Essen Spiel 2022: The aftermath – reviews incoming

It was a very different Essen Spiel 2022 for me this year. I didn’t pitch any games or have a single meeting. I worked a couple of short shifts on the Surprised Stare booth (which was fun) and went in not really looking forward to a particular game. And it was all going swimmingly until I got ill on Saturday. I thought it was con crud but no, it was COVID. I’m clear now, but still feel terrible. But at least I got three good days at the show.

Generally, it felt as if Essen was back to normal. The numbers seemed a little down, but that may have been helped by my relaxed attitude. It’s a very different show when you’re trying to rush between meetings and there are thousands of browsers in your way. The look and feel of the show were completely back, though. Everything was in its place.

I had a pretty bad hit rate on the 13 games I’d earmarked in my Essen Spiel 2022 games preview. Four came home with me, including both ‘must haves’. I guess you could say that’s perfect, seeing as I said I was only coming home with five games. But we all know that was never going to happen. I was good, I swear. I only came home with 10, spending a grand total of 60 euros in the process.

Essen Spiel 2022 reviews

These are done – the list of what’s still to come is at the bottom of the post.

The tale of my Essen Spiel 2022 list

I grabbed my must-haves, Starship Captains and 1998 ISS, on Thursday, along with two-player target The Two Heirs. Of the other two I’d looked at, Laniakea was a little too basic and uninvolving after playing a bit of a game of it at their booth. While I decided Sarah probably wouldn’t enjoy Violet and the Grumpy Niss, I did hear good things about it from people who picked it up. Worth checking out for two-player trick-takers.

Of the cheaper games, a miscommunication meant I missed out on Moesteiro – I’m still hopeful of getting hold of a copy. And I’ve been promised Overbooking post-show. We played Maui at the show and while it was fine, again it just didn’t stand out. It’s a nice, light family game but there’s nothing there for gamers.

I picked up Pessoa, but they’d run out of Findorff by the time I got to the 2fSpiel stand. And Tribes of the Wind will be out in the UK in June with a release at UK Games Expo, so I’ll follow that up then. It was on sale, but I’m happy to wait. Pilgrim didn’t make it, I’m following up on Sabika, and I passed on Revive and Discordia. I had both on the back burner but had enough games in my suitcase before I got back to them. I’m looking forward to hearing more about both, though.

My extra pickups from Essen Spiel 2022

Any regulars here will know I love me a bit of Stefan Feld, and I was lucky that Armageddon publisher Queen is working closely with him right now. I managed to pick up review copies of his new offering Marakesh, alongside the reprint of one of my faves Macao, now rebranded and updated as Amsterdam. NSV tends to be generous with the press, and this year was no different, with a copy of the little card game Triggs falling into my lap.

I grabbed Fantasy Pub from Looping Games (1998 ISS), which is a reprint of a light game that looks nice. I had a compelling pitch from the designer of Space Expatriate, which looks to have some Race for the Galaxy elements to it (sold!). And rounding things off with the 2019 release Electropolis, which we played in the halls and I instantly fell in love with.

You can expect reviews of all these in the coming months – bookmark this page if you’re interested, and I’ll link them below as I do them. And add anything that comes in late. And as always, do feel free to ask anything you like about anything Essen-related.

Essen Spiel 2022 reviews incoming

  • 1998 ISS
  • Fantasy Pub
  • Marakesh
  • Pessoa
  • Starship Captains

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 (see the intro above) – 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?

Paris Eiffel Expansion review

Paris: La Cité de la Lumière is a gorgeous two-player-only tile-laying game, released in 2019 (and reviewed by me in 2022 – linked above), that plays in 20-30 minutes.

It’s a game of two distinct halves, with the players essentially building the board with tiles in the first half – while also taking polyominoes they will try to use in the second half of the game. In part two, you try to place them while also claiming special actions that can enhance your position, or mess with your opponent’s plans.

I’m a big fan of the original, as it packs a lot of meaningful decisions into a short play time and a small box, while also looking great on the table. It’s simple to teach, but the fact you build the board – and use just eight of the twelve special actions each game, keeps each play feeling different. And while the rules are simple, playing well is anything but.

What does the Paris Eiffel Expansion bring to the party?

While the expansion comes in a box that’s the same size as the original, it contains very much less. It comes with eight new special action postcards, five cardboard pieces and two wooden ones to go with them, plus a nicely illustrated scorepad (something lacking in the original).

In terms of gameplay, things remain exactly the same. All you do is mix in – in any way you choose – the eight new special actions. So you can choose to use just the new set, choose the exact ones you want for each game, or randomise by shuffling the postcards and randomly picking eight. And that’s all she wrote.

How much does it change the game?

There are no new systems or changes to the rules with the introduction of Paris: Eiffel. Seven of the new action postcards have a piece you place onto the board, while one (Quartiers Pauvres) is purely a scoring card giving bonus points (1,2,4,8) for each edge of the board your buildings are touching.

The two wooden pieces (Notre Dame and The Catacombs) let you score off one of the other player’s buildings, while the Louxor, Louvre, Hotel des Invalides score points in various ways for the person who played them. Tour Eiffel scores (by colour) for the four spaces below, which can’t have buildings on them – while streetlights below it count double. Finally, the Arc de Triomphe acts as a bridge between your buildings, increasing the size of your largest area accordingly.

Essentially though, nothing changes. None of the new cards change any fundamentals, or make you play differently. As before, each action postcard either messes with your opponent or mitigates when they mess with you – or when you just plain mess up. However, you do suddenly have a genuinely different setup each time you play. And who doesn’t want more options? All of the new actions play well. Although the size of the Eiffel and Triomphe pieces will annoy some, as it can be hard to see the rest of the board once they’re in play.

Is the Paris Eiffel Expansion value for money?

According to Board Game Prices (at time of writing), you can get the Paris Eiffel expansion for around £15 including delivery. Purely on what you get in the box, this doesn’t feel good value at all. In terms of cardboard, perhaps it is. The pieces are lovely and chunky and fit perfectly with the original game. So physically, perhaps it is enough to justify the price tag. But mechanically? I don’t think so.

Is the Paris Eiffel Expansion essential?

Certainly not. If you’re an occasional player of Paris: La Cité de la Lumière and haven’t felt the need to add anything, there’s no reason to seek this one out. However, regular players who love the original will certainly find plenty to make them smile here. As mentioned, it doesn’t really feel value for money. But it’s so lovely to look at, if you can justify it, then it’s a great addition to the base game. If something isn’t going to be value for money, having it at such a low price point certainly helps! I’ll certainly be keeping it and am happy to have it. It makes a really good game better.

… and does it fit in the original Paris: La Cité de la Lumière box?

Just! Kind of. I think that if you methodically manoeuvred (I so wanted to make a ‘Louvre’d pun there…) every piece with surgical precision, the box lid might lay flat. But instead you’ll probably end up with a lid that won’t quite close. C’est la vie.

* Thank you to Kosmos UK for providing a copy for review.

Origins First Builders: A four-sided review

The Origins First Builders board game is a worker placement tableau building euro game for one-to-four players. It is a complex game with lots of moving parts, but the 14+ age limit suggested is a bit steep. I’d say 12+ is fine, as there is no hidden information so you can walk players through issues as you play. It takes 2-3 hours with more than two.

The theme is a slightly odd Stargate-ish sci-fi idea, with each player building their own city via tile buying and placement. The artwork is nice without ever getting in the way, but the size of font used for the text on the tiles is laughable. You don’t use the abilities often but still, it’s barely legible.

In the box you’ll find the main game board, four small player boards, 83 building tiles, 49 dice, 61 small cards, 33 plastic pieces, 80 wooden discs, and more than 100 cardboard chits. The component quality is about average and (for me) the game looks great on the table. The resource tokens are awful, but more on that later. Looking at comparison site Board Game Prices, you can find it for around £40, which is great value for a big box euro that’s crammed full of stuff.

Teaching Origins First Builders

This is an action selection game that uses dice as workers. There are five (non-contested) worker spaces, each matching the colour of a worker dice. Each space has two basic actions to choose from, plus a colour-matched one. Send a non-matching dice and you choose one of the basic actions; send one of the correct colour and you additionally get to do the colour-matched action. At the end of each round, when you take your worker dice back, they go up one number. When they reach six, they get a super turn where you do both actions – plus the coloured action, if you colour match the dice.

At the end of a round when dice were used as a six, they’re retired. They go to a special area of your board and enhance your one non-dice worker. This chap can go anywhere, anytime, and counts as every colour you’ve retired. So he starts colourless, but through the game can become very powerful – especially as he has no number restriction. You see, each of the five worker spaces has a dial numbered 1-6. Each time a worker goes there, it goes up one (or back to one, if on six). If you place a dice there with a number lower than the dial, you need to pay resources to make up the difference.

so what do these workers do?

Origins First Builders has three basic resources, plus a wild one. Every action space has an option that gives resources, and another that lets you spend them (the coloured bonus actions do all sorts). The colour positions are set at the start of each game, adding a nice level of variety. Some of them synergise nicely in certain spots, which will point more experienced players in a particular direction. But there is plenty else to consider.

Other actions allow you to open up new worker bases (that you put your dice in), take new dice, move on military/god tracks (for various bonuses and points), and buy building tiles. Building tiles (which are also in the dice colours) give you a one-off bonus when you take them. Your main aim with them is to match the patterns on (randomly selected pre-game) bonus cards. Once you have a square of four buildings, you can choose to place one of your dice into the middle to ‘close a district’. This gives you those bonus points, while also re-triggering any buildings in the district that match the dice colour.

As is the way in this post-Feld euro world, almost everything everywhere scores points. When one of several game end triggers occurs, the person who has done a bunch of stuff the most efficiently wins.

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 love a good worker placement game, and Origins First Builders is most certainly one of those. There’s just the right amount of random in the setup to make each game feel like a different puzzle, while every action selection feels both tricky and meaningful. And it feels very competitive, despite being largely passive.
  • The thinker: While I enjoy the game, it feels a little as if it is decided in setup. The way things come out will favour a particular strategy, and if one person spots that early and the rest don’t – forget about it. Also, two players trying to do the same thing can be particularly painful. Going for the same tile colours means they’ll likely be more expensive. While the amount of tower discs in each colour (they multiply the score of your district dice) can do for you if you compete for them. But this is a common euro issue and didn’t stop my enjoyment.
  • The trasher: When I saw the military track, I had hope! But no – it’s just another euro game, with the track being a way to score points and grab resources – but not from your opponents. The one bright spot was the multiple ways a game can end, which keeps you on your toes. Things can end really fast, so you need to be on the ball. But generally, meh. It’s OK.
  • The dabbler: I thought Origins First Builders looked pretty and colourful during setup, but more and more components kept appearing from the box! It looks overwhelming at first, but it actually plays smoothly. However, a good and/or experienced player is absolutely going to rip the rest apart. This is very much a game of skill, where the players picking and sticking to the ‘right’ paths are going to wipe the floor with us dabblers!

Key observations

Looking through naysayer comments, the same theme keeps coming up: balance. This seems to be from players who think playing a complex game once, and losing, is enough to call it unbalanced and give it a one or two out of 10. The funny thing is, read enough of the comments, and you’ll find that every single part of the game us unfairly broken and using it is an unbeatable strategy. As mentioned above, every game plays differently and you have to look for what synergises best once the game is set up. This is not going to be to everyone’s tastes, but it isn’t ‘broken’ – it’s a feature, not a bug.

The flipside to this is that if two players see that killer strategy, and compete over it, someone else can benefit greatly and trump them both. Stubbornness isn’t going to help, and while it’s relatively easy to pivot – you’re of course leaving the other person with the golden ticket.

The theme is pretty stupid and barely implemented – but I didn’t care at all. And while the text on the buildings is unreadable without picking one up and staring at it, it isn’t actually a big deal. These bonuses are small and you’re unlikely to be taking tiles for them – you’ll be taking them for the colour. As there is only one tile of each colour in the market at any time, you’ll be taking it when you can afford to. I feel players who complain about this are rather missing the point of the tiles.

Generally I liked the components, which made the terrible resource tokens even harder to fathom. There are two few, they’re small, but worse they look pretty similar. Each fiddly token has a small whitey/yellowy symbol on a grey background, making them incredibly easy to muddle up. And in a game where resource management tends to be a big part of winning, this is an issue. It sounds small, but is incredibly frustrating. If I find myself playing a lot, I expect I’ll upgrade them – but I hate that it feels I need to, rather than want to.

Conclusion: Origins First Builders

Origins First Builders is a good euro game. There will be too much going on for some, while the random setup – that can create some killer combos while leaving other strategies pretty useless – is certainly not going to be for everyone. But personally, it won me over. There’s enough passive interaction to keep you looking around the table, lots of snappy actions making short meaningful turns, while both strategy and tactics are important as the board situation is constantly subtly changing. A keeper for me.