Board game Top 10: Essen Spiel 2017 new releases

So this time next week, I’ll be both enduring and enjoying my favourite week of the year: the Essen Spiel board game con in Germany.

Enduring, because I’ll be up early and to bed stupidly late for six days on the trot, rushing around packed halls by day having meetings, pitching games, selling games, demoing and playing games, while trying to catch up with old friends – not to mention promote games. Enjoying, because I love every minute of it.

I’m lucky enough for this to be my fourth Essen in a row that will include a new game of mine debuting at the show (if you include the German release of Empire Engine two years ago). This time it is Pioneer Days (co-designed with Matthew Dunstan) from TMG, and I expect to spend a fair bit of time with those guys trying to give it a push. It’s a dice drafting game with a unique (and potentially nasty) twist.

As always, my top 10 is more like a top 25. The 10 itself isn’t in numerical order, but having gone through the 950+ releases coming out this year these are the ones I’m most excited about.

After that will follow 15 or so honourable mentions – and I expect my final haul of Essen goodies will involve a mixture of games from both lists, along with a few that will catch my eye whilst wandering the halls. I’ll do a post-Essen follow up listing my catch soon.

It looks like a light year for me in terms of expansions, with just a small addition to Snowblind on my radar. I’ll definitely be picking up Queendomino as well, which is both an expansion and standalone game alongside the excellent  Kingdomino, while I hope to finally pickup Roundhouse (it sold out last year) with its new expansion.

Finally, a quick mention for Adios Calavera which will be released at Essen but I’ve already had the pleasure of reviewing. And the re-release of Manhattan – a game I’ve been meaning to pick up for five years or so. Maybe this will finally be the year….

My Top 10 Essen anticipation list

There are some similarities between the games in the top 10. All of them will accommodate 2-4 players (one goes to five, while two have solo modes) while they’re all competitive (no co-ops) games which would feel comfortable with a tag somewhere between family and euro game. What can I say? I’ve got a type.

2-4 players, 60-120 mins

The first properly new game from one of my favourite designers in four years? Straight on the list. Mac Gerdts has made some of my favourite games (especially his last two, Concordia and Navegador) and I’ve never played a duff one.

It’s set in the golden age of ocean steamers (yes, it’s got the Titanic in it) and has the usual historical depth fans have come to expect – and it’s card driven in what sound like a similar way to Concordia; but with a strong economic angle, so you’re making money rather than sailing into icebergs. The theme may not scream excitement, but I’m sold.

Rajas of the Ganges
2-4 players, 45-75 mins

I enjoyed both of the Huch family level euro games from last Essen (Ulm and Touria) and this next offering, designed by the Brands, looks even more promising.

It seems to be action selection on steroids, with a gorgeously bonkers busy board as well as player boards, dice tiles, chits – you name it. It’s as if all your games jumped into one box for a party while you weren’t looking. But the play time is only about an hour? If anyone can pull it off you’d think it would be Inka and Markus, so I’m looking forward to putting this one through its paces.

The Sanctuary: Endangered Species
2-4 players, 30-60 mins

This one has nothing obvious backing its selection: no fancy publisher, amazing art (though the box cover is striking) or designer of pedigree. But it has a rarely used and interesting theme (setting up an animal sanctuary for endangered species) alongside an interesting action selection mechanism.

A row of cards is laid out each round to create the available actions and players place workers on them to choose – but also get the benefit of any actions left or right of them not blocked from their ‘site’ by other players (or some barriers on the cards themselves). This is a great idea in itself, as well as the order changing giving tonnes of replayability potential, so this one is high on my radar.

Santa Maria
1-4 players, 45-90 mins

Norwegian publisher Aporta has put out some interesting games in the past few years but that haven’t peaked my personal interest – but Santa Maria is very much up my alley. It looks like a relatively fast playing dice-driven engine-building game, which incorporates something akin to the action selection grid system seen in Cuba.

I found that totally mind-melting in Cuba; in a good way to a point, but it always felt as if one bad decision early could really screw you in that game. Hopefully this one will be a little quicker, a little lighter and a little more forgiving. But it also looks to have plenty of variability in terms of replay and paths to victory.

2-4 players, 70-120 mins

This one is high on a lot of lists and looks likely to be one of the hot properties of the show, thanks to a perfect storm of hype: big publishers (Pegasus, Stronghold and White goblin to name but three), beautiful steam punk artwork from two industry heavyweights (Klemens Franz and Michael Menzel) and the first release from Spiel de Jahres fellowship designer Sophia Wagner.

But what attracted me to it is the action wheel building mechanism: what looks like a kind of editable action rondel – one for each player – that can be used to manipulate and optimise your individual action selections. I love a good rondel, so any fresh take on the idea makes it something I have to at least check out.

Heaven & Ale
2-4 players, 60-90 mins

Publisher Eggertspiele has one of the best track records for euro games in the business, so always grab my attention. Add to that a beer making theme, a design partnership including Michael Kiesling (Tikal, Vikings etc), and something that has similarities to Egizia’s ‘no going back’ action selection track and you’ve got me on board.

The Egizia-style track is on a central board, where you gain ingredients and monks (its proper beer, after all), while a personal board will see you using these resources to activate revenue collection, production and expansion of your play area (presumably to make room for more monks and ingredients). It may end up being a little more mechanical than fun, but I’m certainly intrigued.

2-5 players, 60-90 mins

At the other end of the scale comes Heldentaufe – a game that would usually set off every alarm bell in GoPlayListen Towers but that has somehow managed to slip through the net.

It’s a self-published Kickstarter game for starters – and a family adventure game at that. But the production looks gorgeous and the mix of tile laying and action selection looks charming. It’s a super light adventuring game, with some resource collection, item creation and combat, which is something I don’t have much of in my collection. It may be too nothingy, but I have a feeling I’ll like it.

Ex Libris
1-4 players, 30-60 mins

This is another title that’s cropping up on a lot of wishlists, thanks to being from a hot publisher (Renegade) and having been well reviewed and previewed since debuting in the summer at GenCon.

I love the fantasy library theme and the artwork for the game is gorgeous. Better still it seems to pack plenty of decisions into a sub-hour game experience, via a bunch of mechanisms I always find appealing: set collection, card drafting, worker placement and variable player powers. The whole thing looks absolutely charming, seems to offer plenty of replayability, while the location of worker placement spots sounds as if it changes each round, adding an extra twist.

2-4 players, 90-120 mins

Comfortably the heaviest game on my list, Agra from Quined Games looks unbelievable complex – but in a good way. Michael Menzel has done a great job on the artwork, while Quined have gone the extra mile to make a game that looks breath-taking – and will need one hell of a table space to play it on.

From Solarius Mission and La Granja designer Michael Keller it is a worker placement game that looks to take the ‘multiple paths to victory’ idea to its natural conclusion. The amount of options looks almost overwhelming, but early reports describe an experience that leaves you wanting to come back and explore new strategies with further plays – which is exactly what a great heavy euro game should do. If I only come with one super heavy game, I plan for it to be this one.

Pulsar 2849
2-4 players, 60-90 mins

When it comes to publishers you can trust they don’t go much higher than Czech Games Edition (CGE), while designer Vladimír Suchý has proved himself an interesting and accomplished designer.

Pulsar 2849 is a dice drafting euro – there’s a lot of them about this year – that sees players exploring the galaxy with their fleet of star ships, attempting to discover what’s required to meet both secret and public goals. There are the obligatory tech tracks to let players differentiate themselves and, while it looks as if it may be a little dry, the dice drafting and exploration mechanisms could well give it the personality it needs to shine.

The ‘best of the rest’ that just missed the list

The 10 games above were picked from a list of 25 that made my final showdown, and there were often just fractions between them, so I’m sure some of the following will also come home with me – or will pop up later in the year. Roughly in order of how close they were to missing out:

  • Ilos (La Boite de Jeu) A pretty looking tile-layer with a bit of an edge, a bit of depth, plus a super quick playing time (20-40 minutes).
  • Otys (Pearl) Puzzley underwater action selection and set collection from a publisher with a strong track record.
  • Konja (Pleasant Company) A two-player dice game from the makers of Snowblind and Ancient Terrible Things. Should be a winner.
  • Space Race: The Card Game (Bordcubator) Another new contender for the Race for the Galaxy crown, complete with alleged iconography issues.
  • Bärenpark (Lookout) A light and short tile-layer from a solid publisher and by Archaeology designer Phil Walker-Harding.
  • Wendake (Placentia Games) A bit of a civ game with an interesting 3×3 action selection grid reminiscent of Ulm, but individual per player.
  • Chimera Station (TMG) I love the alien theme with the customisable workers, and love worker placement, so want to try this one out.
  • Altiplano (DLP Games) Another euro bag building game from Orleans designer Reiner Stockhausen, so hyped building up for this one.
  • Carthago: Merchants & Guilds (Iron Games) A ‘bit of everything’ card driven euro from the makers of Peloponnes.
  • Whistle Stop (Bezier Games) A puzzley game of tile placement and route building sounds right up my street, but Bezier never quite land for me.
  • Clans of Caledonia (Karma Games) Show me something with ridiculous hype from Kickstarter and I’ll show you something to try before you buy.
  • Dragonsgate College (NSKN Games) A possibly interesting dice pool game from the Yedo designers, but a publisher I associate with near misses.
  • Amun Re: The Card Game (Super Meeple) The idea of a two-player compatible variant of this Knizia classic is tempting – but will it maintain the magic?

Expect reviews of lots of these new titles in the coming months. And if I’ve missed some you’re really looking forward to, let me know why in the comments below.

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