Essen 2021 board game mini reviews: Caesar’s Empire, Furnace, Goetia, Grasshopper Poker & Riverside

With more than 1,000 games released at this year’s Essen Spiel, I guess it was inevitable my lazy team of one would miss a few of them. And that’s not to mention the limited the logistical nightmare of getting 1,000 new board games into two suitcases. So I’m embarrassed to admit that around 98% managed to get away…

You can find a full list of the Essen 2021 board games I’ve reviewed here – alongside a list of others I’ll be reviewing in the coming months. But as a little bonus, below you’ll find five mini reviews of games I’ve also played that were at the show. I only played each of them once, for a variety of reasons – so please bear that in mind when reading. But they’ve all had a fair amount of buzz, so I thought they were worth giving a little detail on here.

All were available via board game comparison website Board Game Prices at the time of posting. And using this link before you purchase games will help my blog. Cheers! The ‘age’ mentioned below is my interpretation – not the one printed on the box.

Caesar’s Empire (2021, 2-5 players, 30-60 mins, ages 8+)

This was a bit of an exclusive as it wasn’t on sale at the show – thanks to the awesome Peter from Tabletop Together for teaching. (The game is starting to become available at time of writing.) Caesar’s Empire is a light family game. It combines simple route building on a main board with a basic set collection end game scoring system.

Starting from Rome (in the centre of the board), players take turns adding their armies to a route heading to a new city. You collect a resource from the city you arrive at. Then each player with armies on the route to this new location (back to Rome) score points. That’s pretty much that.

While basic, there are genuine decisions to make, making it a great family game. And there is a definite game arc. You know what resource is in each city. So you can plan to try and get lots of the same type, or a full set of different ones (both score on a sliding scale). But as everyone can see how this is panning out, you can try to scupper each other’s plans. Or get in on a route early you think will be popular, to score residual points as it grows. The board is clear, the Asterix-style minis cute, and overall I was extremely impressed. For a game I’d say is simpler than Ticket to Ride, but with no luck beyond setup, it could be a real winner. Although I would question replay value over a large number of plays.

Furnace (2021, 2-4 players, 60 mins, ages 10+)

This became one of my top wish list games of Essen 2021 after reading about its clever draft/auction system. Limited cards are available each round and players take turns placing bidding chips on them. Each player has four chips numbered 1-4. And no two chips of the same number can be placed on the same card. So if you place a four, you know you’re winning that card. But cards you place a chip on but don’t win give you a one-off benefit – and you may want that more than the card.

Cards you win are used to build a euro game style engine. You use a resource (often gained from those one-off benefits) with a card to turn it into another resource, which is then used to gain points etc. Rinse, repeat. The game is rating highly on Board Game Geek and has proven popular. So other opinions are available – but I really didn’t like it. The auction part was exactly what I’d hoped for. But I found the engine building part incredibly tedious. It was as dry as its lack of theme suggests. And worse still, everything turned into everything else. I could see no way to genuinely differentiate yourself. And variation between plays will be minimal at best. A real disappointment, as it’s a great mechanism looking for a game.

Goetia: Nine Kings of Solomon (2021, 2-4 players, 2+ hours, ages 12+)

I usually target one or two heavier euro games each Essen and this one didn’t make the wish list cut. Unknown (to me) publisher and designers, plus a dark demonic theme, didn’t get my heart racing. But I was happy to get a chance to sit down and play it recently. What you get, theme aside, is a relatively straight forward worker placement game. But it has just enough little quirks to keep things interesting. Rather than having a board, action spaces are on cards. These move, get flipped and generally misbehave during the game, but not chaotically. So it keeps you on your toes, but in a good strategic way. Generally, you’re collecting resources to unlock extra workers, unique abilities or victory points.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Goetia. I like the idea of moving card-based worker placement spaces, such as in 1906 San Francisco, or The Sanctuary. And this similarly uses the concept to encourage and enhance passive interaction. For example, some actions around the edge of the card grid get cheaper as spaces in the middle are filled with workers. So you can set yourself up – or an opponent accidentally – for cheap actions. What stops me pulling the trigger on getting a copy was the length. While there was a pleasant arc, it went too long and dragged a little. But if you like a long and involved worker placement game, you should definitely check this one out.

Grasshopper Poker (2021, 2-4 players, 20 mins, ages 8+)

Only currently available as Heuschrecken Poker, this is the latest game from the makers of the fabulous Cockroach Poker. However, this is nothing like that. In so many ways.

Firstly, this is a simple trick-taking game with none of the bluff and silliness of Cockroach Poker. At least that game had bluffing, which partially explained the ‘poker’ reference in the title. Here, the only connection I can think of is to milk the popularity of that older game. In Grasshopper Poker, you have a small hand of cards and you play tricks to gain resources flipped over each round. Some you want, some you don’t. That’s about that.

I think having a famous elder sibling can work both for and against you. Sure, it will open some unexpected doors. But once those doors are open, you have to live up to the hype. Here, the grasshopper bares only artistic similarities to the cockroach. It works fine as a light trick-taking game. But it doesn’t feel fresh or original. So for me was disappointing. I didn’t hate it, but equally felt no desire to play it again. That said, I’ve played a lot of trick-takers over the years. And those that taught me it had really enjoyed it – so your millage may vary.

Riverside (2021, 1-6 players, 20-60 mins, ages 10+)

It has been nice to watch the evolution of roll-and-write games over the past few years. And Riverside is another nice step along this path. It has the usual personal sheet where you’re marking off boxes in the hope of triggering bonuses and combos to score points. The twist here is a central board with a river/boat you’re all travelling along. Where it randomly stops each turn limits your scoring options, while also acting as a game timer. The variability of the boat’s movement also means you’re not sure when the game will end, which can add a nice push-your-luck element to the end game.

I very much enjoyed my play of Riverside (shout out to the lovely Semi Co-op guys who we played it with). It almost came home with me – but I thought it would be the game that literally broke the reviewer’s back on the journey home. It’s pretty, well designed and felt just the right length and complexity for what it was. Having the central board also created a bit of table talk, which is always nice in a game which otherwise could easily become multiplayer solitaire. Sure, it’s a conceit – but we were genuinely chatting as we played, which is often a fault with roll-and-writes. For me, Riverside is one of the more interesting games in the genre right now.

Thanks to the lovely Tine and Mark, who between them taught four of these games to me in Essen and Eastbourne respectively. Cheers! I’ll beat you next time…

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