With the number one event on the worldwide board gaming calendar – the Internationale Spieltage Spiel ’15 in Essen – just two months away, I’m already getting stupidly excited.
This year’s event will be the biggest yet, moving up to 63,000 sq m of convention hall space (from 58,000 last year), with a staggering 850+ exhibitors flogging they’re cardy, dicey and boardy wares. This will be my fourth time attending, but each time feels just as good as the previous visits.
But if you’re heading to Essen Spiel for your début gaming Mecca experience, here are a few things that I feel shouldn’t be missed but that may not be immediately obvious to the goggle-eyed and overwhelmed first-timer. I’d also suggest checking out my Essen Guide for travel, hotel and Spiel tips. See you in the mad throng!
Österreichisches Spiele Museum: The Austrian Boardgame Museum is a charity that hosts a collection of more than 25,000 board games. Each year the charity has a stand at Essen with a couple of new games on sale, donated to support the charity and often from highly reputable designers. Recent offerings include the original version of Port Royal (Handler der Karibik) and a Bohnanza variant (Sissi!) from Uwe Rosenberg – plus the games are usually cheap, the money goes to a good cause and they’ll throw a bunch of other promos into your bag if you smile sweetly.
Istra Steakhaus: Germany is well known as a carnivorous nation and my favourite restaurant in the city so far is the traditional meat fest of the Istra Steakhaus. Handily located on Rüttenscheider Straße – the nicer of the roads that connects the Messe to the city centre – I’ve had several meaty meals there over the years and never been anything other than well satisfied with the food and also the beer. Expect a ‘traditional’ German welcome (ie, surly) but hey – it’s all part of the experience and they’re a friendly bunch once you engage them.
Adlung-Spiel: If you’re from outside Germany you may not be aware of this little card game publisher, who always has a tiny booth squirrelled away in a corner of the Messe. Its games are always in a traditional single card deck-sized box, but can vary from drafting and hand management through bidding and bluffing to children’s and dexterity games. Much like an OSM game above, these are great Essen mementoes. Classic titles include Meuterer, Vom Kap bis Kairo and Blink.
Grugapark: Depending on how you arrive at the Messe, it can actually be easy to miss the fact that the north and west sides of the huge conference centre are dwarfed by a huge and lovely country park. Even if you don’t have time for a wander around, or if the weather isn’t playing ball, you can sneak out of Hall 2 on its western edge onto a balcony (mainly wasted on smokers) that has a lovely, peaceful view over the greenery, deer and other tranquil sites – perfect for taking a 10-minute break away from the bedlam inside the main halls.
Toys ‘R’ Us: This one may only apply to us Brits, but wandering into this store (which is just a five minute walk from the central Essen Hbf station) its a sobering indictment of the state of the high street for board gamers in the UK. Where in England its wall-to-wall Barbie, Lego and Frozen, at Toys ‘R’ Us in Germany you’ll also find everything from Arkham Horror and Dominion through to the latest Spiel des Jahres nominees. You may find some classics cheaper than at the Messe – but remember language dependency!
For many years The Spiel des Jahres, or German Game of the Year Award, has been the undisputed gold standard for the games industry.
It was first awarded in 1979, so has history, while the winners see a massive swing in sales – making it worth entering for any publisher. And as Germany has long been the spiritual home of modern board gaming, what better place to turn than Europe for the awarding of the industry’s top prize?
But for a decade or so now there have been rumblings from the West: a rising growth in gaming from the US led first by Board Game Geek and now The Dice Tower – Tom Vasel’s little media empire that, despite the odds, has seen the world’s least humble former missionary attain cult status (and make an enviable living from it too).
In 2007, in typically modest fashion, Tom declared all other board game awards rubbish and set about setting up his own board gaming Oscars, calling them The Dice Tower Awards. So, eight years on, has the Dice Tower toppled the SdJ – and if it hasn’t, is it ever likely to do so?
The Spiel des Jahres (SdJ)
The SdJ is judged by a jury of German board game critics. Publishers enter games for consideration, as long as they have been available to the German public during the previous 12 months.
The main award is for the best family game, because in Germany the hobby is very much still a family one. There is a separate award for children’s games (the Kinderspiel), while since 2011 there has also been the Kennerspiel award (roughly translating to ‘connoisseur’ – meaning more advanced than a family game).
Many of the award winners from over the years are considered genuine classics. Early winners included Hare and Tortoise (1979), Rummikub (1980) and Scotland Yard (1983), while 90s winners included Manhattan, Catan and El Grande. More recent classics to bag the SdJ include Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, Dixit, Qwirkle and Hanabi – a list of titles I’m sure no one could argue with.
There have been some choices that seemed odd – in both good and bad years for design (some heads are still spinning at last year’s win by Camel Up) – but generally the SdJ winners are hanging around in the 1,000 games on Board Game Geek, proving their longevity as well as their quality.
The awards themselves are announced at a summer press conference, with the nominees invited along (and from what I can tell most go – designers and publishers). It isn’t a showy event, but it is professional; a typically German understated breakfast. People really want to win this thing!
As a non-German it can be a good wake-up call for games not already out in English, while the vague ‘family game’ description means anything from a little card game to a big box board game can win. The decisions create debate, which is surely the point, while they normally pick a strong set of winners (the Kenner has been won by the likes of Village, 7 Wonders and Istanbul).
The Dice Tower Awards
The Dice Tower Awards are also chosen by a group of gaming journalists and enthusiasts, but the bias is very much towards the American, English speaking gamer (as should come as no surprise).
It now has a total of 14 awards, from Game of the Year right down to ‘small publisher’ and ‘new designer’ – with no less than 11 different titles scooping awards this time around. Over the years, only 7 Wonders and Dominion have won the big one for the Dice Tower and also bagged a German gaming award.
All eight of the Dice Tower Game of the Year Award winners so far are highly regarded on board Game Geek, with only Small World having fallen out of the top 100 (just) since its 2008 win. Impressively, all the rest remain in the BGG Top 30. The first winner was even Race for the Galaxy – my favourite game.
Despite a seemingly strong roster, the list feels a bit too ‘Ameritrash big box’ to be taken seriously outside of the states. But The Dice tower is very much an American production – so arguably, as with the SdJ feeling German, this is the way it should be.
But with thematic games Star Wars X-Wing, Eclipse and Dead of Winter winning three of the last four awards they’ll soon be handing the awards out of the back of a pick-up, rather than at the Dice Tower Convention – where those that have been on the voting panel (and mostly Tom, of course) take centre stage rather than the actual winners. For the ‘Best Art’ award, they didn’t even read out the artist names…
As a non-American some of the lesser awards can throw up some interesting names in the nominations, but as their positions in the game rankings suggest the games nominated and picked tend to be largely predictable. But if they’re the best games for this audience, there is absolutely no harm in that either.
And the winner is… The SdJ (by miles)
I’m sure you noted the, erm, ‘hint’ of sarcasm when it came to the Dice Tower Awards. But when you come out and criticise every other award, and say you’re going to make your own – then create something as bland as The Dice Tower Awards – you deserve it.
Despite the restriction of being for families, since 2007 the SdJ has gone to games as diverse (and brilliant) as Qwirkle (abstract), Hanabi (co-op, cards), Dixit (imagination, party) and Dominion (genre creating card game). The main Dice Tower Award has gone to eight big box gamer’s games – six of which have fantasy/sci-fi themes (and two of those essentially re-themes of older games). If they read ‘Dork Tower’ rather than dice tower, I don’t think anyone would turn a hair.
By having such a huge range of awards, The Dice Tower panellists can hide their prejudices for what they ultimately want (minis and spaceships and dice) by dishing out minor silverware on all sides. But the problem with this is that the more awards you have, the more watered down they become – people outside of the winners’ families only ever really remember the BIG winner. And with Tom always seeming to want more of everything, you can only see more – not less – awards in the future.
But don’t think I’m saying The Dice Tower Awards are without worth. As already mentioned, these are all highly ranked games on Board Game Geek and a lot of people get a lot of joy out of them (including me in some cases). I don’t think most of them are worthy of awards, but if they help new gamers choose them over opting for some Kickstarter crap then more power to them!
In the end I see it as a cultural difference: a country, in Germany, that never gave up on board games – versus a country, in America, that is seeing its nerds and geeks start to become justified in their hobby as it starts to go mainstream. Both these things are awesome, but when you step back one of these looks (and is) a lot more mature than the other.
As a Brit its easy to fall into either group – and I happen to have ended up more on the European side of the fence. But I’d like to think that even if I hadn’t I’d still see the SdJ as the more meaningful award. Quirky, yes – but more interesting for it.
Adventure Tours* is a ‘take-that’ and hand management card game from Seiji Kanai (Love Letter, Brave Rats/R) that is both a little larger and a little longer (40+ minutes) than his rather more illustrious micro games. It takes three to six players.
It was originally released in 2010 under the title Mai-Star in a small box format with a geisha theme, which didn’t sit well with some. While still available in this format, Adventure Tours addresses some problems with the original and has higher production values – while costing about the same (£10-15).
The original had 75 cards, six geisha cards and some score sheets to write on; while the re-released Adventure Tours boasts thick cardboard player mats with some lovely artwork, more than 100 cards (with good if unexceptional art, but good iconography), cardboard victory point chits and some useful player aids – but a much bigger box.
As you may have guessed though, the theme is wholly irrelevant in terms of the rules – this is an abstract card game with some nice, colourful art plastered on top. And this is cutesy artwork too – which very much belies the rather nasty nature of the gameplay.
As we’ve come to expect from Seiji Kanai, Adventure Tours is a simple game at its heart which relies much on player interaction to make it sing.
It is also very luck based and swingy, but enough so that things should balance out over the game.
Each player is dealt six random cards (from one big shared stack) at the start of play. In the basic game, your player board starts you with three of each of the game’s three ‘resources’ to get you going.
On your turn you will lay one card – either for its resources or as an explorer (for its action and also end-game points). If you lay a card for resources it will allow you to play more powerful explorers later, as cards cost between 1-9 resources to play.
Cards played as resources mean you have to pick up a new card from the stack to replace it, so you’re not reducing your hand – but you are giving yourself more chances to lay better explorers later. When you lay an explorer, you do not draw a new card.
Explorer actions are very much what you’d expect from a ‘take-that’ style game: make player players draw more cards (to stop them going out), or force opponents to discard/hand you explorers or resources. But some also benefit you more simply – letting you lay another card being the most common.
The advanced game sees you use the flip-side of the player boards, each of which has a special ability and different starting conditions – so that powers that seem stronger leave you starting with hardly any resources.
The real trick to Adventure Tours is to balance getting rid of your cards while also scoring enough points to make ending the round by doing so a good idea, or to just stockpile points regardless – neither of which are as easy as they sound! The nice player aid and simple icons mean everyone should be up to speed within round one.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
The writer: This is a rare time when I’m still on the fence despite multiple plays. I enjoy the mood Kanai’s games create and he has worked the same simple magic here – but this is on the cusp of being too long for the game experience it creates. I do enjoy playing, but where the luck of the draw makes me laugh in Love Letter it can have me cursing here, which suggests a slight mismatch in fun and complexity.
Thethinker: There is really very little for the strategist in Adventure Tours. Games instead become about bashing the ‘supposed’ leader – which is more about those with good chat talking the meeker participants into thinking a particular player is winning. The only real strategy seems to be: don’t be leading after round two, then try to have a big third round very quietly. Not for me.
The trasher: I like this one! It’s all about table talk and hitting the right players at the right times, which is much like spinning plates. Both ways to lay cards make you a potential target, but for different reasons – going out or scoring big. You have to be a hawk, pointing out anyone who is edging an advantage – except yourself of course! And yes, I’m echoing the strategist – but from the complete other side of the table.
The dabbler: While aggressive games aren’t usually my thing, this one is so nice, bright and colourful that I just got swept along with it. Also the take-that cards never devastate – more hinder – so nothing you can do will put someone out of a round, for example. There is room for clever combos and lots of table talk and laughter, so for me what’s not to like once you get past the fear of being a bit snidey!
If we ignore complaints by people who were never going to like it in the first place, the most common issues with Adventure Tours are that it’s repetitive and that it drags, even for some who enjoy the game.
But simply shortening the game from three down to two rounds (or even one) will solve this – I don’t see how you really lose anything, and it brings the game much more firmly into the ‘filler’ category that the mechanisms suggest it belongs in anyway.
A bigger and related issue is that too many cards make the game last longer. Giving people more cards, for example, rarely feels ‘fun’. It feels like a necessity, while there’s no guarantee it’s even giving you an advantage – you could be handing them the perfect card. But again, this is something that wouldn’t feel like an issue if the game played shorter.
And without wishing to sound like a broken record, for a game lasting close to an hour if played ‘properly’ (ie, three rounds) there are too few options in turns of card options. Essentially they boil down to pick up cards; add extra or take away cards; defend; have an extra go, or get bonus points. You see these cards a lot – probably too much – but over a round or two instead of three I think this is mitigated.
My final concern is the advanced player powers: it’s too early to say for sure, but some of them seem really overpowered. now in the right group this isn’t a problem, as players will realise this and pick on the players with the best powers accordingly – it can actually add to the fun of the table talk. But in less boisterous groups it may be an issue.
And a quick word on the original, Mai-Star. While I haven’t played it I have seen the cards – particularly the advanced player cards – and there have definitely been adjustments made for balance. Have they worked? No idea! But they’ve certainly tried to address well publicised issues with the original and I certainly didn’t think anything in Adventure tours was ‘game breaking’. My fear is they balanced the game by making it longer.
Adventure Tours isn’t a game I feel I can wholly endorse, but at the same time wit the right group I’ve had a lot of fun with it.
‘Take-that filler game’ is already a niche, so when you put it in a big box (despite nice production) and make it last more than 30 minutes you’re going to scare some people off.
But underneath is a typically simple and fun Kanai game – 12 different cards that interact with each other in interesting ways and get the table laughing and chatting. If you’ve enjoyed his previous titles this is certainly worth a look – although I’d give it the ‘try before you buy’ (where possible) caveat just in case for the reasons discussed above.
Sushi Go!* is a light-n-fast card drafting and set collection card game originally released in 2013 and reprinted in its current form (in a swanky little tin) in 2015 from Gamewright.
Designed by Phil Walker-Harding it accommodates two to five players easily, takes less than 30 minutes, plays as young as six to eight-years-old and should cost you less than £10.
While the theme has no relevance to game play the cards (there are 108 of them) are super cute and high quality (linen finish), while the tin is nice if you like that sort of thing (I’m a box man myself!).
The rulebook is colourful, nicely laid out and simple to follow. If you took out the cringe-worthy ‘jokes’ (which I can only hope are for the younger audience) and extraneous art they’d probably fill a single side of A4 – including several variants (one of which is great for two players).
As for teaching, it couldn’t be much simpler: deal everyone the appropriate amount of cards (dependent on player count), choose one each simultaneously, reveal and place into your tableau, then pass the remaining cards to your left. The only wrinkle is the ‘chopsticks’ card, which allows you to play two cards in your turn instead of one if you pass on the chopsticks card, but otherwise it’s rinse and repeat until you run out of cards.
Once all cards have been laid, you add up the scores. Scoring is again simple, with several standard set collection scoring methods applied across the different sets of cards. The exception are ‘pudding’ cards which are, of course, only scored at the end of your meal – which is three rounds long. No surprises, at the end the highest score 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: While I think there’s a lot of design space still to be explored within the drafting mechanic, Sushi Go! is the perfect ‘bare bones’ usage of the mechanism: clean, fast and simple. It’s a shame about the end-game pudding scoring, as it’s the only thing stopping you finishing when it suits you; the perfect fillers can be put down at the drop of a hat when that extra player arrives, or another game finishes.
Thethinker: While the chopsticks do add a bit of thought to the game, this is just too simple for me to really enjoy. I’m not averse to a filler game, but I’d prefer them to either test my brain or be super silly and light – for me, this game falls between those into a murky middle ground. I can see younger gamers enjoying it, but it won’t be a keeper for my groups.
The trasher: I enjoyed the push your luck elements here – especially with the ‘wasabi’ card which allows you to triple the score of a ‘nigiri’ card if you place one on top of it – potentially nine points, or potentially none if everyone else denies you the good ones, as wasabi is worth nothing on its own. Despite the cutesy images, this can be a nasty little take-that game in terms of denying scoring opportunities.
The dabbler: I love the Sushi Go! art, love the simplicity, love love love it! The two-player game doesn’t get much love, but the variant is pretty cool. You have a dummy third hand, which you take it in turns to draw a bonus card from. This throws in much more luck, but can add some really great moments when you take a risk and the perfect card drops into your hand from the third pile. Great fun!
For such a simple card game, it is impressive to see Sushi Go! sitting in the top 500 games at Board Game Geek. Filler games, fairly or unfairly, average lower scores there so for such a light game to get an average above 7 is impressive. But like every game, it still has its detractors.
As this is a card drafting game, there are the inevitable comparisons to 7 Wonders. Sushi Go is often described as 7 Wonders without the depth, or 7 Wonders lite – but on the other hand, many say it ‘fixes’ 7 Wonders by taking out the pretend complexity and shortening the game considerably.
To those who say it lacks depth, may I remind you – its a filler! And to those who say it just copies 7 Wonders, may I remind you that if anything it copies Fairy Tale (from 2004) – a game it is much closer to in play style and which 7 Wonders (from 2010) also largely copied, simply adding a layer of ‘engine’ on top of a perfectly good game. If you think Sushi Go is a little too light for your tastes, Fairy Tale is definitely worth a shot.
As an exercise in distilling the idea of card drafting into a simple set collection game, Sushi Go! ticks all the boxes. Whether that’s the game for you is of course a very different question, but there really isn’t anything to hate here if you know what you’re getting into.
Personally it has reminded me of how much I enjoyed my plays of Fairy Tale, which really is a game I should add to my collection (its more of the same, but with an extra layer of complexity). But until I get around to picking it up, Sushi Go! will be hanging around on my shelves. If you’re looking for a light family game and have kids in the six to 12 age group, I’d definitely recommend it.
I tend to have ideas for game mechanisms most days – and of course most of them are terrible. Others hang around long enough without being dismissed for me to want to write them down, while still fewer make it from my phone’s note-taker app into my ideas document at home.
These few borderline cases kind of shared a heist theme, so I thought I’d write about them here just in case anyone else can make something useful out of them. Maybe I’ll get round to them, maybe I won’t – or maybe they’re terrible after all. They’re far from fully formed too, but maybe they’ll inspire someone.
A co-op with evolving roles
The first idea came to me when watching the Batman movie where The Joker is getting all the people involved in the heist to kill each other off once their particular job is complete – but could equally be applied to any fast moving and dangerous situation. The game would be a co-op (although wouldn’t need to be, I guess) in which every character starts with a roll – in this example it could be the muscle, the safe cracker, explosives expert etc.
As the game goes on, players will need to decide when to change to their other roll – perhaps the getaway car driver, the van driver carrying the lot, the guy causing a road block/distraction, or tampering with traffic lights. Once you switch roll your old character is still in play, but becomes a hindrance – slowing down play and getting in the way.You’ll get a better final score if you get everyone home, but can you succeed while dragging along this dead weight…
In my mind this is a very simple mechanism requiring two players that would be used in a role-playing type scenario – say in our co-op heist game above. Both roll the same amount of dice of different colours, lets say three – red, blue and green – but one of them roles them behind a screen. The person playing the safe-cracker has to match their dice, by colour and number, to those rolled behind the screen.
The safe-cracker would’ve been able to spend skill points on raising their skill at the start of the game – with each point letting the second player give them a clue (say, ‘blue higher’). The safe-cracker can opt to change any dice as much as they likes, then asks if they have the right number for each dice. The player with the dice behind the screen will say ‘higher’, ‘lower’ or ‘cracked it’ for each dice – and then the safe-cracker goes again. Each failed attempt will use up time units.
This feels more like a party/werewolf-style game idea, where one (or maybe two) of the players are questioning suspects and trying to get to the truth. The potential felons all have a few parts of the story, which could potentially save their skin – but of course one of them did it (and knows it).
The questioners will have a limited time scale to grill the suspects for information, and will then have to decide who to charge – you could even have people in different rooms. The suspects can give up as much info they like, or lie as much as they like, to try and work out who did it or just frame someone at random. Maybe one of the questioners could have a preferred victim to throw to the wolves – or a prisoner could be under cover…