Board game Top 10: Essen spiel.digital 2020 wish list

It’s about that time for my annual Essen spiel.digital 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 spiel.digital 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…

Essen Spiel 2019 roundup: 10 short board game reviews

Welcome to my first (only?) Essen Spiel 2019 roundup. Ten games I’ve played that were released at the show, or shortly before/after.

With more than 1,000 games released at Essen Spiel 2019, you simply can’t cover them all. I’ve reviewed a few already (see links below), but here you’ll find shorter reviews of games I’ve played just once or twice.

Some of these simply aren’t to my taste, or I’d struggle to get them played, despite being good games. Others are long and will take a lot of time and plays to cover in detail. I may get to them later in the year, but with the clamour for fast reviews they’ll be off the hotness lists by the time I get to them. Others are simply proving tricky to get hold of. Or I absolutely hated them! See if you can guess which are which…

But I hope you’ll find something worth checking out, as there are some real gems here.

Alice in Wordland (3-8 players, 15-30 mins)

There’s been a spate of word games released over the past few years, but this is a great addition to the genre. Against the clock, players try and think of a word in a given category – but that doesn’t include particular letters.

The game also has player powers and a scoring system for those that want extra complexity, but it’s a hoot either way. And if you still need convincing, it comes with a musical teapot timer.

Bus (3-5 players, 120 mins)

This is a re-release of the old Splotter game from 1999. It has a very high price point for a game with frankly poor art, graphic design and component quality. Game play features incredibly aggressive network building and pick-up-and deliver. So, if you don’t have a head for a spatial puzzle and a love for player interaction, forget it. It has many fans, but I found it dated, frustrating and overly long for what it was.

Barrage (1-4 players, 120+ mins)

One of the heavier euro games released at Essen Spiel 2019, Barrage is half action selection and half spatial puzzle.

While the action selection and resource management are pedestrian, thankfully the real game happens on the board. It’s a mean network builder with very clever interaction and multiple routes to victory.

But it is dogged with dodgy components (wait for a reprint) and was far too heavy and punishing for a simple soul such as me. But it will be a deserving hit for the heavy euro crowd.

Crystal Palace (2-5 players, 120+ mins)

While considered almost as heavy as Barrage, I got on with Crystal Palace much better. Largely because the interaction is more forgiving and short-term, with more emphasis put on building your own tableau. It’s a dice placement action selection game, with the twist that you choose (then pay for) the dice faces you want. It works very well, as long as you’re willing to wrestle a tough economic puzzle throughout.

Dizzle (1-4 players, 30 mins)

A fabulous little roll-and-write that may go to the top of this particular pile for me. The push-your-luck element works well, scoring is simple, and there’s a bit of interaction.

It’s probably cleverer than That’s Pretty Clever. And has the added addition of having more complex sheets in the box, much like Galaxy Trucker.

So, as you perfect the simpler sheets you simply move on up to the next level. A great game with real replay value.

Hurlyburly (2-4 players, 15 mins)

If you’ve ever played Rhino Hero, imagine if you each had a tower – and were firing catapults at each other. That’s Hurlyburly – and it’s every bit as fun as it sounds. It’s that rare breed of family game that all ages can have fun and be good at, while having enough extra bits to keep gamers happy too. Upgrade your tower, build up defences, then fail miserably to hit anything. Proper, proper fun.

Jaws (2-4 players, 60 mins)

Fans of thematic games may get a kick out of this one-versus-all luck fest. In part one, 1-3 players try and find and attack the shark (the other player) as it terrorises the beaches. Think: sub-Scotland Yard.

The faster you hit it, the more equipment you’ll have for part two (or vice versa). Then, it’s out to sea for the showdown. Think: any ‘high rolls equal more hits’ action game. But with less strategy. A lot less.

Outback Crossing (2-6 players, 30-45 mins)

I really wanted to like this one. It’s a light tactical family game, with the tension being in whether to make columns better or claim them for yourself. The earlier you claim, the more other people can mess with your scoring capability. A bit like the Coloretto series, but different enough to be intriguing. Unfortunately, it falls between two stools. Too fiddly and thinky for youngsters and too random and fragile for gamers. Shame.

Point Salad (2-6 players, 30 mins)

This had to be good to get over the punny title – and it was. It’s a clever small-box filler card game, where you either grab veg or scoring cards each turn.

Scoring cards can be contradictory (some give minus points for certain veg), but you can always flip them over to their veg side later.

Yup, it’s hard to explain in 100 words. But basically, it’s set collection where you also choose your scoring conditions.

Trails of Tucana (1-8 players, 15 mins)

This is a route-building roll-and-write using cards instead of dice (as in Welcome To…). Here you’re trying to connect locations to score points and trigger bonuses. It works well and is receiving some good reviews, but I never felt overly engaged. I think this was because it is very solitary. And that’s strange, as that isn’t usually a problem for me. I think I just want a bit more interactivity in a game of this style.

Essen Spiel 2019 roundup

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Essen Spiel 2019 roundup. If this is a style of post you want to see more of, let me know in the comments below.

Essen 2019 game reviews – live and incoming

And so the madness is over for another year. More than 200,000 game fans, checking out more than 1,500 new game from 1,200 exhibitors. So it;s time for some Essen 2019 game reviews.

I always do a post highlighting the reviews I’ll do in the coming months – and here it is. I picked up a few less than usual, avoiding heavier games, but hopefully there will plenty to pique your interest. And yes, I’m sure this initial list will grow in the coming months.

Essen 2019 game reviews

  • 1987 Channel Tunnel (2 players, 45 mins, Looping Games). A tight two-player worker placement game with a unique theme and in a small box.
  • The Artemis Project (1-5 players, 1-2 hours, Grand Gamers Guild). A cut-throat worker placement game with some familiar yet fresh mechanisms.
  • ArtSee (2-4 players, 30 mins, Renegade). A clever take on set collection and tableau building, where you have to keep a close eye on your opponents.
  • Dawn of Mankind (2-5 players, 45-60 mins, TMG). A worker placement euro continuing the ‘lots of game in a small box’ trend.
  • Dizzle (1-4 players, 30 mins, Schmidt). A roll-and-write that keeps everyone involved; and with multiple levels of difficulty across different sheets.
  • A Fistful of Meeples (2-4 players, 30 mins, Final Frontier). A fast-playing and interactive worker placement game, set into a mancala-style board.
  • Ishtar (2-4 players, 45 mins, Iello). A gorgeous, simple abstract tile-laying game packed with interesting choices.
  • It’s a Wonderful World (1-5 players, 30-60 mins, Boite de Jeu). A fast card drafting game with a cascading engine building/set collection system.
  • Kingdomino Duel (2 players, 20 mins, Blue Orange): A roll-and-write version of the SdJ-winning domino game, with added spell powers.
  • La Cour des Miracles (2-5 players, 40-60 mins, Lumberjacks Studio). A lively, interactive twist on worker placement, area majorities and secret worker strength.
  • No Return (2-4 players, 30 mins, Moses). Abstract numbers game with solid Bakelite tiles, with an intriguing player-driven tipping point mechanism.
  • Pharaon (1-5 players, 30-75 mins, Catch Up). Worker placement and resource management combine on an action wheel, with forward planning essential.
  • Robin of Locksley (2 players, 30-45 mins, Wyrmgold). Racing game where two players make (chess) knight-style moves to claim what’s required to progress.
  • Sierra West (1-4 players, 60 mins, Board&Dice): Part deck-builder, part resource management, part action selection, all modular euro.
  • Welcome To… Summer expansion (2-6 players, 25 mins, Deep Water Games). A new neighbourhood for the popular ‘flip and write’ game.

The ‘hopefully’ list

I’ve also got my eye on: Conspiracy, Cooper Island, Crystal Palace, Die Macher (reissue), Fast Sloths, Maracaibo, Miyabi, Paris: City of Lights, Paris: New Eden. Plus the ‘Turmoil’ expansion for Terraforming Mars.

Please post in the comments if there are games you want to see reviewed and think I’d like. With more than 1,000 games coming out it is easy to miss some real gems!

(Although, as always, a shout-out needs to go to the fabulous Tabletop together Tool).

Board game Top 10: Essen 2019 wishlist

Essen 2019 is almost upon us. If you’re not aware, Essen Spiel is the annual release fest for board games. Every publisher worth its meeples is there, along with tens of thousands of gamers.

I usually spend the two months leading up to the event slowly going through the 1,000+ releases, slowly building my anticipation. Not this time. A two-week holiday to America, plus a bunch of real life stuff, has forced my research into a tiny window. And I mean tiny. I forced my research into a week. And I’m actually pretty fascinated to see if it makes the slightest bit of difference (guess: probably not).

I probably wouldn’t have spent as much time as usual whatever the circumstances. My patience for the ridiculous amount of games debuting each year is giving me serious release fatigue. And it’s not just me: I hear that more and more, from everyone from publishers to gamers. Yet the steady influx of newcomers to the hobby is proving too tempting for said publishers to resist. And while those same suckers – sorry, punters – continue to fund dross on Kickstarter, that number is unlikely to decrease.

How can I possibly sift through 1,000 new games?

Glad you asked. Using the Tabletop Together website and its fabulous Essen tool, that’s how. You can use it to view all 1,000+ games and watch videos, look at stats and link through to rulebooks etc.

Once you’ve done that, you can take your nerdiness to the next level. Print hall maps showing which hall your chosen games are in, rating them from ‘need’ (cos we all need games) to ‘ignore’. Now you can also share your list with friends, look at the top games (as chosen by all the other users) or look at game stats. These range from what these picks will cost you (ouch) through to how many games you’ve picked in a number of categories. You can really geek out.

It’s also worth mentioning Board Game Geek has upped its game in this respect. It’s own Essen list now has some pretty good functionality, but is largely still less useful (for me) than the TT one. However, the BGG list is worth looking at if you want to do pre-orders, as many games can be booked directly through the one site. This is a great innovation and has proven very popular with Essen attendees.

Essen 2019 – Top 10 anticipated smaller releases

This list excludes games that will probably end up on a table near me soon (big publisher releases, Knizia games etc). These are games I think I may miss out on if I don’t check them out myself (links go to my reviews – or each game’s BGG page):

  • It’s a Wonderful World (1-5 players, 30-60 mins): This sci-fi themed euro sees you card drafting and tableau building, setting up an engine to complete projects to get more powers and points. Simple and short, but using a lot of mechanisms I really enjoy. Nothing new, but enough big ticks to hit my list.
  • 1987: Channel Tunnel (2, 45 mins): 1906 San Francisco was a surprise hit for me last Essen. In the same series, this two-player game action selection game looks to have some interesting mechanisms. There’s mini tech trees, upgrades and some interaction – much more than you’d expect from a small game.
  • Outback Crossing (2-6, 30-40 mins): This fast-playing abstract game has lovely cartoony artwork and simple game play. On turns, you either draw a tile or claim a row/column to score at the end. So it should have a nice tension: claim lines (max three) to try and build them up later, or place and hope to claim them later.
  • No Return (2-4, 30 mins): Another underused mechanism is variable phases; where players decide at which point to move from phase one of the game to the second. This does it in a simple abstract mathsy game, where you draw tiles and place them on your board – before later trying to score them.
  • A Fistful of Meeples (2-4, 30 mins): I like a good mancala/rondel game and this looks to have boiled things down into a simple yet interesting puzzle. Different coloured meeples interact with the spaces in different ways, leaving you plenty of options in how to score your points.
  • La Cour des Miracles (2-5, 40 mins): An action selection game with a twist, as your ‘workers’ have a hidden number – which is revealed when an error fills up. The player with the highest numbered workers getting an extra bonus. This sounds like a really nice twist on a genre I already enjoy.
  • Robin of Locksley (2, 30-45 mins): New publisher, old designer (Uwe Rosenberg). A two-player race to complete tasks by claiming and manipulating tiles from a central display. If he’s got it right, this could be the perfect game for Sarah and me to play at the end of an evening.
  • The Magnificent (1-4, 60-90 mins): I enjoyed Santa Maria from these guys, even if it was rough around the edges. This looks similarly interesting in a ‘loads of euro mechanisms in a box’ way. You power can increase with each action in a turn, leading to interesting decisions on when to trigger your various powers.
  • The Artemis Project (1-5, 60-75 mins): Dice for worker placement is usually fun and here there’s a clever use of limited resources. Lower dice are brought nicely into the mix, as you get less stuff, but definitely get it. Add tough competition for upgrades and engine building, and I’m definitely in.
  • Sierra West (1-4, 40-60 mins): An interesting action selection system looks to elevate this game above most of the competition. While a scenario-based set-up also promises extended replayability. Already receiving positive reviews, so now firmly on my radar.

Essen 2019 – also on the radar

  • Expansions: Both Welcome To… and Terraforming Mars are favourites and the upcoming expansions for them look interesting. Welcome To… has ‘thematic neighbourhoods’ – from zombies to egg hunts. While TM: Turmoil offers further strategic depth via global events.
  • Oldies: A couple of reprints have caught my eye. I kickstarted Egizia already. I also have my eye on Bus, the classic Splotter Spellen route-building, pick-up-and-deliver and worker placement game. As well as Die Macher; German election game I’ve played once and loved it.

Final thoughts

What was refreshing this year was how much information was available about most of these games long before the show itself.

Lack of information pre-Essen has been a bane of planning up until now. This is the first year almost all games have a video, rulebook or review well in advance. So well done to the publishers for that.

But it’s also worth noting how many games looked fine – but not original in any way. I guess its inevitable, with so many releases and so many new publishers/designers. And sure, the older I get the more cynical I am. But it still feels like a largely disappointing Essen 2019 crop at this point.

For older musings on Spiel, check out my previous Essen related posts.

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.