Essen Spiel 2022 games preview

It will be a very odd Essen Spiel for me this year. I’ll be working on a stand in Germany for the first time (just a few cover shifts at Surprised Stare). I have no designs to pitch, have no publisher meetings planned, and I’m only taking one suitcase. I’ve told Sarah I’ll only be bringing about five games home. Which is probably going to be a lie. It is the plan though. Regardless of all that, I’ve still put together an Essen Spiel 2022 games preview.

My writing here has fallen off a cliff since I was made redundant (as an editor) and started working freelance (as a writer). I used to write to satisfy my desire to do what I love. At the same time, work meant reading other people’s nonsense. So now I’m back to getting paid to write, I’m struggling to write here. This has been coupled with the fact my local groups have fallen away almost completely for a variety of reasons. Don’t get me wrong – I still LOVE the hobby and playing games. It just isn’t happening much right now.

Games I’m looking forward to at Essen Spiel

As always, I used the fantastic Tabletop Together Tool to go through the list of Essen releases. There are well over 1,000 titles being released this year. Most I managed to get rid of with filters (co-ops, dexterity, real-time etc – be gone!). But it left a few hundred to flick through. I’ve got that down to less than 20 now, which seems a reasonable amount to check out over the three days I’ll be inside the Messe (I don’t do Saturday).

So here they are – the games that made my Essen Spiel 2020 games preview. To find more about any of the games, click through to them via the Tool linked above or go directly to Board Game Geek.

Take my money!

  • Starship Captains: The only one I’ve played (in demo form), as it’s the first design by my pal Peter Hoffgaard (of Tabletop together fame). CGE is a great publisher and they’ve made this look fantastic. I can’t wait to get a good look at the finished product. Worker placement, with a strong Star Trek-style theme of exploration.
  • 1998 ISS: I’ve got a lot of time for publisher Looping Games (such as 1906 San Francisco) and this is the latest in their ‘big games in a small box’ series.

Two-player games

  • The Two Heirs: Small box, low price point, mini rondel, building, and tile placement. All of those things, please.
  • Laniakea: A gorgeous-looking abstract about moving across a Hawaiian beach avoiding turtles. A sliding tile mechanism means it might be infuriating – hopefully in a good way.
  • Violet & the Grumpy Nisse: An asymmetric trick-taking game that looks gorgeous and has an ongoing drafting system that I’m intrigued by.

Multiplayer smaller box games (35 euros or less)

  • Overbooking: A short and light take-that card game about trying to grab the last few rooms in hotels. Has a bit of an In Front of Elevators look to it, and I enjoyed that.
  • Moesteiro: Nothing new here, but I like dice euros where low numbers do less but act first, which this has. and at a very low price point.
  • Maui: Looks like a lighter play on the Almadi idea, but no rulebook was available as I wrote this less than a week before the show.

Eurogames at 50 euros or less

  • Tribes of the Wind: This has a stunning Nausicaa look, plus an interesting sounding card mechanic where you can use the backs of your neigbours’ cards as resources.
  • Pessoa: Actually wanted this last Essen, but it didn’t make it. Some so-so reviews, but the worker placement aspects and poetry/philosophy concept draw me in.
  • Findorff: A Friedermann Friese euro that borrows the resource market from Powergrid, but has enough interesting-looking ideas to warrant a good look.

Essen Spiel 2022 games preview: 60 euros or more

  • Discordia: I do like a euro with a sudden ending that has a slight race feel to it (Oracle of Delphi, Manhattan Project etc), so I’m intrigued by this one.
  • Sabika: A great-looking euro game with interconnected rondels? I’m in! The Alhambra is a great game theme too, so even better.
  • Pilgrim: Again, a mechanism I consider underused (the mancala), here used in what looks like an innovative and interesting way.
  • Revive: A complex euro with loads going on, including a short campaign that opens up even more options. Asymmetry, plus loads of variability.

Books wot I red: The Book of Dust volume 1, Wild Chamber & The Knife of Never Letting Go

This is something of a record for me, managing to get through three books in less than four months. It certainly helped that two of them were real page-turners. While the third I probably only read about two-thirds of, as I was skipping big chunks of boredom as I went.

All three were off the list, but another first was that four books actually came off of it this time. That’s because I tried and failed to stick with The Shape of Things to Come by HG Wells. I was fascinated to find out what one of the true masters of sci-fi predicted for the world – right up to 2015 – back in 1929. But I’ll never find out because I just couldn’t manage the incredibly slow pacing of the book. Wot a Philistine. Anyway, onto the fluff I could manage…

The Book of Dust, Volume 1: The Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

I absolutely loved Pullman’s first trilogy, his Dark Materials. And I’ve really enjoyed reliving it recently via the excellent television series. So I was excited to see him return to the universe for this prequel series. This time we’re concentrating on the happenings around the time of Lyra’s birth. with unlikely heroes rising to the challenge of protecting the infant Lyra from evil forces.

I guess I was set up to be disappointed. Lyra was such a fantastically well-rounded character. Naively ‘good’ with an infectious tomboy streak. While the whole idea of dust and demons was fascinating. And while the whole’ good and evil’ Christianity thing was a little on the nose, you had to remember this was a children’s book series. It knocked the Potter-verse into a cocked hat in terms of depth, essentially being the new Tolkien vs the new Blyton. Both have their place.

So, to the Book of Dust. I hated it. The main characters were uninspired and cliched. But somehow also inconsistent. In the hands of such disappointing ‘heroes’ the old demon/dust angle soon became pedestrian. While the story itself was a sub-Lord of the Rings wander (albeit in a boat) with added nappy changing. Lots of nappy changing. By halfway I was skipping every second page and I almost gave up. And now, having decided there’s no way in hell I’ll read any more of this tripe, I wish I had. I’m not sure what amazes me more – that such a clearly excellent writer can be this poorly advised/edited. Or that the reviews were so generous. This is surely one of the biggest drops in form in literary history.

Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler

After such a miserable waste of my limited reading time, I felt I had to turn to another old favourite – but one that never disappoints. Author Christopher Fowler has terminal cancer. And when his time comes, I’ll be as upset as I’ve ever been about the loss of someone I’ve never known. He’ll be up there with John Peel and David Bowie. Because he’s a brilliant author and a brilliant person. Don’t believe me? Go check out his website. He speaks my language.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit investigations, or Bryant and May detective novels, have been popping along every year or so since 2003. They star two elderly detectives who bicker like the best of them and whose relationship is hugely compelling. As are the other personalities in their dysfunctional police unit. But the real star of the series is London. Fowler has an insatiable lust for knowledge about the city’s largely unknown and often dark historical underbelly. And its this combination, along with some brilliant storytelling, that makes the books shine.

Wild Chamber is no different. It calls back cleverly to a previous story and contains all the usual oddball characters. The plot twists and turns, never giving you the chance to put the pieces together. But the relationships are so charming to read you just enjoy the ride. My only minor complaint is the continued repeat plot of the dark forces trying to close the unit. After this many books, it’s tired. Yes, the threat puts a time limit on proceedings that helps add a little tension. But it seems to happen in every book. For a man with such a vivid imagination, it seems odd to keep flogging this particular horse. That said, the moving on of a few minor character subplots made up for it in the end. Brilliant, as always.

Chaos Walking 1: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

I’d heard loads of good things about this series and found Book One in a charity shop cheap as chips, so gave it a go. The writing style immediately drew me in, having an uneducated Western-style (as in cowboys) feel but in a sci-fi setting. As a sucker for Firefly, I was hooked – and for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.

Without giving too much away, our heroes are human settlers on a distant planet that has a strange effect on its male occupants. Basically, everyone can hear each other’s thoughts. It’s a fascinating premise, which the book handles incredibly intelligently – while sticking to the first-person, uneducated narrative. Things soon heat up, leading to a rip-roaring yarn that promises much and – in many ways – goes on to deliver.

I wholeheartedly recommend it and look forward to reading the following books in the series. But I do have some reservations. I think the book could’ve comfortably been 100 pages shorter. There’s a lot of repeating of pretty basic points and overemphasis on the obvious. Sure, it’s aimed at a younger audience – but this still seemed OTT when you think of some of the intelligent writing now considered standard for young adults. Also, there was a bit too much of the Lord of the Rings traveling syndrome. Get there already! Especially when a lot of the drudgery just seemed thrust in to bring home overly repeated points.

What’s next on the list?

Numbers one, two, and four are read off the list since last time, while number three fell off the list – the first time that has happened. This all means there are four – yes, FOUR (count ’em) new entries. The world’s gone MAD I tell you.

  1. A Gamut of Games by Sid Sackson. Third time on the list. I need to get around to reading some more non-fiction. This time from a genuine board game design legend. How better to get my design mojo back?
  2. Shadow Prey by John Sandford. New entry! Sequal to Rules of Prey, which I read back in 2020. Hopefully more game designer/detective gritty murder goodness.
  3. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle. New entry! Famous, innit?
  4. Hero of the Underworld by Jimmy Boyle. New entry! I have no idea why this is on my shelf. Answers on a postcard. But I may as well read it!
  5. Crikey, I don’t know. Any suggestions?

It’s all gone quiet over there…

This is the longest I’ve gone without posting since I started this blog umptimillion years ago, so I thought I’d better pop in, say hello, say sorry, and explain my tardiness.

Basically, life.

Since being made redundant in February I’ve managed to fins some freelance writing work. The pay is awful, and made worse my the weakness of the pound (I’m being paid in USD), but I’m really enjoying it. The writing is a lot of fun, but is taking up a massive amount of my time – and unsurprisingly, when not writing, I don’t want to be writing. A stark contrast to when I was editing, and missed writing.

I’m writing guides for computer games – and if it paid a living wage I’d be all over it. But for now its at least helping eek out my redundancy money. If you have any interest in MMO Lost Ark or mobile game Dislyte you should go check the site out.

Gaming drought

On the flip side, my chances to play board games have been seriously limited. My last local group largely imploded, as these things do sometimes, and ‘Sarah weekends’ have tended to be busy with other things. My plays count is way down and I can’t see it improving much in the short term.

That said, there are reviews on the way for Origins: First Builders (a euro I’ve enjoyed my first few plays of), the recent Paris: La Cité de la Lumière expansion (again, enjoyed my first play), and Iki (a great rondel-based euro). I’m hoping to review at least two of them, but hopefully all three, during July.

Many of the plays I have had were at UK Games Expo. I worked a couple of shifts on the Surprised Stare stand, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would. I didn’t have much time to anything other than demo games for them, but on my one free afternoon I did manage to put names to faces in this post-COVID world at Hachette, Kosmos and Coiledspring Games – three supporters of the blog I very much appreciate.

And finally, you may also see my name attached to the occasional article in Tabletop Gaming Magazine. Again, if I could do that full time I’d love to. But this time it is a lack of opportunities, rather than poor pay. If only there was more of a market for paid board game journos!

So again, sorry for the lack of posts – but I’m not going anywhere. Stay tuned!


Trying times.

I was made redundant from my 10+ year job at the end of January. It it was probably best for both parties. But it isn’t a great time to be reunited with the scrap heap. I’m 50+ and don’t want to do what I’ve been doing (managing, editing, coordinating) for the past 20 years. I want to write, or design. Be creative and get paid for it. But with energy and food prices seemingly rising daily, this is hardly the time to be picky.

And where’s my portfolio? You’re looking at it. I’ve been polishing other people’s turds for so long my own writing is largely long gone. And much of it was on paper anyway (remember that?) As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I don’t edit this stuff much. After a day of editing I want to write, not read. Or play games or drink booze or listen to music. Or all three, preferably. Anyway, point being, it’s probably not the best example of what I’m capable of.

Worse still, the stuff I’m into is either niche or hugely popular. Which means there’s more competition for the few jobs that come up. Young people, brimming with enthusiasm rather than anxiety. People willing to work for free, or for the occasional freebie. In the hope of one day being promoted to minimum wage. People willing to move internationally at the drop of a shiny pound coin. How do you compete with that?

I could just go work in a warehouse. I’ve done it before and will probably do it again. I’m not a job snob. But right now, I still feel I’ve got something more to offer. Which is why I’m not applying for jobs writing for fecking bitcoin websites. Especially because it would be completely demoralising not to get those jobs. As so many other solid writers are reduced to having to apply to do that crap too. But will my ‘work coach’ at the Job Centre agree? The one standing between me and my £75 per week? I’ll find out on Wednesday. Can’t wait…

Slumperty slump (board game blog, slight reprise)

Yes, but why does that effect me, the reader, you may well ask? Sure, I still have five games on my ‘to review’ pile. All of which I’m looking forward to. But thanks to life/covid/anxiety I’m finding very few excuses to play them. Last month, I played just 19 games. My lowest tally since November 2019. And this month won’t be much better. It’s hard right now. Which is super weird, as I have more time on my hands than I have in years.

And the numbers here have slumped too. Some days I’m down to 50 or so visits, which is miserable. Each time I see a rise in numbers, for no apparent reason things slip back down again. I’m not expecting the world. I don’t do social media and I’m not a video guy, or a popular game designer. So I’m never going to be ‘big’. But a small, steady increase would be nice. Treading water, or going backwards, is pretty demoralising.

So that’s where I’m at. Slump.

Things will pick up, I expect. And this kind of self indulgence will be a one-off (until next time). So please forgive me. Normal service should be resumed next week. Until then, then.

1923 Cotton Club board game: A four-sided review

The 1923 Cotton Club board game is a small box worker placement game for 2-4 players. Although if you’re predominantly a two-player gamer, I’d potentially steer clear (see ‘key observations’ below). The game takes about an hour to play. It is quite a basic euro game, so while the box says 12+ I’d say gamer kids around 10-years-old should be fine. Most information is public, so it is easy to ask questions where required. And the small amount of hidden info has clear reference notes in the rulebook. The theme, if anything, is more likely to be an issue for some parents (guns, illegal alcohol etc).

Talking of theme, it doesn’t do much heavy lifting here. But it does help make what you’re doing make sense. You’re each building up your own club from which you’ll be selling illegal booze in the US during 1920s prohibition. Cards represent gangsters, alcohol, club improvements, artists and celebrities. Using your workers (and currency, in the shape of money and influence) you claim them to earn victory points. It’s very much a euro game.

As always with Looping Games’ small box line (see also 1906 and 1987), you get an incredible amount packed into a small box. There are two thick main boards, four thin player boards, 32 wooden pieces, four cardboard chits and 110 cards packed into a 7x4x1-inch box. At the time of writing, comparison site Board Game Prices has it at several (non-UK) retailers for less than £30 delivered, which still seems good value for money.

Teaching 1923 Cotton Club

1923 Cotton Club will feel instantly familiar to anyone with worker placement experience. Each four-card row (replenished at the start of each of the six rounds) has three worker spots. And getting into a row early usually gives a small extra benefit. The main boards help record initiative (for turn order), influence (spent to attract celebrities), criminality (which can hurt you late game) and victory points. Plus an ‘eep, I’ve screwed up’ action space any number of workers can go into for some quick cash.

The decreasing cards and action spaces can make initiative important. It is redone at the end of each round, and won’t necessarily be in clockwise order (which I know some people hate). You’ll also gain income at the end of the round, and complete any event cards. There’s one event guaranteed each round. But each player can also add one from their hand into each round. You each start with five, and can play all to none throughout the game. They do various things, usually rewarding/penalising players for having/not certain requirements – from criminality to alcohol/entertainment types.

The cards

There are five card rows: Gangsters, smuggling, artists, celebrities and Improvements. Gangsters give you muscle and income, but usually at the expense of criminality. Smuggling (read: alcohol, usually needing gangsters) will help attract guests and gain income, but increase criminality. Artists (singers, musicians) will increase income and reputation. This in turn allows you to attract celebrities (politicians and movie stars) who’ll earn the majority of your victory points. Improvements do a bit of everything, from reducing criminality to gaining reputation, influence or weapons. But are usually one-and-done ‘instant’ cards.

Just before the game ends, players can spend leftover money to bribe their regulars (if they have political influence) to reduce their criminality. This can be crucial, as the doitiest player will take a victory point hit. Final scoring will see bonuses for leftover cash, influence and the highest initiative added to your score. But most points will come from the celebrities you’ve attracted and events you’ve managed to prosper from.

The four sides

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

  • The writer: I do like it when a publisher goes the extra mile with the theme. Especially when the game has such a small footprint. Here, at the end of the rules, you get four pages of history covering all the characters on the cards. From ’empress of the blues’ Bessie Smith to famed bootlegger and gangster Lack ‘legs’ Diamond. It talks to the care and attention paid, as well as a love of the art of making games and a respect for the fans that buy them.
  • The thinker: While certainly a solid euro game, 1923 Cotton Club is very much tactical over strategic. Even with two players, the random draw of the cards will limit your choices each round. So long term strategies are very much limited to your event cards. And even those are situational, depending on what your opponents do. So there’s not much here for me.
  • The trasher: I enjoyed this one with three and four players. If you pay attention you’ll know what others are looking for, which can definitely guide the order of your choices. The events can be key too. There’s an additional worker space where you can defer your action until last, but get to look at that round’s even cards. This can really swing things too, as it gives you a chance to dig out of a hole you didn’t know was coming. Or throw someone into one! Euro games aren’t really my thing. But when I’m in the mod, this is my kind of euro game.
  • The dabbler: I really liked the artwork in 1923 Cotton Club. While the rules all made sense, and the flow of the game was helped by the theme. The characters do encourage a bit of table talk too, as your club starts to take shape. Maybe its all singers, or dancers. Or perhaps you’re attracting some big movie stars, like Charlie Chaplin. And who doesn’t want to hire Al ‘scarface’ Capone just to do the comedy accents?! As for gameplay, everything fits. But I’m not sure it’s anything special. But it is for the size of the box it comes in.

Key observations

Personally, I haven’t really enjoyed 1923 Cotton Club with two-players. This is a game that needs players taking spots and cards from you to make turn order important and add the tension the game needs to shine. They’ve tried to fudge a two-player workaround where you each place a neutral meeple each round after your second placement. Bit its just fiddly and rarely makes much of a difference. Or if it does, it’s devastating. I won’t play with two again.

Also, there is nothing new here. No clever mechanism or unique element. Sure, the theme is great and well realised. While it’s great to have a genuinely solid competitive worker placement euro in such a small package. But when compared to Looping’s other recent-ish euro 1906 San Francisco, which is in the same size box, I feel this pales in comparison. Purely because that felt fresh and original as well as being remarkably compact.

But the game is simple and smooth and is a nice addition to the ‘get cards to get other cards to get points’ genre. And by its nature things tend to be very tight, with small margins being the difference between grabbing or missing certain cards. Some worry about replayability as you see all the cards each game. But I worry less about that in a tactical game, where its more about reacting than planning. I worry more that, beyond the theme and box size, there isn’t anything making it stand out. But maybe that’s are enough. It didn’t hurt Splendor…

Conclusion: 1923 Cotton Club

While it will never make my Top 50 games, 1923 Cotton Club will be staying in my collection. I love this small box line and I dig the theme. While I do like this kind of tactical competitive euro once in a while. So its staying on its merits, even if they are a bit niche. And, if you like games in this genre. Or ones with unusual theme are nice art. Or in small packages! I definitely advise you to take a closer look.