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 accessories: How to pimp your favourite games

Top 10 dice games advert for MDG, a dice company, including 10% off with promo code goplaylisten

The board gaming hobby has increased in popularity exponentially over the last decade. And as numbers increased, it created space for enterprising small businesses to become viable. Board game accessories are now a big deal. So what are you missing out in?

The simple answer is loads. From Etsy sites to home made upgrades there are loads of clever and innovative ways to upgrade your favourite games. I’m not going to go into detail here, but instead give you a bit of an overview. Hopefully it will be enough to point you in the right direction.

Upgrade the components

Perhaps the most common board game accessories upgrades are components. Fancy dice have been around for years, largely thanks to the role-playing hobby. From metal to multi-coloured, you can even have them customised with your own logo on one side. I’d definitely suggest checking out Metallic Dice Games, for example – where you can get a 10% discount with the code ‘goplaylisten’.

But dice are now the tip of the iceberg. Games with resources are commonplace, so upgrading everything from your wood and sheep to the money and player pieces are commonplace. It started with simple wooden shapes. But enterprising firms now offer some fantastic handmade pieces. Such as those pictured below, from The Game Crafter. The most popular games (such as Terraforming Mars and Power Grid) often have sets of counters specifically put together to replace those in the box.

Board game accessories - handmade wheat, apple and grape pieces for board games.

Sleeves & laminate

But it’s not always about the looks. Board game accessories can also add longevity to your favourite board games. Collectable card game (Magic, Pokemon etc) players have long used plastic sleeves to keep their cards in perfect condition. This helps maintains their value. But it also stops the cards becoming marked, which can be especially problematic for tournament play. This phenomenon is now firmly in the board game arena too, with many players sleeving their cards to maintain their quality.

Laminating is also growing in popularity. A big driver for this has been the huge growth of roll-and-write games. Buying new score sheets is clearly a false economy compared to laminating a few and using them repeatedly. But you’ll find nervous players laminating all kinds of other game components – from flimsy player boards to player aids. This is particularly useful for game extras you’ve downloaded and printed off yourself.

you can even take this to the next level. Games such as Zombicide and Terraforming Mars can really benefit from player board organisers. These are usually made from plastic or even plexiglass. And help keep important counters in the right spots.

Board game accessories: Box inserts

Another growth area is box inserts. While some publishers are making an effort to put compartments in the game boxes, many just leave you to worry about that yourselves.

Personally, I’m happy with throwing the bits in a few plastic baggies. But if you like everything in its place, there’s a whole world of inserts waiting for you.

  • HDF: High density fibreboard can be laser-cut with great accuracy, creating super thin walls to separate components. This is super useful in games with a lot of sturdy wooden or plastic bits.
  • Foam: Foam trays were formally purely in the realm of war gamers. They’re perfect for transporting more fragile game pieces such as detailed plastic or metal miniatures. Especially if you’ve gone to the trouble of painting them. But with many board games now having equally fragile components, foam inserts are now commonplace.

But this doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. One great budget solution is a simple plastic ‘bits box’. Pop to your local pound shop, or discount DIY store. You’re bound to find small plastic containers of nails, screws, picture hanging pieces etc – usually dirt cheap. Simply empty the bits into another container and you have perfect board game accessories.

Plastic bits boxes can make great cheap board game accessories, to help storage.

Extras: Bowls, tables, chips & towers

Here’s a round-up of some other popular board game accessories that can add to the player experience. Just don’ blame me when your credit card bill comes in…

  • Poker chips: Money can be one a disappointing game component. From flimsy paper to thin cardboard, it’s often overlooked by publishers. So a high quality set of poker chips can be a great addition to your game shelf. Simply grab them whenever you play a game with crappy money. I got mine from Premier at a surprisingly good price.
  • Bits bowls: Your game table can soon get messy, especially if you’re a euro or Ameritrash fan. But a little imagination can go a long way to tidying things up. Get a few food takeaways? Save those little plastic sauce pots. Or what better excuse to grab some packs of Gu puddings? The perfect size for keeping components in!
  • Dice towers: Rolling dice can be problematic on a bust game table. We all have a friend who can’t keep them on the table. Or who knocks over half the game pieces when they throw. So why not invest in a dice tower? They look great on the table, while also keeping things fair and contained. My favourites are the Legendary Dice Throwers from Drawlab – who also make amazing metal coins for your games.
  • Game tables: Got a couple of grand burning a hole in your pocket? Then you could consider upgrading your game room with a dedicated board game table. The simplest ones have a removable top, with a baize beneath for gaming. Perfect, as you can leave a game set up and still have dinner in style. But the more you pay, the more you get – from drink holders to pull-out player shelves. Check out Geeknson, for example.

Are board game accessories a false economy?

Table porn from Bandpass Design

Before you get your wallet out though, think good and hard about what you’re paying for. Because while good board games tend to have great resale value, components are a different story.

Tables, towers and poker chips are great because you can use them for games throughout your collection. But game-specific additions may add little to no value to your games. Just because you wanted custom meeples for your game, it doesn’t mean anyone else will be happy to pay extra for it when you get bored of the game.

But if you and your group are big on aesthetics, good board game accessories can make a difference. so let me know your favourites – and more importantly what I’ve missed.

Which board game to buy? Comparing two ‘Top 100’ lists

A 'top 10 games' image for my which board games to buy article

When you first start in this hobby, you soon realise the huge range of choice – so which board game to buy? Like many, I first turned to the Board Game Geek Top 100 list. But I lost my faith in those rankings several years ago.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the website. It’s just the game rankings I no longer trust. There are simply too many games high on the list I really didn’t think deserve to be there, where years earlier it did largely ring true. There had been games I didn’t like, sure. But I understood why they were popular. But in recent years that has really started to change, in my opinion, for the worse.

Previously, I’d actively seek out games in the top 100 I hadn’t played. I’d sometimes regret it, but usually because it wasn’t my thing. But largely I found some great games. Many of which are in my collection to this day. But now, it’s rare to find a new gem in the same list. Most games that have arrived in the upper echelons in the past few years feel like flashy looking parodies of better games from the past. Or games which seem to have a high rating purely because there’s a metric ton of stuff in the box.

Why has the BGG top 100 list faltered?

The main reasons I think this has happened are:

  • Ratings creep: In recent years there seems to be a trend of rating games higher, generally. This is noticeable particularly in re-releases of old games, which tend to get quite a big bump in numbers for a new edition. Partly this comes down to these re-releases having shinier components. But should the fact a game looks pretty give it a whole point (or more) bump on a 1-10 scale? Not for me.
  • Kickstarter: Around the same time, the board game Kickstarter boom began. This has seem a lot of unscrupulous tactics used by publishers in manipulating BGG stats. Many games have been pumped up by one-and-done accounts rating games highly. And many of these games have seen massed high ratings before the game has been published. Sometimes by backers hoping to increase interest to unlock stretch goals.
  • New gamers: This same period has also seen a massive rise of new players joining the hobby. Brilliant, yes. But it has also meant thousands of new gamers playing new titles and rating them incredibly highly, when they haven’t got much to rate their experiences against. BGG’s rankings also bias towards games with more rankings – giving an unfair bump to recently released, heavily purchased games.
  • The cult of the new: So many new games, so many new publishers – and such a great resale market. Where game collectors were once a rare and strange breed, it is now far more common for people to buy a game, play it a few times, and move it on. This means people are rating games often on first impressions and moving them on before even considering things such as replay value. And/or, they don’t come back and change their rating later when they tire of the game.
Gloomhaven box image - top of the BGG top 100 list in July 2020, so on many people's 'which board game to buy' list

So, which board game to buy? Alternative lists

In February 2020, friend and fellow board gamer/blogger Martin (qwertymartin on BGG) came up with an alternative way to rank games via BGG’s stats. This list was based on play data from thousands of BGG users to work out game popularity over time. In this way, he hypothesised, you form a list of games many people are actually playing, rather than ones they just whack a high rating on. Surely a better measure of what gamers should check out?

He had two criteria for a game to be included. It had to be published at least five years ago (to demonstrate longevity); and be in the Top 100 games played by unique users in at least five different years. This skewed the results towards the amount of people playing games, rather than total plays. Firstly, because obsessives can radically bugger up this kind of result and secondly, because that is another way the system can be cheated.

Of course, completely removing the hotness from the past five years is daft in terms of players looking for new games. It’s only natural to want to explore games hot off the presses and I do it as much as the next gamer. But I think you need to do a bit of both. And in truth, as most gamers gain experience, their collections start to lean much heavier towards those older classic titles. Because, a lot of the time, they’re simply better games.

BGG’s cult of the new…

I looked at Martin’s list from February, comparing it the standard BGG Top 100 list from July 2020. There are some interesting parallels and differences. If you take out titles from 2016-2020 from the BGG Top 100 you remove 40 games – including a frankly ridiculous seven of the current top 10. Then take out the 15 (?!) 2015 releases, and you’ve accounted for more than half of the ‘best ever’ board games. Imagine looking looking at a ‘best bands of all time’ list and finding seven from the last five years?! You’d think the world had gone mad.

Looking more into the numbers, only three of the BGG top 100 games are from before the year 2000. The mid to late 90s saw an amazing renaissance in board and card games, many of which are best sellers still in print today. Worse, only 15 games on the currently list are from 2000-2009 – and only two of those (Twilight Struggle and Brass) are in the top 20. I doubt you’d find anyone who could justify these numbers in real terms.

…versus qwertymartin’s filler games of old

On the flip side, Martin’s list has its own problems. Half the games would be considered ‘fillers’ – games you can squeeze in at any opportunity to kill a bit of time. These are often picks of convenience, or lowest common denominators. What can we quickly pick off the shelf that no one will really hate? And if they’re not keen, it only lasts 20 minutes. Some of these are truly great games worthy of the list – but there is some rubbish here too.

Maybe 20% of the games on Martin’s list are made since 2010 – and almost all of those are light family games. While I understand the rules for his list, they seem a little too balanced towards older, shorter games. Two of his games were actually outside the current BGG top 1,000 (Saboteur and Bang). While the likes of Roborally, Tikal, Descent, Guillotine and Roll Through the Ages are showing their age. These games have better alternatives now.

Some recent games are clearly instant classics and should be on any list: Azul, Codenames, Terraforming Mars. And in future, they will make his list. If you do want a list of what’s currently being played to death by users, you can find those too with a little bit of BGG Fu (thanks Martin for the link).

But what Martin’s list has that BGG’s doesn’t are the genuinely massive games of our hobby: Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride. The older classics: Can’t Stop, Acquire, Perudo. And the lighter games that really do deserve recognition as much as any minis or euro game: For Sale, 6 Nimmt, No Thanks. As well as party games such as Dixit and Apples to Apples.

The consensus

Believe it or not, despite these huge disparities, a healthy 26 games did make it onto both lists. I think it says a lot that I have played all of these games (all well before doing this post). And I own (or have owned) half of them. There’s only one I’d refuse to play (can you guess?) and a few more I’d probably veto. But this is a genuinely great list of titles if youre trying to decide which board game to buy (links go to my full reviews):

Twilight Struggle board game box - which came top of the combined 'which board game to buy' list
  1. 29 – Twilight Struggle 9-20
  2. 30 – Puerto Rico 25-5
  3. 43 – Agricola 29-14
  4. 43 – Power Grid 36-7
  5. 51 – Castles Burgundy 14-37
  6. 63 – Race for the Galaxy 51-12
  7. 76 – 7 Wonders 50-26
  8. 90 – Terra Mystica 15-75
  9. 93 – Concordia 17-76
  10. 94 – Caylus 61-33
  11. 100 – Tzolk’in 39-61
  12. 101 – El Grande 63-38
  13. 102 – Dominion 87-15
  14. 104 – Pandemic 88-16
  15. 107 – Lords Waterdeep 58-49
  16. 107 – Through the Ages 40-67
  17. 114 – Le Havre 45-69
  18. 117 – Stone Age 100-17
  19. 119 – Battlestar Galactica 73-46
  20. 121 – Robinson Crusoe 47-74
  21. 122 – Tigris and Euphrates 83-39
  22. 124 – Orleans 26-98
  23. 136 – Five Tribes 57-79
  24. 164 – Dominion: Intrigue 70-94
  25. 176 – Patchwork 77-99
  26. 181 – Roll for the Galaxy 81-100

(Ranked by totalling each game’s position on both lists)

Which board game to buy: Conclusion

There are several things that I think skew people’s game rating in unhelpful ways. Some of which I’m also guilty of. If it’s really pretty, really clever, or really ‘deep’ – you’ll see those games go up as few points. While if it’s basic, short and small – down a few points you go. And of course anything that takes risks (politically, mechanically etc) is also likely to see more big negatives from the haters. But equally you can’t just go on plays, as it throws up too many average family filler games. So what to do?

If I had to pick one list to recommend to a new gamer, I’d go with Martin’s list – with one big caveat. There are, of course, loads of great games from the past five years. The problem is finding them. For me the most sensible thing to do is start with the classics, find you and your group’s range, then research further. Look for new games in the same categories, by the same publishers/designers, or played by reviewers/BGG users/bloggers whose tastes you start to respect. That should lead you to a great board game collection.

* Like for more lists to help decide which board game to buy? Check out all my board game Top 10s here – as well as my own Top 40 games of all time 2020.

Flipping the token: On reaching 50

Ramble: On

50 point markers from the Carcassonne Hunters and Gatherers board game

The sun is just over the yard arm on my 50th birthday. To stave off opening a lock down beer for another hour or so, here I am. Writing my 467th blog post since I launched GoPlayListen back in 2011. Back then, my intention was to write about going places, playing games and listening to music. The music writing dropped off fast – there’s only so many times you can write about going to see the same crusty old bands with the same crusty old people 🙂 I still do a bit of the ‘go’, but only if it involves gaming too. But if I ever actually get around to doing a board game podcast, the ‘listen’ will be back too. Full circle.

It’s a strange (read: miserable) time to have a landmark birthday. I’m very aware many people are genuinely suffering thanks to coronavirus. Three friends have lost a parent during this time, creating heartbreaking situations due to shielding, travel bans and restrictions to gatherings. Others have lost jobs, or had scares and hospital stays. But that just makes me feel more guilty for being miserable about something so meaningless. Which makes me more miserable. Gawd, what a whiny baby. But you know what I mean. On the plus side, at least I don’t have to worry about some misguided soul throwing me a surprise party (shivers). And I don’t ‘have’ to be sociable.

Reasons to be cheerful

With ‘go’ out the way due to covid, ‘play’ and ‘listen’ have become heightened. Just like the senses, my brain is rewiring itself to cope with this loss. Rerouting my go hours to more playing and more listening (and some gardening, weirdly. But who knows how the brain works?) Money saved on travel and hotels has been funnelled into funding music venues and musicians. Whether its buying CDs and T-shirts, or getting my name put on venue ‘walls of fame’ to help them survive the crisis, I’ve been doing my small bit. And it feels good.

Time saved on going places has been put into playing (and gardening, obvs). Which hasn’t been easy, seeing as half the point of me leaving the house tends to be to go play games. Here, online gaming has been an incredibly satisfying outlet. If I’m playing a favourite game, chatting to friends and having a glass of adult beverage, its a good evening. In person would be better, but its a perfectly acceptable substitute. And I don’t have to wear trousers. But I’ve gone on about online gaming enough of late, so won’t repeat myself here.

[insert cricket analogy here]

As for being 50, it’s hard not to be reflective – both looking backwards and forwards. I tend to find things I say are, in my mind, glass half full. But they tend to come out sounding almost completely glass empty/smashed/full of piss.

For example, I’m looking forward positively because – with any luck – I’ve only got 10 years or so of ‘work’ left to go. And the rest (if any) will be MINE. I’ve always been confident I could fill my days if they were free of work. And have never understood people who claim they would be bored. Being furloughed for 10 weeks has only strengthened my feelings that, if anything, I’d be busier.

The other recent phenomenon has been Black Lives Matter. Well, not ‘new’, but you know what I mean. I can’t help thinking it will be another false dawn. As we watch film companies edit a few dodgy scenes in films, while doing nothing about the disparity in their board rooms or in their casting and hires. The coming second wave of covid in the US is sure to topple this 65th wave of equality sentiment in the news cycle soon. Which is a fucking travesty. We seem better than ever at ‘protesting’, but worse than ever at doing anything about it. The nauseating waves of meaningless social media memes do nothing except make those posting them feel better. Stop it. If you really feel something, go and do something.

silhouette of inclusivity - different types and colours of people

Inclusivity – and YOU

I know there are problems of racism, sexism and I expect every other ‘ism’ in the board gaming industry. Just as there are in all walks of life. And I know that, as a white male, I’m much less likely to come across/notice them. But in my little corner of the gaming world, I’m often conscious of how joyfully diverse things are. My games have come out through American, German, Greek and Polish publishers. I’ve played with people of countless creeds and colours. And I’ve had brilliant game experiences with both pensioners and kids of all sexes – often at the same time. Being 50, 60, 70 etc will not be a barrier.

But as I say, I do know I’m in a position of white male privilege. So help me out. I have this blog, this mouthpiece, and I’m happy to share. Do you have a story to tell? Of despair, of hope? Of your troubles as any kind of minority, in gaming? you can tell your story here – or I can talk to you, and we can put it together, together. Just get in touch, either by replying here or contacting me via social media. The more stories that get out there, the more people will realise even the smallest things can add to that big pile of prejudice. Let’s do something.

Right, I need a drink…

Ramble: off

Note: The cricket photo is of absurdly talented batsman Mark Ramprakash reaching a 50. I used it because he too is 50 this school year. We went to 6th form college together, not that I expect he remembers me. He wasn’t often in the smoking room… Our mums were friends. We even played a bit of cricket and football together, in the park, when we were young. And while I’ve probably had more board games published than he has, I grudgingly admit he has done slightly more with his first 50 years. But i’m coming for you in the second 50, Mark!

A festive ‘thanks’ – and some board game resolutions

This time last year I thanked y’all for visiting and made some New Year’s Resolutions based around board gaming. Of course you remember. Anyway, it seems only right to look back at how well/badly I did and to set some new ones. I’ve been writing here for just over eight years now, with average views still rising well above 30,000 per annum. Not too shabby for an old guy rambling on about board games. So thank you once again for sticking around. Or, indeed, turning up.

2019 board game resolutions

  1. My number one 2019 priority was to keep my collection at 150 games. Success! At last count it was 156, with a few on the ‘for sale’ list. It still feels like a good number: loads of choice, with all bases covered – but a good reason to seriously consider each new game, in terms of its worthiness to stay on the shelves. 
  2. Next was clearing my review pile by March. This was tough, as while reviewing time was fine playing time was the hard bit! But I got there and by March the nine-game pile was gone. And I did learn: this year I made less promises, and picked up lighter, shorter games I know I can get played by all my groups.
  3. Sticking with successes, my pledge to give Sarah every second game choice pretty much stayed intact. Well, until Essen! Since then it has been about reviews – but I intend to return to this policy as soon as the pile is manageable. It also shows, with many of her favourites in my most-played games of the year list.
  4. Clearing the ‘unplayed’ list met with mixed success. There were 10 games on it, four of which didn’t make it to the table – Brass, Mombasa, Twilight Struggle and Uruk. I actually made this harder for myself by setting an extra challenge of playing all my games in 2019. That was fun, but really hindered this.
  5. Finally, I didn’t pitch a new design at Essen. While I do see this as a failure, there were unforeseen circumstances – namely the opportunity to do some paid game development work, and being asked to work on several expansion projects. And this list did encourage me to get my design mojo back. I’ve been working on-and-off on a new game design project since, so watch this space…

2020 board game resolutions

  1. As it worked so well, while being tough, I’m going for it again: keeping my games limit at 150. I’ll also be clearing the review pile and giving Sarah loads of picks – but they felt organic, so I don’t feel the need to make them ‘resolutions’ again. 
  2. I tried to play all of my 150 games in 2019. It was going well, but like a fool I forgot Essen in October would put a stop to the year for old games. There are 30 left on the list (including the ones over from 2019’s ‘resolution 4’ above) – so I aim to play all of those at least ones during 2020. Otherwise, why own them?
  3. The resolution to pitch a game at Essen 2019 did help me get on with things (as did fellow designer Federico – thank you sir!) – so that’s coming back for 2020. The dev and expansion work is continuing apace, but it shouldn’t stop me aiming to get a new design I’m proud of from my notebooks to the shops. 
  4. I went to HandyCon for the first time this year, which reminded me how much I enjoy trying new gaming experiences. So in 2020 I’m going to try to get to two ‘new to me’ conventions. I’ve got a few ideas, so let’s see how they pan out.
  5. I’m kind of rubbish at social media – but I’m comfortable with that. However, there are loads of great bloggers out there I’d like to collaborate on some posts with. So, I’m going to set myself the challenge of getting four collaborative blog posts done during 2020. So if you’re reading this, gaming blogger, you know where I is…