designer, I’m lucky to play a larger number of new releases – pre and post publication – than most. But with even the Dice Tower’s Tom Vasel admitting that, as a full time reviewer, he can only play a fraction of releases – where does that leave the rest of us in terms of due diligence?

As a designer, I want to see what’s being done: to spot great new mechanisms and designers, as well as seeing the directions publishers are taking in terms of releases (so as to better know who to pitch my designs to). And I’m sure it’s the same for publishers: they need to know the trends, to help them decide what is worth publishing and what isn’t. I’m sure a lot of releases branded as ‘copy cats’ were probably done out of understandable ignorance rather than deliberate shenanigans.

As a journalist, I’m peppered with requests to cover KS games by people who don’t want me to play them: just to cut-and-paste their press releases, or do a paid rules overview. The games I want to play (by proper publishers) I have to hunt down, hassle, buy or borrow and then – even if I review them – it may do the game no good, because it has been completely overlooked by the hype machine. A lot of really good games simply aren’t getting a fair crack of the whip.

And publisher fatigue is definitely starting to show. I know of several publishers who were hardly looking at any new designs at Essen this year, while others were reported to be looking but with no real intention of taking on any new projects. Others have freely admitted to over-extending in terms of releases – meaning they didn’t have the resources to fully back them in the market – while talk of scaling back the number of games is another common topic of conversation.

Is it even a problem?

Top designer Reiner Knizia got by ignoring other designs and just carrying on regardless (or so the story goes). But rumour has it he has lately been playing more games – and his output is improving because of it after a poor run of form (at least by his own high standards).

But generally I think it is a problem. Retailers can’t stock everything and invariably end up with a lot of crap stock no one wants. Customers end up with as many bad games as good and, where once the secondary market thrived, even that is now reeling under the weight of games being ditched. Publishers are in an annual release-test-develop-release cycle that sees them flying by the seat of their pants, while designers are carried along on the same wave. It’s exciting sure, but ultimately unsustainable.

I expect the next few years will continue in the same cycle: uninspiring, short life cycle, family friendly games will continue to dominate the big publisher release schedule while the innovation will come in 1,000-5,000 print run releases from smaller publishers: these niche publishers will, by dint of caring about a smaller part of the market, be at the right end of the due diligence scale but will be in a market reminiscent of a decade ago.

But designers hoping to make a living will be encouraged to make games for the lowest common denominator, knowing that’s what the bigger publishers want: games they can make pretty and tie to a theme, while not over-burdening the new gamers coming into the market with too many surprises.

I also think the big boys will continue to extend their print runs as the hobby grows, but very rarely into the mega seller category – because they’re largely not making games for that reason (as I spoke about recently, variability doesn’t equal replayability – good game design does). It’s going to take a drop in releases, and a tightening of focus, to get the production cycle of the hobby back on track. It’ll mean more due diligence from designers and publishers, but that can only be good for the hobby.

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

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

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

Fool

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

Decrypto

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

Coimbra

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

Underwater Cities

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

Passing Through Petra

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

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

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

Con report: Cologne & Essen Spiel 2018

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

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

My Essen Spiel 2018

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

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

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

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

Games and gaming at Spiel: Hits and misses

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

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

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

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

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

Outside the halls: Essen itself

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

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

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

Cologne: Second-hand board game paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essen Spiel 2018: Reviews incoming!

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

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

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

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

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

There will be quite a few more (Including Discover: Lands UnknownOrbisRaids, KeyForge and Magnastorm) arriving by mail in the coming months too, so expect plenty of post-Essen goodness!

Close – but no cigar

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

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

Board game Top 10: Essen Spiel 2018 wishlist

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

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

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

Delete! Delete!

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

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

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

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

My Top 6 Essen 2018 new releases (so far)

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

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

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

Plus 4 things I need at Essen Spiel…

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

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

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