Essen 2017 releases: First impressions, part 2 (and ‘Dig’ mini review)

I’ve now played all but two of the games I brought home from Essen in October (getting there!), as well as several other popular titles I missed out on at the time, so below you’ll find a round-up of first impressions of a bunch of them.

Again, these are just early thoughts: full reviews of several of the Essen releases are already available and linked here, including Pulsar 2849 and The Sanctuary, while any marked with a * will be getting the full review treatment here soon. The brackets show how many players I’ve played it with to date.

Transatlantic* (two-player)
Regular readers will know I’m a bit of a Mac Gerdts fanboy, so any new release with his name on is going to get me excited (as this one is).

It was delayed from the previous Essen, while having the same deck-building elements as Concordia – one of my favourite games: all together making this one of my most anticipated titles of Essen 2017.

My initial feeling, though, is a little lukewarm. Mechanically it works well, but the theme couldn’t be any drier. And while the deck-building element feels slightly improved upon, after one play I prefer the rest of the game Concordia has to offer. That said, Transatlantic is shorter and I certainly have room in my life for another game with these mechanics. So for now, the jury is out but I’m thinking it will grow on me with more plays.

Claim (two-player only)
I was taught this one by Sean (from The Game Pit) and enjoyed our play – but not enough to seek it out for further exploration. It’s a two-player only trick-taking game with a pasted on fantasy theme, split into two very distinct halves.

In the first half of the game you’re building an army of cards you’ll then use to battle in part two in a similar way to a game such as For Sale. However, unlike For Sale, poor luck/play in the first half will see you lose the second to a competent player. Overall, it seems like there’s just a little too much luck to make it stand out – and too many games will be decided too early.

As The Game Pit’s Natalie said too, this being only for two is hardly a revolution in trick-taking games – it’s not as if Cribbage hasn’t been around for 400 years or so: just another bit of revisionist gaming history that seems rife right now. And frankly, I’d probably rather play crib, but wouldn’t turn this one down.

Mystery of the Temples* (two-player)
I have two two-player games of this under my belt now, but have a nasty feeling it will go the same way Planet Defenders by the same publisher did: I’ll really enjoy it, but those I play it with will largely be left underwhelmed.

As with Planet Defenders, this is a beautifully crafted abstract game with some really clever mechanisms and a strong puzzle at its core. However, it has the same Achilles heel: it doesn’t seem to have that spark of magic this kind of game needs to take it to players’ hearts.

I’m going to stick with it for a while though, and hopefully it will improve with more players. The game’s board acts as a two-lane rondel where you’re collecting and delivering resources to fulfil contracts for points and to gain little bonuses that will make delivery easier as you move on. It’s a neat and well-designed system, but it has left both my opponents cold so far – maybe partly because the ‘puzzle’ of the player board (where you have to store your items in a particular order to be able to deliver them) is probably a little too easy to navigate.

Column of Fire (three-player)
I hadn’t heard anything about this release, which is a surprise as it’s from a great publisher (Kosmos) and designer (Michael Rieneck)  – and follows in the Ken Follet-inspired game series that includes the fab game The Pillars of the Earth.

Sadly though, I wish this one had passed me by. There are some interesting core ideas here, of shifting loyalties and engine building, but it feels woefully under developed and way too luck dependent: both cards and dice can see you have a dreadful experience, which isn’t really right for a game that can last well over an hour and feels as if it should be strategic. It’s a real mess.

What’s worse is it has beautiful artwork from Michael Menzel, as its predecessors did; but in this case the artwork totally gets in the way of the play experience: there’s no point in having a pretty board if it totally gets in the way of game play. Maybe Menzel is too big a name now, that publishers just presume it must be OK if he has done it? It feels that way, as Agra (another 2017 title with his artwork) has similar problems.

Azul (two, three, four-player)
Without a shadow of doubt, this is my game of 2017 from the ones I’ve played so far – and I really don’t see it being overtaken.

It’s a simple abstract game you can teach anyone: take some tiles, place them on your board, and once they’ve all been taken in a round you score some points. Simple.

Yet it has a second level of play you soon discover: you can really screw people over (including yourself!) by what you leave behind. Plus it is absolutely gorgeous, plays fast and scales really well between two and four players. I’ll definitely be buying this one and I’d think it is an absolute shoe in for the Spiel de Jahres award for 2018.

Bunny Kingdom (two-player)
Another Game Pit teach, this time from Natalie. I rather enjoyed this one and it has had a lot of good buzz since Essen. It looks good on the table (who doesn’t love a plastic bunny mini?), is relatively simple to learn and has a nice drafting system where the relative simplicity of the cards seems well matched to the level the game is aimed at.

For a gateway level game it lasts about the right amount of time (an hour-ish) and has a low-ish level of potential screwage, even though it is basically an area majority game. You can block people out of where they want to go, but only by denying them the cards they need: it doesn’t have combat, as such; just denial through drafting.

But that of course brings its own issue: if you get screwed over by luck of the draw, you’re simply not going to win. But isn’t that always the way in more family level games? And as mentioned, once you’re up to speed, the game doesn’t last long enough (with two or three) to make that feel like it’s really a massive problem (unless that kind of luck really isn’t your sort of thing).

Altiplano (three-player)
I was sad to miss out on this one at Essen, so it was great to get it played at the fabulous SorCon over the weekend – a great little February board game convention on the outskirts of Basildon I’d highly recommend. I should also premise this by saying I still haven’t played Orleans, the first of the so-called ‘bag building’ games.

I enjoyed Altiplano quite a bit. It has a pretty standard ‘get stuff to make other stuff and turn it into points’ euro game premise, but the bag building element works well to create a restrictive puzzle each round: you draw a certain amount of tiles each round to use for your actions.

What stopped me loving it was the movement system, which felt like a mechanism and restriction too far for me; pushing the weight of the game a little beyond my comfort zone. I’d realise what I want to do, then see I couldn’t move to those places – which also felt a bit stupid in terms of theme. I’d happily play it some more though – and will redouble my efforts to get its predecessor played, as it generally seems more popular.

Mini review: Dig

I won’t be giving Dig a full review, as it’s not a game I want to spend any more time on – either playing or thinking too much about. But that’s not to say its not a fun game! It just isn’t really for me and i’m sure I’m not its target audience.

Dig is a very light card game with a pleasingly retro fantasy-themed pixel art style. The rulebook is awful, but once you work out how to play it’s a fun little push-your-luck game with a little bit of take-that thrown in.

If you want one of those “noooooo!” game experiences as you flip cards with little to know control, this one could well be for you – and the fantasy theme works well. It has a few gamery elements, such as special characters you can pick up to change things up a little, while you can mitigate the luck a little – but not really enough for me to enjoy it. This is very much a beer and pretzels experience, which unfortunately can also run a little long if you all have rotten luck.

But, returning to the rulebook – there really is no excuse for this level of incompetence. I’d love to blame it on Kickstarter, but having tried to fight though rulebooks for published games recently such as Noria and Agra it is clearly an industry problem with some very deep roots. But Dig’s really is appalling. There are hugely important rules that are somehow in the book as tips or examples, while some things you’re simply going to have to use your imagination with and all agree to move on.

So, with some house ruling, this is a light fantasy-themed game that should well appeal to the Munchkin crowd (and, unlike some, I don’t see that as an insult – it’s just a different arm of the hobby). It’s not big and it’s not clever, and a good run of luck can be totally unstoppable, but we certainly had some fun and laughs playing it despite its flaws. I just hope it finds its audience – and a second printing of the rulebook!

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