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Reflections on Essen Releases

October 24, 2006

Another Essen Spiel has come and gone, meaning that it's time to flood the Internet with innumerable post-Essen reports on all the new game releases. This is only the second Essen since my obsession with eurogames began, but I've read so much coverage of the convention that I figured I might as well jot down my thoughts. I've read anything and everything about Essen on BoardGameGeek (see the 122 threads and geeklists on BoardGameGeek). I've read and re-read Rick Thornquist's coverage at BoardgameNews. I've enjoyed the report by Mike Siggins as usual, and scoured more blogs than you can shake a stick at, such as this one, and this one, and this one, and of course the masterful Kulkmann's G@mebox, not to mention monitoring the constantly fluctuating, and constantly dubious, Fairplay rankings.

Last year's Essen was singularly defined by Caylus. Essen was Caylus and Caylus was Essen. This year seems, at least from the other side of the pond, to have a very different tenor, as numerous games are fighting for the spotlight, and none yet stands head and shoulders above the rest. So it can be difficult to figure out what to be hopeful about, what to look forward to, and what to avoid or make sure to try before buying. So what am I looking forward to now and what am I planning to avoid:

GHEOS is certainly my most anticipated game now and the game that I am most likely to buy without trying first. As evidenced by my personal Top 20 list, Tigris & Euphrates and Carcassonne are my two favorite games, so the innumerable comparisons between Gheos and those two games do nothing but bolster my desire to play the game.

Side Note: Are many of the games really re-workings of older games or is it just easier to explain what a game is like by comparing it to an existing game? Gheos is supposedly a combination of Carcassonne and Tigris, Taluva is apparently a simpler Java, and Die Saulen der Erde is apparently a simplified Caylus. BattleLore is obviously a reworking of Memoir '44 and Shogun is simply a reworking of Wallenstein. What's going on here? I don't know. There are certainly lots of games that are similar to or reminiscent of previous games, but it seems like most of the most popular Essen games this year bear significant similarity to existing games. But then again maybe it just easiest to explain these games by comparing them to familiar games.

Back to Gheos, so I've read the rules PDF for Gheos and it looks very promising. Tile-laying games are often very good in my book as they present a lot of decision-making, but straightforward and streamlined rules. They have luck, but it is often mitigated by considering probabilities. They are very different every time, with high replayability. But there are certainly a few pitfalls that Gheos needs to avoid. First, it needs to not be too chaotic. If the continents reform too quickly, easily, or frequently then players won't have enough control to make the game interesting. This seems like one of those games that might be best with the fewest number of players allowed in order to minimize chaos (e.g., Through the Desert, Carcassonne, China, Samurai, Hansa), as opposed to games that are best with the maximum number of players (e.g., El Grande, Princes of Florence, Santiago, Amun-Re). Second, the game needs to avoid being too much of a stock game like Acquire, which is a game that falls very flat with me. If the civilizations in Gheos might as well be the Hydra and Sackson corporations in Acquire that merge just like in Acquire, then it's not going to be what I'm looking for.

On the plus side, it's a cheap game at only $16.24 on Thought Hammer. Moreover, it's a Z-Man game and they put out the magnificent Reef Encounter. On the potential down side, Rene Wiersma is not a proven designer... yet. But then again William Attia came out of the blue last year, and Knizia and Wolfgang Kramer aren't exactly infallible. In the end, I'll just have to wait and see how it plays out, but this certainly has the potential to be a 10 for me on BoardGameGeek, but I won't hesitate to give it a 6 if it belongs there.

NOTRE DAME was only a prototype at Essen, and won't actually be released until Nurnberg next year at the earliest, but it's still near the top of my list of upcoming releases to look forward to. The name ALEA may not mean anything to most people around the world, and may not mean much to most gamers after Mammoth Hunters, Fifth Avenue, and Rum & Pirates, the name ALEA still carries a lot of weight with me. Ra is fantastic, Princes of Florence and Puerto Rico are instant classics, Traders of Genoa is THE premiere negotiation game (at least until I find a reasonably priced Chinatown), Louis XIV is a top-tier area control game, San Juan is one of the best card games (even if I'm not a huge card game fan), and Taj Mahal is my most anticipated reprint now that El Grande Decennial has finally been released. So any new Alea game will certainly catch my eye and get me interested, especially when Rick Thornquist says "Notre Dame harkened back to the glory days of Alea." That statement alone makes me very optimistic about this game. It certainly doesn't hurt that the theme is the traditional, bland Alea theme, which makes me think that this really might be back to the good ol' days of reliable Alea hits. Only time will tell, but this is definitely one to go on the watch list and to keep an eye on over the next few months. It certainly doesn't hurt that this got the best rating out of everything on the Fairplay rankings.

TALUVA is apparently a lighter Java, which piques my interest for the same reason that Gheos tops my list, which is that Java is the #4 game on my personal Top 10. If Marcel-Andre Casasola Merkle has managed to create a shorter, 2-player version of Java then I'm definitely on board. As you already know, tile-laying sits well with me, but what doesn't sit well with me is Attika. Now I don't know if Taluva will bear any relationship to Attika, but that being Merkle's highest rated game on BGG, and one of my least favorite eurogames of all time, gives me more than a little trepidation. Taluva looks like a fabulous middle-weight game from everything I've read, but the memories of Attika are making me wary, and keeping it from the top of my wishlist for at least the time being, and perhaps will make this a try-before-buying game.

YSPAHAN is the fourth and final game that has been added to my wishlist from the new Essen releases (the other three being Gheos, Notre Dame, and Taluva of course). I still haven't managed to really understand the gameplay of Yspahan because the only really recurring comment about the game across all the blogs and posts is the fact that there are dice, but don't worry, they're not used the way dice are normally used. So at least I'm properly forewarned about the dice (which is funny because I'm finally beginning to re-learn an appreciation for dice, at least in Can't Stop, Liar's Dice, StreetSoccer, and Nexus Ops). But the biggest selling point for this game is obviously the Ystari label. Caylus is still fabulous after 30 plays, and even though Mayfair, Rio Grande, and yes even Alea have managed to release plenty of stinkers, I have a good feeling about Ystari. I've already got Mykerinos in my cart for my next order, and am still contemplating Ys despite the significant criticism it has garnered, so Yspahan is definitely one that I want to know more about.

BATTLELORE certainly deserves a mention since it was one of the stars of the show, and maybe THE star of the show for at least a certain crowd. Personally I am just not at all interested in BatteLore. The $70 price tag doesn't help, but it's much more than just that. The biggest turn off is that Days of Wonder has already said they're planning to release many expansions for this game, and while I'm certainly partial to the occasional expansion or two, I'm definitely not looking to get back into collectible gaming. I'm a recovering Magic addict, having sunk countless dollars into the CCG back between 1995 and 2000, purchasing many thousands of cards. I already know that if there's an expansion for a game I own then I almost have to have it, as evidenced by my Carcassonne addiction (although I'm proud to say I've put Princess & Dragon on my trade list, and have managed to delete The Tower from my wishlist), including ordering Spielbox magazine specifically to get Die Katharer (not to mention Die Fischer von Catan, St. Petersburg - The Banquet, and TtR Mystery Train). I'm an admitted expansion-a-holic, so I need to keep well away from BattleLore for that reason alone, otherwise my budget for all the other future Knizia and Alea games will be severely hampered. This is the exact same reason I've avoided games like HeroScape. On top of all that, I've heard such negative comments on Memoir '44 from people whose game opinions align closely with mine that I'm very wary of the Commands & Colors system. I'm also just not a wargamer at heart I guess. I'm fine with multiplayer-solitaire, that's just not a criticism in my book, Princes of Florence sits very well with me. Confrontational games have a time and a place, but it's rarely that time or place for me, and you really need the right group/opponents to make them work. A Game of Thrones is interesting, but primarily because the Song of Ice and Fire books are so fabulous, and the characters/houses are so interesting. Indirect conflict is fine for me (e.g., competing for scarce resources), and the fantasy-theme of BattleLore is actually a plus for me, but direct conflict isn't something I feel a strong need to play. However, I wish Mark and Eric the best of luck with this new release of theirs because Iíve recently listened to two podcast interviews with them (Garrettís Games & Geekiness Episode 33 and BoardGameSpeak 10/5/04), and they seem like great guys, who have really earned their TtR-driven success.

SHOGUN is definitely another star of the Essen show, countering the debacle that seemingly is the Alhambra Dice Game (wow that sounds simply awful). But personally I'm not interested in Shogun, yet at least, because Wallenstein is on the way, and I've got to play that a few times before I figure out if it's worth owning two copies of the game with different maps. I'm really excited about Wallenstein (despite all my criticism above of direct conflict), and despite my not-particularly-enjoyable play of it on SpielByWeb. I actually got very lucky because someone on BoardGameGeek actually wrote a GeekMail to me to let me know that they had recently seen one last new copy of Wallenstein sitting in the Valley Games FLGS in Canada. So I wrote to Valley Games and asked them if they would hold Wallenstein for me, and ship it to me when the Die Macher reprint was ready, and they graciously agreed. So now I'm eagerly awaiting Die Macher and Wallenstein, thus checking off two of the top games that have been on my wishlist for a long time now. But with my fortune in acquiring an affordable copy of Wallenstein, I've lost any interest in the Asian-retheme Shogun for the time being. After settling for the Asian-retheme in China, despite hoping to find Web of Power (and I'm actually glad I did, as China occupies the #19 spot on my personal Top 20, at least for the time being), I really didn't want to settle for another Asian-retheme. I was lucky to not have to, at least I hope I was lucky, I guess I'll find out soon enough when Wallenstein arrives, and get to experience the wonder of the cube tower for myself finally.

REEF ENCOUNTERS OF THE SECOND KIND and FOWL PLAY were two games that I definitely had my eye on, but did not get a lot of coverage during the fair. I figure this is because everyone who got them had to preorder them a long time ago, so no one really played them during the 4 days of Essen because they'd either already purchased them or didn't, so no one needed to figure out whether they were worth buying. But I'm interested in both of these games. I was able to playtest Reef Encounters of the Second Kind back on March 23, 2006 when Richard Breese visited my games club at Columbia in New York City. Reef Encounter is my #11 game, so while the game is already complex enough, an expansion was sure to be on my radar, and this expansion was fantastic! I really enjoyed everything that the expansion added to the game, from the cards to the new tiles to the blue shrimples. Richard Breesewas also nice enough to bring a prototype of Fowl Play with him when he visited my club, but I was nice enough to bow out and let three other people in the club try that one out (of course I regret that decision now). They all seemed to enjoy it, and I almost sprung the 40 Euro to pre-order it and have it sent across the pond, but decided that if it was good enough then hopefully it would be reprinted (plus Iíd just caved in and went for Nexus Ops in the Toys ĎR Us Sale, and Mammoth Hunters and Fifth Avenue in the Amazon Sale, thanks to BGG users sharing those sales). I also didn't pre-order the Reef Encounter expansion, hoping very much that Z-Man prints a version of the expansion with art that matches the 2nd Edition of the game. While the expansion is playable with my edition, it will look much better if I can get a version of the expansion that actually matches my edition of Reef Encounter. If Z-Man drops the ball on this one though I will be severely disappointed!

HAMELN pretty much has to be mentioned in the same breath as Fowl Play and Reef Encounters of the Second Kind since itís the other game that sold out long before the doors of the Essen halls even opened. The Fragor Brothers managed to sell out all 1,000 copies before the show again, so lightning apparently can strike twice! I still haven't managed to pick up Shear Panic, although it sits side by side with Mykerinos in my cart for my next order. So I'm sure it'll be a while before I ever try Hameln, if I ever do, but the gameplay sounds very interesting and unique, and of course the components look fabulous. Who could have though that rats could be as cute as sheep? Just like the two new Richard Breese releases, not much has been reported on the gameplay of Hameln, but that's obviously because no one needs to play the game during the 4 days of Essen to figure out whether or not to buy it because they've all already either bought it or not bought it, so there's no time pressure to try it out right away. I guess we'll have to wait a bit to get all the reports on how Hameln plays, in order to see whether it avoids the Cleopatra-pitfall of relying too much on chrome.

IMPERIAL and PERIKLES are two games that have been talked about a lot in Essen coverage around the Internet, but don't seem to have gotten much play yet, probably due to their complexity and long play times. First, everyone seems to agree that IMPERIAL is a close sibling to Antike, so that's kept me from being too interested in it. While the Rondel seems like a fascinating and unique mechanic that I'd love to try, the video review of Antike at Board Games with Scott thoroughly convinced me that Antike is not a game for me. Scott's video reviews have got me very interested in many games, not least of which was Die Macher, but thankfully they've also helped me to actually remove some things from my wishlist. Antike tops that list because I have a strong dislike for games that allow conflict and fighting, but strongly discourage it by making it too difficult and unrewarding. Twilight Imperium is a good example of this because it strongly encourages sitting in your own corner and building up, rather than actually fighting, and thus punishing anyone who goes out to be confrontational. This kind of empire-building game where it's a fatal mistake to actually be confrontational is very frustrating to me, and is why Antike has fallen off my list, and Imperial doesn't get a spot to begin with. Second, PERIKLES is another game on which very little has been reported, but it's one I'll keep an eye on. This is because I'm a budding Steam-addict, and even though Tempus fell flat with me, Martin Wallace games are always worth a look. I'm not sure if Perikles will be my cup of tea, especially since all the Age of Steam expansion maps are keeping me very busy lately. Speaking of which, Korea is fabulous, and Germany and Scandinavia seem very interesting indeed, Italy intrigues me very much, and even Western US deserves a shot, and I'm not even up on all the brand new maps released over the last few days.

FIJI and FORMIDABLE FOES are Friedemann Friese's two newest releases this year, and have generated a lot of buzz on that basis alone. However, with Power Grid being my biggest eurogame disappointment of all time, I haven't paid much mind to either Fiji or Formidable Foes. The attention I have paid to these two games has convinced me that they're not even worth the little attention that I have paid them, as no one seems particularly enamored with either. The dungeon-crawl Formidable Foes has been criticized as very repetitive, and Fiji is a blind bidding game that hasn't sparked any praise that I'm aware of. Mr. Friese seems very nice from his appearance on Board Games with Scott, and I wish him well, but it's pretty clear to me that his games just aren't for me. You can decide for yourself, but I'll steer clear of these. I might as well mention Power Grid - Benelux/Central Europe here too. It's certainly an Essen release that will be high on many people's list, with Power Grid occupying the #4 spot on the BGG Rankings, but Power Grid is a 6 in my book (and that's being generous), so neither this expansion map nor the previous France/Italy one are on my list. I'll stick to Age of Steam expansion maps instead.

ANASAZI and JUSTINIAN were the exciting new Phalanx releases of the show, and I was excited about them not only because Maharaja and Pingvinas (i.e., Hey That's My Fish) are fabulous, but also because Jurgen-Wrede did Anasazi and Colovini did Justinian (and unlike the general masses I'm actually a fan of Clans and Cartagena). However, just about everything I've read about both Anasazi and Justinian has been extremely negative, which is a shame for this promising publisher, especially after their GoldenGeek-hopeful no-luck filler from last year with the best pasted-on theme possible: penguins! Anyway, Anasazi is a path-building game, but it's free form so you spread out the targets on the table and build paths however you want with little cardboard roads. This game has been roundly criticized because it's subject to significant interpretation and disagreement about whether the paths reach their destination. It apparently boils down to a game of millimeters, which doesn't sound like much fun at all. Justinian is another blind bidding game that has actually managed to garner less praise than Fiji it would seem. While everyone seems to agree that the artwork and components in Justinian look absolutely fabulous, it would seem that there is almost no control in the game, and if there's one thing I want in a eurogame it's decisions that matter and control over the outcome. I donít mind some luck (although I'm always happy when there's no luck, like in Through the Desert or Caylus), but the luck can't dominate the result, or it just won't fly with me. Hopefully Phalanx will rebound from these flops in the near future!

SPACE DEALER and FACTORY FUN are the strangest games of the fair that have received a lot of attention. Factory Fun is a Cwali puzzle game that apparently defines the multiplayer-solitaire genre, aside from the mad rush to grab the parts you need. While StreetSoccer is one of my most played games, I won't be rushing out to get Factory Fun any time soon despite many people being pleasantly surprised by it at the fair. Space Dealer is the crazy new game from Eggert-Spiele that apparently plays off the integration of sand timers into TAMSK by also using sand timers as an integral part of the game. The simultaneous action selection of Space Dealer, eliminating all down time, is certainly appealing, but the game just sounds very stressful, making me wary. I've read some reports that it's a blast to play, but others have written that they found the game stressful, and that's not something I'm eager to shell out the limited funds for. These are both games that I love reading about because they're very unexpected and seem very unique (especially in a year of close comparisons, see above for Gheos=T&E/Carc, Taluva=Java, Die Saulen der Erde=Caylus), but neither is a game I'm running out to buy for that very same reason, they're unexpected and unique, so there's definitely a bigger risk in springing for them without having tried them first. I'm pretty risk-averse, so I'll sit back and be content just reading about them for the time being. Iím also wary of any game that seems to rely too much on a gimmick to stand out because I was already burned by Niagara on this front, and games with gimmicks tend to lack the replayability of games with solid mechanics and gameplay.

DIE SAULEN DER ERDE probably should have come up earlier in this summary because it's definitely one of the most talked about games from Essen this year, but it fits in well hear, in stark contrast to Space Dealer and Factory Fun. Unlike either of those, it falls into the Gheos and Taluva camp of apparently having a close parallel to an existing eurogame. Many, if not all, have compared Die Saulen der Erde to the much revered/reviled Caylus. It appears that this game is the answer to everyone's prayers for a shorter and more accessible version of Caylus, but that's the very same reason I have little to no interest in Die Saulen der Erde. I love Caylus. I was skeptical at first of all the hype last year, but I couldn't help but preorder it anyway last October just to see what everyone was getting so worked up about. While many people have begun to criticize Caylus over the past year for taking too long and being unbalanced, instead I've simply grown to like it more and more over the year. I've now played it 30 times, and can say that it will almost surely remain in my Top 10 for a long time to come. It has fallen slightly from #3 to #9 for me, but everything in the Top 10 is pretty interchangeable, and a 10 rating on BGG is definitely deserved for Caylus in my mind. It's great both in person and on BrettspielWelt, and has stood up to numerous plays. It probably falls into the camp of games that plays best with the fewest number of players (i.e., Through the Desert, Louis XIV, Samurai, Carcassonne), but it scales remarkably well. Anyway, this is not a report about Caylus, this is a report about new Essen releases, so I'll get back to that now. Because of my respect for and enjoyment of Caylus, I'm wary of getting a game that is simply a watered-down version, especially one that introduces luck into the mix. That's not to say that I wouldn't like a game that plays similar to Caylus but quicker, but at this point I can play Caylus rather quickly, and the game is even more rewarding after many plays, so I'm not particularly eager to move on to another similar game. Now it's definitely possible that the similarities between Die Saulen der Erde and Caylus have been blown out of proportion over the past week, but this is a case where the similarities don't make me want the game (as opposed to Gheos or Taluva). I don't think Caylus needs to be watered-down, whereas I do think Gheos could find the right balance between Carcassone and Tigris, and Taluva could potentially fill a middle-weight 2-player niche that Java doesn't.

DIE BAUMEISTER VON ARKADIA is Rudiger Dorn's annual contribution to the Essen fair, which certainly draws my interest right away. With Louis XIV and Goa both taking spots in my personal Top 20, and Traders of Genoa not far behind, Mr. Dorn is a designer that always merits a look. This is another game that has garnered itself some very favorable comments in the past few days. The gameplay itself is not entirely clear to me yet, although it appears to be yet another novel twist on area control, as you try to surround Blokus-shaped buildings with your workers. I'm very partial to novel twists on area control, as evidenced by my love of El Grande, San Marco, and Louis XIV. The re-use of the Torres towers in this game certainly won't turn me off, as I found that Kramer/Kiesling SDJ-winner to be a fabulous implementation of the action-point system, but it may turn off many of the people I game with. I'll have to convince them that this is nothing like Torres if they're even going to try it because no one else seems to like Torres at all who I've taught it to. This is definitely one I'll have to find out more about before buying (as opposed to Gheos, and maybe Yspahan or Taluva), but it's not one I can cross off the list right away (like Fiji, Anasazi, Imperial, or Justinian), so it'll be interesting to keep an eye on this one over the next few months, just like with Notre Dame, although that one will get both eyes for sure.

HERMAGOR was Mind the Move's entry into the Essen craziness, but early comparisons to Thurn & Taxis have left me very skeptical about this one. It's not just from a designer and publisher that have not proved themselves to me (I still haven't had a chance to try either Oltremare or Il Principe, but would not be averse to trying either of them if given the opportunity), but it's got some similarities (although it remains to see how close the similarity is) to the most recent SDJ-winner, which is a decent game but nothing great in my book. Thurn & Taxis is the classic "okay" game, there's nothing really wrong with it (aside from the complete lack of interaction), but there's nothing really compelling about it, nothing to hold your interest. It's also not quite light enough or straightforward enough to be a good gateway game like Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne. If Hermagor bears any similarity to Thurn & Taxis (which may just make it's way onto my trade list soon) then it won't be earning a spot in my collection.

KHRONOS was definitely the mystery of the show. The publisher appears to have done a great job of drumming up buzz/hype without anyone really knowing much about the game (as with Perikles and Imperial, it appears as if this one is also too long/involved to play during the convention). From everything that's been said about this one, especially by Mike Siggins in his report, it sounds like the publisher of Khronos was very sneaky about constantly appearing as if they were about to sell out, so everyone would buy the game just in case, simply based on word of mouth, even though no one had actually tried it out. I suppose they've accomplished their goal, with the game eventually selling out, and not everyone who wanted the game being able to come away with it, but I can't say I understand this marketing strategy. It's oddly reminiscent of Microsoft (intentionally?) undersupplying the Xbox 360 in the first few months in order to build up buzz, but I won't get into all my gripes about the new generation of consoles, and how badly the transition has been botched by all three of the leading companies. All that being said, Khronos remains a mystery. The concept sounds interesting, the box art isn't bad, and tile-laying that bears any resemblance to Tigris is a big plus in my book, but more will have to be revealed about this one before it breaks onto my wishlist. Speaking of tile-laying that bears any resemblance to TigrisÖ

GENESIS was supposed to be Knizia's exciting new tile-laying game, but somehow managed to come in dead last in the Fairplay rankings. I'm not quite sure how that happened, as people have seemed hopeful and excited about this game over the past few months, but something must have gone awry in the design process, which I suppose is inevitable with all those designs coming from one man. There hasn't been much said about this game, so I don't know much more than the black and white Fairplay data, but that's enough to convince me to stay away. When a game does well in Fairplay, it doesn't necessarily mean it will be good (although it's probably worth a look), but when a game does this poorly, then there's probably something wrong. I'm even more wary of Genesis now than I am of Fiji, Justinian, Anasazi, and Hermagor, which is a sad state of affairs for the next big Knizia title.

THROUGH THE AGES: A STORY OF CIVILIZATION deserves a quick mention, but only because everyone else seems so excited about it. I'm just not looking for the holy grail "civ-lite" game like everyone else, so I don't feel compelled to check this one out. I'm not even sure "civ-lite" is possible in 2 hours, and I don't have any nostalgia for Civlization that I need to recapture in a reasonable number of hours. They can keep trying to make the perfect "civ-lite" game, but I'm not really going to bother trying to pick it out of all the contenders. I'm just fine with a pasted-on theme; I'd rather go with Tigris, El Grande, Through the Desert, Ra, and Caylus any day.

Well, that's that. I didn't cover nearly all the important Essen releases, but tried to mention most of the ones that seem to be getting the most attention over the past few days, whether they look particularly promising to me or particularly bad or somewhere in the middle. I actually think there look to be a bunch of great games to look forward to over the next few months as the Essen releases reach their way across the pond. While there's nothing that makes me need to place an order with adam-spielt right now, I'm not as down on the new releases as my previous few paragraphs would suggest. I stacked the most promising games near the top, so my summary seems more pessimistic near the end than I meant it to be. I'm most looking forward to Gheos, followed by Notre Dame, Yspahan, and Taluva.

This year's Essen coverage convinced me of one thing for sure though, which is that I really truly want to go to Essen some day. It may not be next year, or the year after, but eventually when I have the means, I simply must find my way there. The video produced by Rick Thornquist was marvelous, and really helped to spur my desire to attend the convention. I can't believe attendance was over 150,000! I've got to check it out for myself one of these years, but until then, I'm very glad that there's such great coverage of the convention online, so that I can feel like I'm there, and manage to form opinions on the games from thousands of miles away, pretty amazing, don't you think?

(See this Forum Thread for this article plus additional comments on it)