My top 50 board and card games (2015 update)

Here we go again – nine new entries since last year’s début top 50 alongside plenty of ups and downs between top and bottom. I’ve kept the same format, except I’ve wittered on even more, so without further gibber jabber…

My Top 20 board and card games 2015 (last year’s position in brackets)

  1. Race for the Galaxy(1) Race for the Galaxy (2007) While my plays of this have dropped dramatically after I stopped attending my old regular midweek group, it still sits comfortably at the top of the tree. You may need to be tied to a chair and forced to play 10 games before you really ‘get’ it, but it is absolutely worth it.
  2. (3) Terra Mystica (2012) I have played some good medium/heavy euros over the past year, but none of them have come close to Terra Mystica. Pasted-on theme aside, this is a masterful mix of strategy and tactics that’s chock full of meaningful decisions from start to finish.
  3. (4) Ticket to Ride (2004) Thanks to its many maps adding just enough variety and rules tweaks to keep things interesting, Ticket to Ride remains my gateway game of choice. Few games can be so easily taught, then played while chatting, but still give you the feeling you’ve been doing something competitive.
  4. (2) Ra (1999) Like Race, my plays of Ra have dropped off since leaving my midweek group and, thanks to not feeling quite so satisfying in plays since, it has dropped a couple of positions. Three-player is its sweet spot for me and I just don’t enjoy it as much with four or five – which is how I’ve played most recently.
  5. (-) NEW Deus (2014) The stand-out game of 2014 for me, by miles. This is in a similar place for me as Race for the Galaxy, being tactical and card driven and playing out in under an hour and having several routes to victory. But it has a much lower barrier to entry, meaning it is easier to get to the table.
  6. (20+) Endeavor (2009) A big jump for Endeavor, which had been a little forgotten in 2013. I’ve had three hugely enjoyable games since and it is firmly back in the rotation, being enjoyed by everyone in my weekend group. It always feels too short, but that in itself adds to the excitement. And it can be really cut-throat.
  7. (6) The Downfall of Pompeii (2004) Gateway game number two – and the only thing holding it back from more plays is the fact it’s limited to four players. The switch in game style half way is genius and works brilliantly, moving from placement to mayhem and murder on one fun little step.
  8. (20+) The Castles of Burgundy (2011) Castles has risen to the position of number one Feld design on the list by dint of being one of Zoe’s favourites. It plays pretty fast for its weight, while two-player it feels very tactical as well as strategic. While a bit of a point salad, importantly it always feels like the best player on the day won.
  9. (8) Copycat (2012) While not the most popular game on this list, I enjoy the way Copycat uses mechanisms I love from other great games and really makes them compliment each other. It plays fast but also thinky, having a great mix of luck, strategy and tactics that I keep wanting to come back to.
  10. (5) Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (2012) While Castles and Endeavor have jumped up the table due to working in my regular groups, Tzolk’in has fallen a little for the opposite reason: some simply find it frustrating and it can be very punishing score-wise if you play poorly. But I’m still a big fan, so it’s staying in the top 10.
  11. Deus box(9) Through the Ages (2006) While I still really enjoy my plays of Through the Ages, I find the power of military in the game a little frustrating at times – but not as much as my inability to be any good at it! Still my favourite three-plus hour game, but there is definitely room in my life now for its successor.
  12. (14) Snowdonia (2012) While a few euros tumbled a few places due to tough competition (see below), Snowdonia has held its own thanks to the variety of tracks and its simply ingenious ‘game plays you’ mechanisms. The weather constantly ruins my life, players steal MY actions and I love it every stinking time.
  13. (20) Pizza Box Football (2005) I’ve had two more plays since last year’s top 50 – one an epic, crushing defeat and the other a close defeat after an oh-so-close onside kick failure. Both games were epic in their own way and no matter how stupid this game may be, it never fails to deliver.
  14. (16) Twilight Struggle (2005) I now own my own copy of this classic, but sadly it has only been played once – must try harder. I’m hoping I’ve found a regular playing partner, but h wasn’t 100 per cent convinced after our first play. But as this is a proper cold war card play classic, I’m sure someone else will step in if need be.
  15. (-) NEW Bora Bora (2013) I skipped this on its release as it looked like a day-glo dog’s breakfast, but one play and I was hooked. The dice mechanism is worth the entrance fee alone, but the agonising decisions of which bonuses to give up on as you move forward really makes it shine.
  16. (11) Notre Dame (2007) Despite being relegated from first to third Feld, I still love me some Notre Dame. Card drafting is a mechanism I love in theory but in truth this is the only game I own that really uses it well. And it plays fast, every decision counts, and you’ve never got quite enough to do exactly what you want.
  17. (-) NEW Navegador (2010) I’m not sure quite where Navegador will end up in the long run, but right now it is my favourite Mac Gerdts game. It’s super crunchy and right now I’m enjoying that – but the jury is out on whether it will become too dry or just right. I love that rondel, but it clearly hates me!
  18. (17) Can’t Stop (1980) The 80s are still being represented in the top 20 by this evergreen push-your-luck classic. Zoe thrashed me in our last two games but I still thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’m not sure hat says more about me or the game, but either way I’m still smitten by this daft family game.
  19. (7) Concordia (2013) Gerdts’ momentary meander away from his beloved rondel is still a game I love, but it isn’t drawing me to the table quite as much as it was a year ago. I still enjoy the tricky decisions you are forced into each round, but it may be a little too dry and a little too solitary to keep a place in my top 20.
  20. (13) The Manhattan Project (2012) The great integration of theme  and the clever, edgy worker placement have kept this in the top 20 despite me only getting it to the table once since last year’s top 50. And people like it too – what have I been playing at? A game that may well bounce back up in next year’s list.

21-30 (alphabetical)

  • Archaeology The Card Game boxAcquire (1963) A steady hold for Acquire, which I still can’t believe is as old as it is and remains the granddaddy of the list. Luck, clever play and speculation all play their part in this light economic gateway game.
  • Archaeology: TCG (2007) A big two-division jump for this, which didn’t look likely a week or two ago as it hadn’t been played for ages. But a few funny, swingy games have reminded me just how good, light and fun it is.
  • Ingenious (2004) A drop from 12 for Ingenious, largely due to a lack of plays over the year. Still a favourite for sure and one that may head back up the chart if I find others who like to play more regularly.
  • Maori (2009) A one division jump for Maori, whose tile-laying charms continue to entice me despite my regular ineptitude at the game. Simple to teach, tough to master – well, it is for me anyway! The fourth and final Feld on the list.
  • Merchant of Venus (1988) A big drop from 10 for Merchant of Venus, again due to lack of plays. I love it, but not enough to set it up! I can’t help thinking a shiny new version may break that but I can’t justify pulling the trigger…
  • Port Royal (2013) A hold for Port Royal, although it is teetering on a division drop. I still enjoy it but almost feel as if I’m waiting for a slightly better push-your-luck card game to come along. Right now, Archaeology (above) has edged ahead of it.
  • Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (2003) A small jump for this free Knizia game as I now tend to enjoy it a little more than Pickomino (below) if Zoe and me decide to go head to over the dice tower. I still mostly lose, but hey – that’s dice.
  • Rosenkönig (1997) A small drop from 15 for this fascinating two-player abstract, but nothing really to worry about. The thrill has gone a little now that I’ve finally found my own copy, but I still get a kick out of it when I get to play.
  • The Boss (2010) The Boss is hanging in there, no problem. I’ve played with several groups over recent months and everyone has been that great blend of initially baffled, then delighted, then crushed once more as they get their head around it.
  • NEW Yspahan (2006) Nine years old, outside the top 250 and I’ve never seen it on the table anywhere else – but it has captured the imagination with everyone I’ve played with so far. A very clever design and I look forward to exploring it more.

31-40 (alphabetical)

  • Alhambra 004Alhambra (2003) The expansions are definitely keeping Alhambra fresh for me, pushing it up a division by giving a new lease of life to this classic tile buying/laying game. I’m not sure the original on its own would still be in the top 50.
  • Brass (2007) A drop in division for Brass, simply due to lack of plays. My opinion of the game hasn’t changed: its one of the best heavy euro games out there. But the fact I haven’t played it for months has to say something. It may well rebound up.
  • CV (2013) This is another title that’s expansion has helped it up a division, but its charm is still very much in tact either way. The Yahtzee style dice mechanism fits the theme really well, while the cards just pile on the charm.
  • Kingdom Builder (2011) The Android app of Kingdom Builder has helped it hold its own, as I haven’t played the ‘real’ version much. I’m still terrible at this clever and quick area scoring game, but love it all the same – even without expansions.
  • Macao (2009) I think Macao has largely dropped a division under the pure weight of Felds and other good euros. My opinion of it hasn’t dropped – its more that games are just slotting in above it in the medium weight category.
  • NEW Manhattan (1994) With three games under my belt now, this is now in my ‘must buy’ category. Fast, nasty, light on rules and deeply table talk inducing, it succeeds despite looking bloody awful and having no theme. A true classic.
  • Manila (2005) Manilla holds its own thanks to no other game I’ve played so perfectly blending the betting and racing genres. Lots of luck, sure, but also lots of interesting decisions to make each round.
  • NEW Oltre Mare (2004) This turned out to be a great acquisition, taking the ideas of Bohnanza and adding more strategy, some nastiness and more real thinking to the mix. Must… stop… thinking… about upgrading my perfectly adequate copy.
  • Pickomino (2005) Another hold, this time for one of Zoe’s favourites. We don’t play as often as we used to, and the chicken gods still hate me, but you can’t beat the look on Zoe’s face as she crushes me again and again. And again.
  • Power Grid (2004) Oddly this has gone up a division despite very few plays over the last year – where Brass has fallen for the same reason. I think they’ve found their level – I was just newer to Brass this time last year and a little jaded on Power Grid.

41-50 (alphabetical)

  • Ancient Terrible ThingsNEW Ancient Terrible Things (2014) Despite being a year older I’d still reach for CV before ATT, hence its lowly position here. But I do very much enjoy it and look forward to exploring its dice-rolling Cthulhu goodness more throughout the year.
  • Basari (1998) Basari has dropped two divisions largely due to a few lack lustre games, which have seen some of my friends fail to get into it at all. I’m still keen, but everyone needs to be on board to make this negotiation card game truly shine.
  • NEW El Gaucho (2014) Six months ago this clever dice/set collection game may have made the top 20, but multiple plays have become a trickle. Played out? Maybe, but its still in the 50 because I think a break will be enough to reinvigorate it for me.
  • NEW Johari (2014) While I love Johari’s mix of gem collection, action cards and turn order manipulation others have been less enthusiastic. I would rate this game higher if I could find some enthusiasm for it in others when we play!
  • Nefertiti (2008) This unique and clever bidding game has dropped down a division purely due to a lack of really fun plays. The game isn’t at its best with two and, like Basari, I’ve struggled to get it played with the right group of people.
  • Puerto Rico (2002) The game that just beat the drop. While I still very much enjoy a play it rarely rises to the top of the pile now and sometimes plays out very poorly, even with people who enjoy the game. A classic, but for me a slowly fading one.
  • Stone Age (2008) Anther ‘I love it but others fail to share my enthusiasm’ game. I like the random element and big points of this classic worker placement game, but it either baffles or bores most of my gaming pals. A big drop from number 19.
  • Thebes (2007) Another big drop, this time from 18, but for more gamerly reasons. I still enjoy a game of Thebes, but you can’t escape the fact that despite it being thematic there is far too much randomness for it to be a ‘good’ game. But I like it…
  • Tikal (1999) A two division drop for this great area control game, largely because it feels too long – while the ‘mini’ version we tried was too short. I’ll always enjoy it in the right mood, but not often enough for it to stay in my own top 30.
  • Uruk (2008) Another falling from the top 30, Uruk will always be in my collection but is fading a little because of its lack of variety; something that will never be fixed now that the inferior reprint has come along. Still great, but now just occasionally played.

The new entries

As you can probably tell, I didn’t think too much of 2014’s new releases. There was some real nonsense (Imperial Settlers and Madame Ching in particular), a massive pile of ‘OK’ games (Mad King Ludwig, Imperial Assault, Splendor, Star Realms, Istanbul, Mangrovia etc etc), one that flattered to deceive (Dead of Winter) and some that may yet make the grade (Roll for the Galaxy in particular) – but overall, I think it was a ‘meh’ year.

There were still nine new entries into the top 50 this year – but five of them were older games. Bora Bora was 2013, so is hardly old, but the likes of Manhattan, Yspahan, Oltre Mare and Navegador continue to show me there are decades worth of gems out there still waiting to be discovered and that I should never judge an old game by its cover (or nasty pink and pale blue pieces!).

Out of the 50

  • Blueprints box contentsArkham Horror (2005) This was replaced by Dead of Winter earlier in the year – but after a few plays of that I came to the conclusion that Ameritrash games like this simply aren’t for me: too fiddly, too luck dependent, too ripe for a poor experience.
  • Blueprints (2013) A good game for sure, but it very rarely hits the table – making it hard to justify leaving in my top 50. I have no intention of getting rid of it though.
  • Bruges (2013) This burned brightly for a short time, but in the end the level of luck/frustration just outweighed the fun factor for me and it disappeared from my wishlist. I’d play it more, but don’t want to get my own copy.
  • Cards Against Humanity (2009) Another game I’m glad I own, and will play when the time is right, but that isn’t very often and in truth its just  bunch of rude words on some cards with a borrowed game mechanic. Top fun, but not top 50 material.
  • Escape From Atlantis (1986) This is another game I’ll play any time, and am happy with my £1 charity shop copy, but I need to play with some variants to really find its sweet spot. I like it, but it isn’t in the same league as Pompeii, for example.
  • Hamburgum (2007) Again, still a great game – but Navegador simply replaced it in this top 50 as the Gerdts rondel game of choice. Having more than one on the list felt like overkill, especially with Concordia on here too.
  • Le Havre (2008) I played this at the weekend, enjoyed it again, and even won – but it has fallen from my wishlist. For me the games goes just a little too long to fall in love with – the decision space gets a little too big, it becomes work, and I struggle.
  • Rialto (2013) Having had an enjoyable game of this over the weekend it almost snuck back onto the list, but like Blueprints I just find it a little hard to love. Fun on occasion, and very clever, but not quite a classic.
  • Revolution! (2009) Like Blueprints, a lack of plays has seen this fall below the 50. It’s a very silly, luck riddled game that I enjoy immensely despite its flaws but it needs three to play and just never seems to be the best choice available.

Top 50 potential

Red7Entdecker, Caverna, Age of Empires III, Africana and Lords of Vegas (both now owned), Sentinels of the Multiverse and Amun Re all impressed me after a single play.

They are all games I look forward to exploring more – hopefully sooner rather than later.

Roll for the Galaxy has been fun so far but the jury is definitely out. Maybe its too close to Race to make a big enough impression yet, but it has potential. Red7 I have enjoyed too, and own, but need to play more before deciding just how much I like it. But until next year… I’m out.

LoBsterCon, April 2015: Gaming goodness by the sea

Best Western EastbourneFor nearly a decade the world’s largest board game meet up group, London on Board, has been spending two weekends a year by the seaside.

Each spring and autumn a growing number (almost 100 this time) of gamers head down to the York House Best Western Hotel on Eastbourne’s seafront for a mix of games, food, ice cream and alcohol – with quantities varying depending on the individual. I tend to skip the food and ice cream as much as possible to save money for booze, but do take plenty of gaming breaks (Match of the Day, for example, is a must).

York House Hotel

I’ll keep this brief, but did want to give the Best Western a plug. The first time I went five years ago it seemed a little old and tired, but all those board gamer pounds have been spent wisely and the rooms are now really nice. It’s right on the seafront, has a comfortable bar area and a pretty good breakfast too – there’s even a little pool.

We take over two large conference areas and pretty much need to be served all day, every day (and most of the night) while we’re there. The staff are always polite and pleasant, even when run into the ground, and beyond a few human error mistakes (which we all make) I’ve never had a bad word to say about them. The best I can say is that I genuinely hope we never change venue.

Thursday: Tricks and tables

EntdeckerA late arrival, but some great plays convinced me it had been worth it. Despite having a massive ‘want to play’ list I kicked off with a game of Abyss; a game I had no interest in after reading so-so reports since its release.

It actually turned out to be pretty good, but the gorgeous art and general over production do not turn what would be fairly priced as a £10 card game into a £30 big box game. Pretty fun, but a terrible rip-off.

As the beer started to flow I sat down with Soren, Tom and Karl for what became a back-to back session of Entdecker, two plays of Artus (first basic and then advanced) and a (post Karl) game of ebbes. Entdecker has been on my ‘want to play’ list forever, while the other two I own but don’t play enough.

Entdecker was fantastic. It was doing tile placement four years before the classic Carcassonne and while I can see why it didn’t make a similar sized splash, on this play I enjoyed it more. Like Carcassonne it is light and plays in less than hour, but adds more player interaction – and laughs – because of it. Now a must-buy.

Artus is madness – especially with four. The game looks pretty innocuous, but it only takes a couple of rounds to realise how dastardly it is and you really have to be ready to be screwed over. The basic version is fast and light, but you have no control: the game involves playing a card to move a piece around the edge of a circular board, scoring points for the space you moved the piece from. Your choices are limited as the game goes on, making for some tough decisions.

The advanced version was longer but even nastier, adding some cards which could lose you huge points – but giving you more control, as you place two cards on your turn allowing you to set yourself up for the second card. Getting rid of those nasty cards as early as possible seemed key, as Karl learnt the hard way – losing half his points and going from first to last place in the final turn in the day’s gaming highlight!

Ebbes is an interesting little trick-taker but it was very late and it kind of fizzled out as we did, but it was a nice wind-down at the end of a really fun evening.

5 plays. Game of the day: Entdecker (just beating Artus)

Friday: Booze and baseball

XiaWhat better way to start a gaming day than with a great big space sandbox game? And they don’t come much bigger that Xia.

They also don’t come much stupider than Xia, but it’s a good kind of stupid – the kind of stupid that wears its stupid on is sleeve, loud and proud. The kind of stupid that walks up to you and says ‘Hi, I’m stupid”. The kind of stupid in which rolling 20 on a 20-sided-dice at any point in the game, for any reason, gets you a victory point. Yeah, its that stupid.

But importantly its stupid right off the bat and never lets up. It has the kind of rules where you think, ‘What would I make up if I was 12?’ and that’s what’s in the rulebook. Run out of energy to shoot? Ram them. Need to take a short cut? Roll to see if you blow up in the asteroid belt. Blow up in the asteroid belt? No problem – start from a random respawn point. Roll 20? Have a victory point. Flip a random tile? Have a victory point. Kill your defenceless neighbour? Have a victory point. Dumb, but a lot of fun.

Next I sat down with John B for a game of Baseball Highlights 2045 – a nice little future sport sim based on a light deck-building mechanism. It’s a little clunky in places and you need to take a few leaps of faith in terms of fitting the theme, but I had a good time playing it and its a must buy for sci-fi loving, deck-building baseball fans (just you then John!).

Rich joined us for a game of Viticulture – my third ‘new to me’ game in a row. I did enjoy playing this rather innocuous wine themed worker placement game, but was struck by two thoughts: one, what does it bring to the party? And two, why did I win when I didn’t really play better than the other two? The answer to the second question is the incredibly swingy random cards. The answer to the first question is very little. Pleasant enough though.

After this Karl and I left to meet our better halves and head out for dinner. This turned into three courses with plenty of chat/booze and by the time we got back to the hotel we just crashed out for the night, fat and happy.

3 plays. Game of the day: Xia: Legends of a Drift System

Saturday: Wars and woodworm

MythotopiaThis was a pretty odd day all round, starting with an unlikely random pick up game that tuned into my game of the day.

Vika, simon H, Pouria and me found ourselves standing together in front of the games mountain and for whatever reason Mythotopia ended up on our table. I’d played half a game at Essen and quite enjoyed it, so was more than happy to give it a go.

It’s a clever mix of deck building with an area control war game, taking some other ideas from Martin Wallace games such as not being able to do certain things unless you’re in a winning position at the start of your turn. This works well and, coupled with moulding your strategy with cards you pick up – plus some random victory point conditions in each game – makes for a very good game. I definitely want to play again.

Next Paul A was good enough to teach me my first, and possibly last, Phil Eklund game. The theme of Greenland sounded fun and several friends are really keen on his games, so what could go wrong? A part from terrible graphic design, unbalanced cards, massively swingy luck and players being out of the game by half way. I’m sorry, but this is the worst kind of Ameritrash and no amount of ‘historical simulation’ makes up for a poor design.

We then had games of Royal Palace, Welcome to the Dungeon and Der Dreizehnte Holzwuurm (The 13th Woodworm) – the latter of which is a clever little card game I’ll definitely pick up if I see on sale. Welcome to the Dungeon is vastly improved by the new edition having lots more tiles, but it still got old pretty fast. Royal Palace was fine, but I’m now sure that’s all it’s ever going to be and its on the trade pile.

Ann was also good enough to take some time out to play the prototype I’d brought along with me, helping change a few of the new cards and get me thinking of some new directions for them. But by 10pm I was all gamed out, heading back to our room for Match of the Day and something of an early night.

8 plays. Game of the day: Mythotopia

Sunday: Pillars and prototypes

AfricanaThe day started with two plays of Africana with John B – a game he’d taught me a year earlier that I’d not managed to get out of my mind since.

I wanted to see if Zoe liked it and after one play it got the seal of approval and authorisation to add it to the collection. In fact it was the only game we played together all weekend! Job done.

With Zoe heading home I jumped in on a game of six-player Pillars of the Earth with Sean, Natalie, Ronan, Tom and Paul F-O. I’d played once before, four years ago and sans expansion, but soon got back into the swing of it. Beer started flowing and with it came the swearing; somehow I managed to grab everything Paul (sitting to my left) wanted, but it didn’t help me win (but did wind Paul up, so it was worth it). Sean seemed to win by going in the ‘2VP’ spot every round, but I’m sure he’d tell you different… Another really fun game in great company.

With Sean and Natalie heading home the drinking continued into Elysium (with the addition of Lloyd); a game I played ages ago as a prototype that looks staggeringly good now. It played well and I’m keen to explore it further, but I’m not sure it was the best choice for the moment – which was proved by us having at least as much fun gossiping like girls and drinking more beer in the chip shop. Gee arrived too late to join us, but was eating just in time for us to watch him being attacked by seagulls on the beach while trying to talk to us – definitely the funniest no-gaming moment of my weekend.

Paul A then taught me another game: this time Dual of Ages 2. It was every bit as stupid and swingy as Greenland and was almost as stupid as Xia, but not quite. We only played a little skirmish battle (its a card-based hex battle game) rather than a full scenario, but I saw enough to make me want to play it again properly another time. What’s not to like about a fight where Spartacus, a unicorn and a non-IP infringing Crocodile Dundee took on a hick, a WW2 soldier and some weird little space aliens – and lost?

Paul A then gave me some useful feedback on my prototype (working title: War!Drobe) before Paul F-O and Ronan stepped in to put it through its paces. I can only guess this started at around 10pm, but I know that it was past 2am when we finally finished talking about it – a massive thanks to them both for a valuable evening. Luckily I wrote plenty of notes and also got to play Ronan’s own prototype, which certainly had plenty of potential.

8 plays. Game of the day: Africana (but Pillars of the Earth was funnier)

Monday: Gaming eyes bigger than beery belly

Eastbourne games roomSunday night ended with drunken promises of more cards, more games and more testing. Monday morning started with rough guts, the realisation five ‘full Englishes’ in a row is probably a little calorific, and thoughts of a four to five hour trip home – especially as it was Zoe’s birthday and she’d be home by five. Decision made, I headed for the train.

As always I got home feeling I needed a holiday to get over the weekend, but with some great memories – both gaming and non-gaming related. As I don’t get to London on Board often now, due to rarely needing to be in London, a good half the fun is catching up with old friends; whether that’s over a game, a coffee or a few pints. I expect some people play 20+ games a day while here – I played 24 in total, but didn’t care one bit.

And finally a big ‘thank you’ to organisers Paul, Ronan and Tom (alphabetical chaps, no favourites!); who kept almost entirely below boiling point all weekend (although one particular chat in a chip shop was hilarious) – and to anyone who played with me.

Cheers!

Apology: I didn’t record my games accurately and haven’t included the names of everyone I played with – forgive me if I missed you!

Essen guide: Travel, hotels and Essen Spiel itself

Essen 2015 logo

Every year tens of thousands of gamers descend on the German city of Essen’s huge ‘Messe’ convention centre for its annual celebration of all things board gaming, the Internationale Spieltage – or Essen Spiel to most English speakers.

As the biggest board game convention in the world* people travel from across the globe to visit it – many for the first time. If you’re one of them, especially if travelling from the UK, hopefully this run-down will give you some useful tips.

Go: Travelling to Essen

Essen trains

By air: Unfortunately Essen doesn’t have an international airport, so unless you intend to fly in by light aircraft you’re going to be looking at arriving in Essen by train.

Düsseldorf International Airport is a 40-minute train ride from Essen, with regular flights arriving from Europe (including Birmingham and Manchester). Cologne is also less than an hour by train, with Dortmund about two hours from Essen.

By rail: Seeing as you’re going to have to get on a train anyway, another solid option (especially from the UK) is to go via Eurostar. Brussels is just over two hours from London Kings Cross, which has occasional direct trains to Essen and a regular service to Cologne (three to four hours more). I personally use the SNCF site to book tickets.

This is now my chosen mode of transport. While five hours on the train sounds like a lot, you need to remember you don’t have to be at the Eurostar terminal as early and there’s no waiting for luggage as you have it with you – and far fewer luggage restrictions. If you have a few going, you can book a table too – and game all the way!

By road: If you intend to pick up so many games that rail or air won’t cut it, or if you simply like driving, jumping in the car is of course an option. You have to be 18 to drive in Germany and (of course) abide by its road regulations but I’m reliably informed that it is an easy country to drive in.

This also then gives you the option to stay a little further from the Messe itself, as well as the option to drive to in each day (perfect for those who drag a pallet truck, with pallet, around all day). Parking (5,000 spaces) is just five minutes from the halls, costs five euros, and you can stay as long as you like (pay in cash as you exit).

Stay: The city and accommodation

Beautiful building in Essen town centre

It’s fair to say that while Essen isn’t the most appealing city you’ll visit, it’s very welcoming to the annual invasion of the gaming community.

On the plus side the city centre is compact and the railway station is at its heart. It has a good number of shops and restaurants and an inability to speak German isn’t much of a hurdle.

On the downside, it has very little to offer the tourist – this is not a convention I’d suggest bringing a non-gaming spouse to, unless you stay outside of Essen (see below) or book a very good hotel indeed (and they like staying in).

But again on the plus side, one of the main roads joining the town centre to the Messe, Ruttenscheider, is now a real hub of bars, cafes and restaurants. From the trendy to the Irish to the traditional, there’s a bar along here for everyone.

If you are from the UK and staying in Essen itself, its worth popping into the town’s Toys R Us just to get jealous of the kind of things the average German can expect to find in a normal toy shop!

Near the Messe: If you’re just here for the games, have a good budget and get your booking in VERY early indeed, there are several large hotels in close proximity to the Messe itself. You will be a good 30-minute walk from the town centre, but there is a regular metro service (just four stops on the U11) which will get you there in just a few minutes.

The Atlantic Congress Hotel is practically on the Messe’s doorstep, while several others are within a very short walking distance (less than 10 minutes). I’m yet to try any of these, but will be in the Mercure Plaza this year (20 minute walk to the Messe). I love a walk in the morning, and it also makes me think twice about buying more than I can carry!

You can find an Essen Metro map here.

Hotel sign saying you can play games in this room

Central Essen: The most common option is to stay in the town centre and travel to the Messe each day via the Metro (about five minutes once you’re on and moving). You can get on the U11 at the central station (Essen Hbf) and get off at Messe West/Sud Gruga.

Walking is another option, taking just over 30 minutes from the central train station – or up to 45 from some central hotels.

Large chain hotels including Ibis, Movenpick and Holiday Inn are all present near the station offering the typical big hotel experience, alongside many smaller, cheaper options.

I’ve enjoyed stays in both the Movenpick and Ibis – you simply know what to expect. But my one experience with a small budget hotel did not end well and I’ll avoid that option in future. Hotel breakfasts tend to be continental and overpriced. There are many bakeries in the town centre and I personally prefer to grab something on my way in to the halls each day.

Further afield: If you travel to Essen by car, or are on a holiday with non-gaming friends or partners, there are cheaper, more picturesque and more interesting locations to stay if you don’t mind travelling in each day. As mentioned above, Cologne and Dusseldorf are both less than an hour from Essen by rail and have much more to offer in terms of tourism.

Play: Essen Spiel itself

Inside Essen Spiel, taken from a balcony

Essen Spiel is unlike any other big board game convention. Its all about retail, which means the vast majority of space is dedicated to taking your money, with small bits set aside to let you demo new releases. Don’t expect talks, competitions etc.

On the plus side, this makes it cheap. It’s only a few euros to get in each day, with a discount available for the whole four days – and additional discounts if you can buy in bulk, so its worth getting a group of you together (even if you make friends outside just to get the tickets). I’ll post prices nearer the time.

There is no – I repeat, NO – open gaming areas for you to play inside the Messe. Luckily the local hotels are very amenable to letting gamers use their often vast breakfast areas for gaming. People scuttle home from the Messe with their purchases, hurriedly read the rules over dinner and are in the hotel bars and restaurants playing a while later – and late into the night.

It’s actually a really nice part of the experience, once you get used to it. People are friendly and it’s usually easy to find a game, and I personally enjoy the idea of going shopping in the daytime and then playing my new purchases in the evening. All the big central Essen hotels are very amenable (I’ve played into the small hours at the Ibis, Movenpick and Holiday Inn), as are the smaller ones I’ve popped into to meet friends.

If you have heard talk of 10+ small halls that are a nightmare to navigate, this is in the past (at least for now). Due to refurbishment of the smaller halls, Essen Spiel currently uses the largest four halls in the Messe which makes it much easier to find your way around.

Wednesday to Sunday: When should you go?

  • Thursday and Friday: These are definitely the best days to go if you can travel over to Germany midweek. The halls are quieter, meaning you’ll have a better chance of sitting down at some demos – as well as picking up those hot titles that sell out in the first day or so (it happens every year).
  • Saturday and Sunday: Saturday is the day to avoid if you’re coming for the whole weekend, as people travel in from across Germany and its absolutely manic throughout the day. Sunday morning also tends to be busy, but it thins out a lot in the later afternoon. However don’t expect too many ‘last minute bargain’ rewards for hanging on until the end, as I’ve seen little evidence of it happening.
  • Wednesday: Since 2011 there has been an Essen Warm Up Day organised by Spiele Gilde. It costs 30 euros but is open 10am to 11pm and includes free food and non-alcoholic drinks all day. It’s a great opportunity to extend your stay and get to play some of the new releases a day before heading into Essen Spiel itself, while being easy to get to in the centre of Essen.
    Wednesday is also Essen press conference and manufacturer set-up day, so you’ll find plenty of gaming types in the city on the Wednesday evening – many toting new gaming swag picked up early from the halls. And even if you don’t want to do much after arriving, it’s worth coming on Wednesday just to be able to get into the Messe first thing on Thursday morning.

The new games

Board game demo at Essen Spiel

Essen is primarily about new releases, but you’d be amazed at how many companies fail to get enough copies to the show.

Much of this is blamed on production issues and shipping, but its not as if those are surprises in the board game industry. Anyway, the point is if you really want something you’re normally best off pre-ordering it.

Depending on the size of the manufacturer, pre-orders may be handled through a prepaid service via their website – or via names written on the back of a cigarette packet after sending the designer an email and keeping your fingers crossed. Either way, the best way to find out about them is directly via the website of each game you’re interested in – or more conveniently through Board Game Geek.

Each year the site runs an amazingly detailed Essen preview page which lists pretty much every game that’s coming out and any appropriate links. This is the 2014 link to give you an idea of what to expect – I’ll try to remember to come back and update it here when the new one lands (or please remind me nearer the time!).

If you are the type who wants to check out every game before you go, another great website is Essen Geek Mini. This takes the Board Game Geek list and lets you rank how interested you are in each game – and then brilliantly plots all the manufacturers onto printable maps, along with your games listed by rank. Geek heaven!

Language dependency can be an issue, as you’ll often find different versions in German and English, but also perhaps French, Polish and others. The biggest issue can be differences in pricing – German editions at the show are often cheaper, so it can be easy to grab one by mistake thinking you’re getting a bargain. And you might think there are thousands of copies of a game at the show – when there may only be a very small number in the language you need.

Another issues is demos – and how difficult they can be to get. While companies such as Days of Wonder have huge stands demoing a single game, many smaller companies – or those releasing multiple titles – have much less room. You may even find just a single demo table for a game you really want to try (or worse none at all).

While some booths will let you book a demo time, many won’t. In these situations you have the choice of waiting for a spot (a bit boring) or hoping for the best (less boring, almost guaranteed to be unproductive in terms of the demo). Your way of dealing with this is up to you – I just want to let you know so you won’t be (as) annoyed and disappointed!

The old games

Manhattan board game box

While Essen is largely about new titles, you’ll find a good number of secondhand games traders in the halls – as well as large sections dedicated to older discounted titles.

These can be brilliant for those of us outside of Germany who only ever see discounts in online stores, and have never seen a living, breathing secondhand board game shop!

But do be on your guard for the obvious pitfalls – the big two being missing pieces (for secondhand) and language dependency. If you’re thinking about picking up some titles, do your research and see if they’re language independent – and if so, whether the rules are freely available to download and print. If so, you’re golden.

You may find staff on the secondhand stands don’t have great language skills beyond German, while there can be a lot of individual games that are hard to sift through – or behind the counter where you can’t get at them. If there are specific titles/editions you’re after, its well worth printing images of the covers and taking them with you – its the simplest way past any language barriers.

I’ve found these stands most useful for older Spiel de Jahres winners, which get massive print runs in Germany when they win the award and many of which are still very popular today. You’ll find piles of old copies of games such as Elfenland, Manhattan, Tikal and Thurn and Taxis for 10-15 euros – all of which are language independent.

And finally… some other stuff

  • As well as board games, one of the halls is dedicated to other geek culture habits including comics (ithe Comic Action convention is included in your ticket), RPGs, miniature gaming, CCGs and even a bit of costume/LARPing. But these are squeezed into one hall and very much a small part of the overall show.
  • The food selection is far from brilliant, especially if you’re a healthy type. You should be able to find a beer, a sausage (apparently the currywurst is particularly good – I’ll report back this year!) or a pretzel – with varying degrees of cheese attached – all of which are actually excellent. But I’d suggest a good healthy breakfast pre-con and a proper meal on the way home!
  • I’d also suggest you bring cash (very few stands will accept cards and there aren’t many cash machines inside) and bring water – as well as wearing comfortable shoes. The convention space is massive, you’ll be on your feet a lot, and it can get pretty hot inside. Water and good shoes are essentials. On the plus side, Essen has great tap water so you’re quite safe filling up your bottle from the tap rather than spending a fortune on bottled water.

What have I missed?!

I want this guide to be as useful as possible, so please comment below or contact me directly if you have anything you think I should add or update. Cheers! (Thanks to Louise McCully and Christian Gienger for their contributions.)

* There are bigger conventions that include some board and card games, but Essen is comfortably the biggest that concentrates almost entirely on the hobby.

Choosing creativity over money: One small step…

creativitySo today I got confirmation that my adequate five-day-per-week salary is going to be reduced to a squeeky-bum-time four-day-a-week salary, starting on April 1.

Its going to mean cutting back on luxuries, but you know what? I think it’s for the best. Well, I certainly hope it is – as it was my stupid decision to ask for it in the fist place.

Truth be told, I’m not the well-est person on the planet. Its all my own fault I’m sure, but the net result is I don’t have the energy I once had – and I don’t sleep well (my brain simply doesn’t switch off). The net result is evenings tend to be short-lived things in terms of productivity much of the time, which isn’t much use when you have a hobby such as game design.

So, being the genius I am, I figured one solution would be to give myself an extra day a week: use it to be creative and try to make back a bit of money in the process because you know what? I’d rather have less on the table than think about what might have been.

I recently received an invoice for a payment for Empire Engine (hopefully some actual money will follow reasonably closely behind). It’s not much, but it’s proof I can make a little something out of this. But I feel I need to dedicate some proper ‘9-5’ time to it, so that’s what I’m going to do. Oh my.

Coincidentally, it was great to listen to ‘Mice and Mystics’ designer Jerry Hawthorne on the Plaid Hat Podcast today. That man oozes enthusiasm and I wish I had his drive and dedication – but not at the cost. There he is on the show saying he works two jobs and the only game he’s played in weeks is his own new prototype.

When I get home I usually want to play a good game (or watch TV. Or crash out. Or have a beer and a chin wag. Or play computer games. But then there’s the washing, and the washing up…). I mean I’d back a few of my prototypes to be good games one day, but not tonight! I LOVE playing games, as well as designing them – I want to do both.

Then there’s this website, which I could probably monetise a little. And I should be able to chase down some leads to get some free games to review. And I’ve seriously contemplated writing a book for years now. But when do you have the time? Well, now I have the time. No more excuses.

Something had to give – and frankly, disposable income is the thing I’ll miss least. Thankfully I’m a man of inexpensive tastes and my better half is much the same – time is more important than new this or new that. We’re lucky to be in good jobs in a first world country and I don’t want to take that for granted by wasting it – so I’m taking a little gamble.

Wish me luck, eh? I’ll just pass this hat around.

Game design: In search of a half decent football (‘soccer’) game concept, Part 1

SubbuteoBeyond the flicking genius of Subbuteo (pictured), the collective game design minds of the world have so far failed to create a compelling football game. But it must be possible.

The reason oft trotted out is that its impossible to emulate the excitement and energy of a team sport in which so much individual flair and energy is played out; while retaining the higher level of strategic thought that pre-match planning and management bring to each match.

But computer games have got around both of these issues, making either football management sims or fast-paced action games such as FIFA. But we have nothing of either that have made a splash in the board and card game arena. And what about skirmish board games and battle card games? How are they not emulating an exciting tactical situation with an underlying strategic edge?

Then there are commercial concerns. Hobby gamers have for years been earmarked as nerds and geeks only interested in basement games of fantasy battles and space ship combat. But the hobby is throwing off those shackles at a pretty decent rate now; surely there would be a big publisher ready to take a punt on a game with such huge crossover potential into the mainstream?

Football simulation problems: The pitch

sensible soccerAny sensible (pun intended) design conversation needs to start with the ground itself.

Minds immediately turn to hexes or quadrants, with each player represented with a meeple, card, detailed plastic minis (Kickstarted, natch) etc.

And so we run into our first problem: 22 players on the pitch. Controlling 11 people seems too many – especially when you take into consideration that only two or maybe three people will ever be directly affecting play. Positioning will become way too much of the game, making this very much a manager-level sim and losing too much of that all important feeling of energy.

Designers have of course gotten around this but tend to do so in one of two ways (and often both); which I have dubbed the Nintendo and Dilithium approaches:

  • The Nintendo way: Chibify the game, set it in the ‘street’ or the jungle or a school playground, and make it five-a-side – immediately alienating the vast majority of your original target audience and losing any semblance of ‘proper’ football in the process.
  • The Dilithium way: Give them swords! Make them robots! We can set it in the future or the past to get around those awkward offside rules and allow full body contact to make it exciting!! And then add EVEN MORE EXCITEMENT!!!

Note: There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing these things – it’s just not football.

In my mind, this situation harkens back to my original analogy of squad combat. That tends to have fewer than 11 pieces per side, and they can of course interact with each other far more often: that damnable ball is the problem. For me, this rules out the idea of a pitch, or board, or minis – sorry (we shall briefly pause to let the Kickstarter publishers slope out of the room).

Football simulation problems: The players vs the manager

BergkampThe real joy of football – as with many team sports – is that while both teams head out onto the pitch with a plan, set out by the manager and coaches, this needs to be executed by human beings: and with another bunch of human being trying to stop them.

Football is a chaotic sporting mash up of strategy and tactics defined by flawed individuals: and fans have an opinion on every single one of them. Players have strengths and weaknesses, both physical and mental, which are the absolute essence of the game. You can’t have a ‘proper’ football game without them.

It’s not easy to create a game system where 22 individuals will be different enough on paper to have a significantly varied effect on the outcome of the game. Where do you draw the line with stats? You can have attack, defence, midfield, goalkeeping – but what about stamina, temperament, ‘special powers’ – free kicks, penalties, leadership, flair…?

And that’s just two teams. Any football game worth its salt will want a good 8 teams to start with – and if things went well, more like 20+. That’s more than 200 players now. And what about referees, linesmen, pitch conditions, the effect of the fans?

And of course the manager. Beyond picking the team the manager should be having an effect on the pitch – will they encourage long ball, wing play, 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 – and what about substitutions, or reshaping the team after a sending off, or an injury? Oh yeah, I forgot about injuries. And can we really give up on the pitch idea completely?

Football simulation ideas (so far)

Brady top trumpA card game seems the obvious way forward. While dice feel like a good idea, the idea of random on top of random always turns me off in a game that should be at least 30 minutes long – and I feel a proper football game should go that distance or more.

To take it one more step, a collectible/living card game again seems obvious. Building a deck of 11 players chosen from a larger pool (perhaps 20 for a squad) would give the individuality required. Attack and defence stats may well be enough, with individual player ‘powers’ adding the all-important individuality.

These player cards would be bolstered with manager cards: tactics and special plays learnt on the training ground. And finally there can be situation cards, used to represent those moments you just can’t legislate for: the terrible tackle, the ‘bobble’, the amazing drive from 30 yards. And of course those contentious refereeing decisions.

I’m aware these three types of card are falling easily into stereotypes made so popular by the hugely successful Magic: The Gathering card game: the players are the ‘creatures’, manager cards the ‘enchantments’ and situation cards the ‘instants’. Frankly I’m comfortable with that, as I feel there will be divergence enough from this starting point.

The real challenge will be the elephant in the room: that bloody pitch. I’m thinking it could be represented by a single card or play matt, split into three simple areas – the two ends and midfield. A marker will show where the game is currently being played, with each turn ending with a battle for supremacy in the current area: a midfield or defensive win moves you forwards, while a win at your opponent’s end results in a chance.

But how will chances be resolved? Will there be some kind of cost to put cards out? And once out, how will they be removed from play – if at all? How about weather, or home advantage? All decision for another day.