Essen is dead; long live Essen. The International Spieltage in Essen, Germany closed its doors on Sunday, and there are 359 days until those doors reopen, which should leave us just enough time to sort through the roughly 600 new board games that were released at the fair. Despite the fact that I didn't attend Essen, have only played a handful of the games discussed herein, and the fact that my last attempt at an Essen recap in 2006 was more than a bit off base (e.g., underestimated Imperial, overestimated Gheos, but at least I was right about Anasazi and Justinian, let alone Knizia's Genesis); I am nevertheless going to try to breakdown some of the potentially most noteworthy releases at Essen 2009. How do I propose to do this? Scientifically of course, and also based on more than a little hearsay thanks to the tireless reporting efforts of attendees such as Kulkmann and Melissa. Scientifically speaking, I am going to use a combination of the longstanding Fairplay ranking along with the brand-new BoardGameGeek GeekBuzz ranking. As for hearsay, you're more than welcome to check out my primary source material, such as Kulkmann's G@mebox (by Frank Schulte-Kulkmann) and Obsessing about Everything (by Melissa R.). Moreover, I suggest you check out the videos that the GeekDo crew broadcast live throughout the fair, such as interviews and game demos, and which have been conveniently arranged in this GeekList. I particularly enjoyed the interviews with Matt Leacock, Jay Tummelson, Uwe Rosenberg, Reiner Knizia, and the game demoes by Martin Wallace, Mac Gerdts, and the Czech Games Edition crew. If you're looking for purely audio rather than video, then check out Garrett's Games & Geekiness episode 184 recorded live at Essen. Last but not least, I have tagged over 100 forum threads and GeekLists with the "essen09" tag on BoardGameGeek, so peruse those for a wealth of fantastic firsthand reports on the Essen experience.
So you're sick of people's qualitative descriptions of the games they tried at Essen and you're looking for some hard data to tell you what games are worth investigating further. It's certainly a challenge to sift through the 600 new releases at Essen each year, but thankfully we have some polls conducted at the fair to rank the new games by the first impressions of attendees. Of course the poll results are dubious for a number of reasons, not least of which are the facts that there is obvious voluntary response bias and the voters are not playing the games under the best of circumstances to say the least (i.e., games may not be played to their completion due to limited time and space, games may be explained by someone whose native tongue is different from the language in which the game is taught, and the hall is crowded and noisy making concentration in complex games difficult). Nevertheless, when questionable data is all you've got, it's better than no data (although there are certainly many out there who would dispute that sentence). So I've decided to compare the GeekBuzz Top 30 and the Fairplay Top 30 to come up with a combined overall ranking of the new releases. So that you don't have to go looking for the GeekBuzz and Fairplay rankings, I'll start by providing the GeekBuzz Top 30 (and the noteworthy absences) and the Fairplay Top 30. Then I'll break out the list of 13 games that appeared on both lists, ordered by their average ranking on the two lists, and briefly discuss that Top Overlap Games list, along with its noteworthy absences.
GeekBuzz Top 30
Power Grid - Factory Manager
Agricola: Farmers of the Moor
Vasco de Gama
Ghost Stories: White Moon
A Brief History of the World
Mr. Jack in New York
Aladdin's Dragons Card Game
A La Carte
Chicago Express: Narrow Gauge & Erie Railroad Company
Power Grid: Brazil & Spain/Portugal
Kingsburg: To Forge a Realm
Notable Absences (GeekBuzz ranking in parentheses)
Last Train to Wensleydale (33)
At the Gates of Loyang (35)
Greed, Inc. (38)
The BoardGameGeek Game (43)
Savannah Tails (47)
Day & Night (48)
Bunny Bunny Moose Moose (60)
Fairplay Top 30
Vasco de Gama
At the Gates of Loyang
Power Grid - Factory Manager
A La Carte
World Without End
Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age
Top Overlap Games
These are the 13 games that appeared on both the GeekBuzz Top 30 and the Fairplay Top 30. I've ordered them based on their average ranking on those two lists. I have provided that average ranking in a parenthetical for each game, along with its GeekBuzz (G) ranking and its Fairplay (F) ranking.
Dungeon Lords (3, G1, F5) - Vlaada Chvatil's new game had generated more interest than any other leading up to the fair (probably edging out At the Gates of Loyang, Stronghold, and Agricola: Farmers of the Moor, in terms of pre-Essen buzz), so it's position at the top of this combined ranking either means that it satisfied everyone's expectations or this was the case of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's impossible to say which until we see how things shake out in a few months after the game is more widely available. Hopefully Z-Man will get this one out to the hordes of clamoring U.S. gamers more quickly than Agricola last year. Personally I have been very impressed with Vlaada Chvatil's ludography up until this point. I haven't loved all of his games, but I've appreciated the incredible breadth of his designs (as compared to other new designers, such as Mac Gerdts, whose Imperial I love, but whose designs feel much more similar). The fact that the same designer gave us Through the Ages, Prophecy, Galaxy Trucker, Space Alert, Dungeon Lords, and Bunny Bunny Moose Moose is impressive since those games are all so remarkably different. I am a huge fan of Galaxy Trucker as it was my favorite game of 2007, and while I'm not particularly enamored with any of Chvatil's other games to date, I respect all of them, and am always interested in what he has to offer next. So Dungeon Lords was on my radar as soon as I had a chance to check out the online rules PDF, which thankfully continues Chvatil's tradition of humorous and very well-written rules (maybe Vlaada could give Wallace and the folks at Alea a rules writing lesson). The effort him and his publisher clearly put into their rules shines through and is very much appreciated (especially compared to some of the other sorry sets of rules out there). The reports from the fair on this one have generally been positive, obviously since its average GeekBuzz and Fairplay ranking puts it at #1 on this overlap list, although some have noted that it is rather complex and the mechanics are drier than the theme would otherwise suggest. I'm looking forward to trying it out at BGG.CON in Dallas in November and seeing for myself.
Vasco de Gama (3.5, G6, F1) - This one came out of nowhere to snatch the number one spot on the Fairplay ranking and a fairly high spot on the GeekBuzz ranking as well. Vasco de Gama appeared on hardly any pre-Essen reports of what people were looking forward to at this year's fair, probably because it's by a designer who has done little in the past (mainly just Ur in 2006, which was met with mixed reactions upon its release). The designer and Andrea Ligabue wrote a Preview of Vasco de Gama for Boardgame News, which is probably your best source if you're looking for a quick lowdown on what this surprise hit has to offer.
Endeavor (4, G4, F4) - This is one of the three games on this list of 13 Top Overlap Games that I've actually played myself (with the other two being Peloponnes and Automobile, both discussed below). Endeavor is the first published design of Jarratt Gray and Carl de Visser, recently released in the U.S. by Z-Man Games (and being co-published by Lookout, White Goblin Games, and Ystari). It's an impressive first published design for the pair with many interlocking systems, and has been garnering rave reviews as it has shot its way up to #56 on the all-time BoardGameGeek ranking (as of this date). Despite its warm reception generally and by the rest of the people I played it with, I have to say that personally I did not love Endeavor. Neither did I hate it. I have provisionally rated it a 7 out of 10, and hope to play it a couple more times to firm up my impression, which could certainly go down or up with more experience. The game is interesting, but certainly not particularly unique, as it borrows some elements from Goa (progress tracks) and Puerto Rico (buildings system), among other games. However, that's not my real problem with the game, as I've been known to love plenty of highly derivative games. My real issue is that the game gives you the opportunity to specialize, but discourages and effectively prevents such specialization by rewarding a generalist approach that does a bit of everything. Like Agricola, Endeavor is a game that allows you to score points in a variety of categories and determines the ultimate result by adding up your points in each of these possible categories. However, you can't really specialize and pick a unique path to follow as you attempt to get as many points as possible because the way in which the technology advancement works seems to prevent such specialization. I tend to prefer games where I can actually take the game up on its offer of specialization (such as Age of Empires 3), rather than being corralled into the same generic approach as everyone else.
Power Grid - Factory Manager (5, G2, F8) - Friedemann Friese's new stand-alone game set in the Power Grid universe is either nothing like Power Grid or a lot like Power Grid, depending on who you ask. As with Power Grid, players are trying to earn the most money during the game, and I'm guessing that you're also forced to do an unpleasant amount of math (or as Larry Levy would correct me - arithmetic). Personally I've been unable to enjoy games where a calculator would come in handy (such as Power Grid, Indonesia, and Automobile), so I'm wary of Factory Manager, but certainly willing to give it a try if the opportunity arises. Since there are so many fans of Power Grid (which thankfully made selling my copy a breeze), I'm sure Factory Manager will be eagerly anticipated by many (and perhaps doesn't share that much with its namesake since it would make sense to slap the Power Grid brand on there if only for the increased sales it surely automatically generates).
Carson City (10.25, G7, F10) - The new game by Xavier Georges switches his focus from nobles to cowboys. Xavier burst out of the gates last year with Royal Palace, which garnered a significant amount of good press for a first design, and follows it up this year with Carson City, which had an impressive showing on both the GeekBuzz and Fairplay rankings. Personally I found Royal Palace a bit disappointing after all of the comparisons to one of my favorites Louis XIV, but that may have been an unfair comparison since Dorn's excellent Louis XIV sets the bar very high. As I said in a previous column, I've only played Royal Palace once, but it felt very familiar, maybe too familiar for a first play, which makes me ambivalent about the game and wondering whether it would stand up to repeated play. Carson City has been drawing comparisons to Royal Palace despite its very different theme, and this has made me hesitant to rush off and buy Xavier's second release until more reports come out.
Macao (10.5, G18, F3) - Stefan Feld and Alea appear to have become inseparable. After designing #10 (Rum & Pirates), #11 (Notre Dame), and #12 (In the Year of the Dragon) for the Alea Big Box Series, Feld is back again for unlucky number 13. After releasing the first 9 Big Box games by many different designers, people are starting to wonder if we'll ever see an Alea Big Box game by anyone but Feld. It is an odd development to see Feld and Alea tied so closely at the hip, but not an entirely unwelcome development since I'm a big fan of Notre Dame and enjoy In the Year of the Dragon somewhat (and let us not speak of the blasphemy that is Rum & Pirates). Due to Feld's mixed yet fairly successful past (including the excellent two-player design Roma published with Queen Games), I'm always interested in trying his new designs, and of course am always eager to try the new Alea Big Box game (although I suppose those interests are one and the same at this point). Macao sounds like an interesting game, particularly because it has prompted people to break back out their "it uses dice but in an interesting way" phrase, which had been stored away since its heyday when Yspahan was released in 2006. Yspahan ended up being a disappointment to me because the decisions almost always seemed obvious and uninteresting, but Macao has a reasonably high rating on the Alea complexity scale so there's hope for it yet. Hopefully Rio Grande will catch up on its backlog of Alea games and release Alea Iacta Est, the 10 Jahre Alea Schatzkiste, and Macao, ideally all by the end of the year, but I won't hold my breath, as even one of those in time for Christmas would be surprising
Automobile (11, G11, F11) - The second of 13 games on this list that I've actually played, and unfortunately the second that I was not enamored with. Automobile was my least favorite of the three on this list that I played, coming in behind Endeavor and Peloponnes. However, that may be due in part to the fact that I hold Martin Wallace designs to a higher standard than most other designers. I love Age of Steam, Byzantium, and Liberte. I'm not particularly a fan of Perikles, Steel Driver, After the Flood, Tempus, Toledo, Brass, or Automobile. And I actually just played Last Train to Wensleydale recently (discussed more below) and it may join the former group of great Wallace designs in my book. I was really looking forward to Automobile after reading the rules, but in practice the game was disappointing. It felt as if your decisions could be calculated to a great degree if you took the time to do all of the math, but that would take a lot of work and slow down the game immeasurably. Thankfully no one in my game did elaborate calculations, and we all played by our guts and back-of-the-napkin-style calculations to get a rough idea of what to do. But any game where a calculator would be a significant resource is not a game I tend to care for (See also Indonesia, Power Grid). I really wanted to like Automobile as I've been searching for a new Wallace game to love for a few years now and searching for a Treefrog game to love as well, but unfortunately it just wasn't a game that worked for me. I can see why it has fans as it's a solid design with interesting decisions to make, but the calculations really put me off.
A La Carte (14.5, G17, F12) - A new game by Karl-Heinz Schmiel? The masterful creator of Die Macher (and the excellent Extrablatt and Was Sticht as well) is back at it again with a game about... cooking? A serious Schmiel heavy-weight this is not. With a recommended age of 10+ and a suggested playing time of 30 minutes, this looks awfully different from the previous Schmiel games I've played, even lighter than his latest light offering Tribune. English rules aren't available yet, but are promised soon, which should help shed more light on this mysterious and silly game by one of the forefathers of modern boardgaming.
Dominion: Seaside (16.5, G20, F13) - The second Dominion expansion (or first depending on who you ask) polled well among GeekBuzz and Fairplay voters, although I'm surprised people bothered to actually play this one at the fair given the age-old Essen maxim of only playing games that you're on the fence about and just buying ones you know you want due to the extremely limited time and space. I figured that this was a no-brainer for anyone who liked Dominion and a similarly obvious game to skip for anyone who didn't like Dominion. I'm wondering if some people cast votes on Dominion: Seaside based on their feelings towards Dominion without having actually played the expansion, which would explain why it has a good but not great ranking because otherwise I'd have expected it to rank higher if only Dominion fans rated it. Personally I burned out on Dominion after playing it around 150 times, and I found that Dominion: Intrigue didn't inject the new life into the game that I'd hoped, so have decided to skip Seaside. Although I had been following the slow release of new cards leading up to the fair and did enjoy reading Donald Vaccarino's Dominion: Seaside Preview on Boardgame News. The new cards look interesting, but I don't think they'll bring me back into the game, especially since I'm trying to wean myself of games with many expansions (such as Dominion and Carcassonne).
Peloponnes (17.5, G14, F21) - The third and final game on this list of 13 that I've actually played. I played a review copy that was sent to someone in my game group a few weeks ago. I thought the game was okay, but everyone else in the group seemed to really like the game a lot. I think most people haven't really given up the search for a great civ-lite game even after the near-universal disappointment that was Tempus in 2006, so people are hoping Peloponnes fills that niche to some extent. I for one have given up the search for the elusive civ-lite game because I've come to terms with the fact that a civilization game can't be lite because it needs many hours in order to adequately include all of the elements that make it a civilization game in the first place. If you try to make it lite, it's no longer truly a civ game. So incidentally I'm thinking there may be some déjà vu when it comes to Wallace's new Rise of Empires. As for Peloponnes, it's really an auction game rather than a civilization game. It's an auction game with a civilization theme. The principal mechanic is that players are bidding for land and buildings, which will produce resources (e.g., wood, stone, grain), which they can use to build buildings and feed their population. The buildings and population are what give you your victory points in the end, so it all circles back to winning those resources in the auctions. The auction system is reminscent of Evo and Amun-Re, which means you'll definitely be more inclined to like this game if you liked those games. It's not a bad game by any means; I like auction games; I love Ra, Goa, and Princes of Florence. But do I need another auction game? Not really. However, I will say that I did like the way the catastrophe mechanism worked in this game. Catastrophes seem to be an obligatory part of any game with a civilization theme, whether they be droughts, floods, or plagues, but in some games the catastrophes are too unpredictable and/or too devastating. I appreciated how you could see the catastrophes coming in Peloponnes, but couldn't quite predict when they would occur (because each turn you would flip up a pair of catastrophe chits and only when three chits of the same catastrophe had eventually been revealed would that catastrophe actually occur), and I also appreciated the fact that you could bid for buildings in the auction that would immunize you against certain catastrophes. These two factors combined to give players a welcome feeling of control over their fate.
Hansa Teutonica (18, G27, F9) - This is neither a game that I know anything about, nor one that I particularly care to learn anything about for some reason. I suppose a game needs to stand out in some small way for me to generate enough interest to go and learn more about it. It's not a very high threshold given that I currently have over 100 games on my "want to try" list. But for some reason Hansa Tuetonica strikes me as bland despite my almost complete lack of knowledge about the game. Hopefully someone will convince me otherwise and show me what I'm missing because I just can't seem to work up the interest on my own (and that's coming from someone who really enjoys Michael Schacht's Hansa, so I originally looked into Teutonica hoping it was related in some way to Hansa; maybe my disappointment in its lack of any relationship to Hansa has turned me off to the game unfairly).
Tobago (22, G25, F19) - This one is already generating Speil des Jahres buzz for 2010, which is impressive since that award is long way off! It sounds like a family game with a bit of a deduction element. Mary Weisbeck gives a nice explanation of why the game piqued her interest in her Thoughts from the Gameroom blog. It's certainly one I want to try at some point, but I fear it may end up lingering on my "want to try" list like so many other promising family games that I never get around to trying (such as Around the World in 80 Days and 10 Days in the USA). It certainly looks to have nice components and has been described as having clever and unique mechanics, so hopefully I will get around to trying this one. I'm sure if it does at least garner the expected SdJ nomination next spring then I'll probably give it a shot then, if not sooner.
Opera (24.5, G29, F20) - Hans van Tol's new game garnered a lot of attention at Essen this year by hiring actual opera signers to present the game at the fair. Apparently they sang opera and everything, which I'm sure must've grabbed people's attention since that sounds a bit out of the norm. Then again, little has been said about the gameplay, as people seem to be focusing primarily on the game's presentation at the fair, which doesn't necessarily speak well for the game if it means that there's nothing there worth remarking on. Opera snagged a spot on my "want to try" list if only for the unusual theme and the possibility of introducing it to family members based on that theme, so at least it edges out Hansa Teutonica in that respect just by a nose. For more information on Opera, be sure to check out the comprehensive five-part series of BGN previews.
Those are the 13 games that appeared on both the GeekBuzz and Fairplay rankings, but what about the notable games that appeared on one list and not the other. Here I'll briefly run through those, along with some noteworthy games that actually appeared on neither the GeekBuzz nor the Fairplay ranking. Since expansions are not eligible for the Fairplay ranking, but are eligible for the GeekBuzz ranking, many of the games on the first list below are those expansions, while others are the heavy games that the broader Fairplay voters don't tend to go for (e.g., God's Playground).
Games On GeekBuzz, Not Fairplay
Agricola: Farmers of the Moor - Geeks around the world appear eager to start populating their farms with horses, and why shouldn't they be given how well Lookout has done for itself with a whole host of Agricola add-ons thus far. For all you Agricola fans out there, I highly recommend the GeekDo interview with Uwe Rosenberg (where Uwe discusses the history of his designs, his issues with Ticket to Ride, and a suggested variant for Le Havre, among other things). He seems like a very nice fellow and it's definitely an enjoyable interview to watch.
Ghost Stories: White Moon - This is one of my most anticipated games at Essen 2009, if not my most anticipated game (and it's not even really a game, but an expansion rather). An expansion for my favorite game of 2008 though. I've really enjoyed my 32 plays of Ghost Stories thus far and from everything that I've read about this expansion, such as on the Boardgame News preview and on Kulkmann's G@mebox, has made me very excited to try it. The best cooperative game might be about to get even better!
Stronghold - Ignacy Trzewiczek's Designer's Journal on Boardgame News was an impressive undertaking leading up to the fair, and the designer's palpable enthusiasm for his game, felt all the way across the pond, have combined to garner a lot of attention for this game. Behind Dungeon Lords, it was definitely one of the most anticipated games on BoardGameGeek pre-Essen lists leading up to the fair. The GeekDo video of the game's demo should help those on the fence decide if this siege game is right for them. The elaborate three-dimensional board on display at Essen was certainly impressive, and the regular ol' game components aren't too shabby themselves.
Dixit - Another game that I've actually played and one that I actually enjoyed too. It's a party game that is definitely reminscent of Apples to Apples and Attribute, but potentially better than both. First and foremost, the cards in this game have absolutely beautiful artwork; see here, here, here, and here. Basically, the players have a hand of 6 of these gorgeous cards, and they take turns being the "storyteller." The storyteller secretly selects a card in his or her hand, places it facedown on the table, and vaguely describes it to the other players in some way, whether with a word, a phrase, or any clue the storyteller feels like giving really (even in Latin if you're like me, to the groans of all of my fellow players). Then the other players each select a card from their hands that matches the storyteller's clue in some way and add it facedown to the pile, which is then shuffled and revealed so no one knows who put in which card (a la Apples to Apples). Everyone except the storyteller simultaneously and secretly guesses which card they think is the storyteller's card, and then everyone reveals and the storyteller reveals which is his or her card. The point scoring isn't really necessary to go into, except to say that the storyteller is trying to make it so that some people guess the right card, but not everyone, because the storyteller fails if either everyone guesses right or nobody guesses right. So like Barbarossa and Cluzzle, you're trying to make something apparent, but not too apparent. It's a tricky balance and being the storyteller is a challenge, but thankfully the players take turns being the storyteller. The game wouldn't be anything to write home about if it weren't for the outstanding artwork on the cards, which really makes this game stand out and worth checking out.
Mr. Jack in New York - Another game on my short list of games that I'm particularly excited about for Essen 2009. Dean Ackles'sslow reveal of the new characters leading up to the fair really whet my appetite for this new stand-alone entry in the Mr. Jack family. Having played the original Mr. Jack 40 times, including 18 times with the Mr. Jack Extension which I like a lot, I was originally skeptical of whether I would need a new but similar stand-alone game. Having seen the differences in the board and characters, I'm now convinced that Mr. Jack in New York is worth getting for fans of the original. I'm convinced that designers Bruno Cathala & Ludovic Maublanc must have learned something in the intervening years which they've applied to this game to refine the system, and who can resist Pierre Lechevalier's fantastic artwork? Not I, which is why I had my very gracious friend at Essen pick this one up for me over the weekend, so I'll have my hands on it soon enough thankfully.
Middle-Earth Quest - The new giant Fantasy Flight game was available a couple months ago, but is recent enough to be considered an Essen '09 release I suppose. Given my enjoyment of Descent: Journeys in the Dark, War of the Ring, and A Game of Thrones, I'm always up for trying the new FFG release. They're not always my cup of tea (I'm looking at you Twilight Imperium), and the company's expansion tactic may bug me, but they're often immersive and fun, so worth struggling through the lengthy rules. I haven't had the opportunity check out MEQ yet, but I'm sure I will at some point and will be able to decide where it falls on my own personal FFG spectrum.
Imperial 2030 - The new offering from Mac Gerdts is right up there on my interest list alongside Ghost Stories: White Moon and Mr. Jack in New York. I suppose I've prioritized the tried and true this year, whether it's expansions for great games or stand-alone follow-ups to great games. I'm not quite sure where Imperial 2030 falls in that classification system because it was available both as an expansion and as a stand-alone game. Basically it's a new map for Imperial, a world map in fact with new great powers (such as China and Brazil), but you could buy it both as simply a new map with the new bonds (like Age of Steam or Power Grid) or you could buy it as a stand-alone game with all of the wooden armies, navies, and factories again (if only you could similarly choose whether to buy the treasure and victory points again in Dominion: Intrigue, or the trains and cards again in all of the Ticket to Ride follow-ups). Since Imperial was my Game of the Year in 2006, the new Imperial map is a no-brainer for me, especially given my obsession with new maps for games. That same gracious friend thankfully picked up a copy of the Imperial 2030 expansion kit for me, and despite a recent pathetic playing of Imperial where I failed to control a single country at any time during the game, I'm still excited to take Imperial 2030 out for a test drive as soon as possible. The increased number of neutral countries, the increased importance of fleets, and the improved rules for advancing quickly around the Rondel (i.e., ratcheting up the cost for more powerful countries) have all helped to pique my interest in this title. Make sure to check out the GeekDo video of the designer's demo if you're at all intrigued by this title.
Chicago Express: Narrow Gauge & Erie Railroad Company - Chicago Express made the Final Five for my Game of the Year in 2008, so this dual-pack expansion coming from Queen is obviously on my radar. I've always been impressed with how much game Chicago Express packs into such a short amount of time. It's a whirlwind 60 minutes of intense decision-making. But I've simultaneously been concerned that the game may have a limited shelf-life and get repetitive after a dozen or so plays (as was the case with Saint Petersburg for instance), so a pair of expansions is just what the doctor ordered. I guess it really is the "Year of the Expansion" as Lorna Wong recently noted.
Power Grid: Brazil/Spain & Portugal - What a surprise, another expansion on the GeekBuzz Top 30. Not one that I'm interested in given my dislike of Power Grid after giving it a fair shot with 5 plays. But I'm sure this is an expansion that many are excited about, especially because I gather it comes with a box useful for storing those many other Power Grid maps that you already have lying around.
God's Playground - Lastly, the GeekBuzz ranking included Martin Wallace's latest Treefrog offering, which didn't make the Fairplay cut. I gather #7 in the Treefrog Line is a complex three-player wargame set in Poland during the 15th-18th centuries. Given my enjoyment of an earlier Wallace three-player wargame (and I use that term very loosely), that being Byzantium, I'm eager to try out God's Playground. It's yet another intimidating and convoluted Wallace rulebook (rules PDF available here), which I haven't managed to work my way all the way through yet, but from what I've seen this is another promising Wallace design. I really have no idea how he manages to churn out so many high-quality designs so quickly in the past couple years. I haven't loved all of the Treefrog games, but they're certainly impressive in their quantity, complexity, and rapidity of release. Make sure to check out the video of Aldie and Derk's interview of Martin.
Games On Fairplay, Not GeekBuzz
Machtspiele - The #2 game on the Fairplay ranking came out of nowhere to seize that coveted #2 spot. There is very little information out there about this game and it's still somewhat of a mystery why or how it ranked so highly. I don't recall seeing this on any of those countless pre-Essen interest lists on BoardGameGeek, so I'm guessing this one comes as a surprise to most people out there as well. Perhaps its ranking here will lead to more light being shed on this one.
At the Gates of Loyang - The new Uwe Rosenberg game was up there in pre-Essen buzz alongside Dungeon Lords and Stronghold based on Rosenberg's sucess with Agricola and Le Havre. Many are calling those two along with Loyang the designer's "Harvest Trilogy" because all three use a harvest mechanism that is somewhat reminscent of Splotter's Antiquity. Rosenberg himself denies the three are a trilogy in his GeekDo interview video. I know Le Havre felt very different from Agricola, and am thinking that Loyang will feel similarly different, especially based on the very detailed description of Loyang on Kulkmann's G@mebox. Given the game's pre-Essen buzz and the designer's pedigree, it was quite surprising to see the game not rank highly on the GeekBuzz ranking. Some have attributed this to the fact that people were inclined to simply buy the game based on their love of Agricola and/or Le Havre, and didn't bother trying the game first, and thus couldn't rate the game on GeekBuzz, so the games biggest fans may have self-selected out of the voting process, resulting in a lower ranking than it otherwise would have garnered. This makes sense, but doesn't explain why it ranked so highly in the Fairplay poll. Regardless, I'm looking forward to trying Loyang and seeing where it fits in this loose trilogy. Then again, given this game's release by new publisher Hall Games, it remains to be seen how or whether this game will be distributed in the U.S. and there always appears to be some drama around the distribution of Rosenberg's games in the U.S. so only time will tell whether this one is easy to track down or not.
Egizia - Let's put this one in the camp with Hansa Teutonica and move right along, keeping in mind that I'd be happy to be proven wrong.
Assyria - I'd lump this in with Hansa Teutonica and Egizia if it weren't for the publisher being Ystari. I feel as if Ystari has been experiencing Alea's post-Puerto Rico slump ever since it released its smash hit Caylus. I am a huge fan of Caylus (not with more than 3 players please), but have been progressively more disappointed with Ystari releases, starting with the mediocre Mykerinos, and it only goes downhill from there, with Amyitis, Yspahan, Bombay, and Sylla. Metropolys is the only recent Ystari game I've enjoyed, and unfortunately I seem to be alone in that respect since most people can't get past the over-saturated board, so it's impossible to find people willing to play Metropolys. The thing is, I want to like Ystari games. I really want to like them. I feel as if I should like them. So I keep trying them. But eventually I need to come to terms with the fact that Ystari and I have parted ways perhaps. The games are simply too mechanical for me. As someone who usually cares more about the mechanics in my games than the theme, it's odd for me to find games being too mechanical, but that's really what it comes down to with the recent spate of Ystari offerings. I can't help but feel as if they're cramming too many mechanics into each game these days, and would do better to take a step back and simplify a bit. The games feel all over the place, without focus, and are unsatisfying as a result. I'm sure there's an audience out there for them though since they keep making them, but I suppose I'm not that audience.
Shipyard - A particularly noteworthy absentee from the Top Overlap Games because: (a) Vlaada Chvatil predicted it would be "one of the hits of this Essen" in a recent interview with Patrick Korner; and (b) this heavy and complex game actually made the Fairplay Top 30 and missed out on the GeekBuzz Top 30. I'm still very interested in checking out Shipyard because the games published by Czech Games Edition have certainly been worth investigating thus far, but its absence from the Top Overlap Games is a bit troubling. My only theory is that the Geeks were already buying Dungeon Lords and Bunny Bunny Moose Moose at the CGE booth, and were convinced to make it a trifecta by throwing in Shipyard, so they didn't play and consequently didn't rate Shipyard (but then again, it does have 54 votes with a medicore average, so that theory doesn't really hold water). The only theory I can come up with is that the loud and distracting Essen game fair is not a conducive setting for trying this long and complex game, which seems to have been the reasoning of Melissa and Fraser. You might want to check out this video of the Shipyard rules being explained, but you can skip the first 11 minutes because it's all setup. I must say this game has a lot of small bits to setup on the board before playing, and the game also has an amazing number of Rondels (like all of the Gerdts games rolled into one).
Colonia - Another generic-looking game like Hansa Teutonica and Egizia that I can't generate the interest to adequately research, which is particularly surprising since it's a Dirk Henn design (and I'm a fan of his Wallenstein and Atlantic Star). I suppose you should at least check out the Colonia trailer preview, although I should warn you that it may actually serve to turn you off from the game due to its hilariously bland descriptions (by the way those players in the video should really invest in a table).
Havana - If Cuba had been well-loved, I'd understand theming this fairly unrelated game by a different designer to be in the same line as Cuba, but given Cuba's lukewarm reception, I'm not sure I get the connection. Then again, they keep making expansions for Cuba so someone out there must still be playing it. I played Cuba 4 times, so it wasn't one of those one-and-done deals, but there are plenty of games that do the same thing better so it's one of those decent games that consistently loses the competitive battle for table time. So that this entry serves some use, I'll note that Kulkmann's G@mebox gives a great detailed description of Havana (although if you're going to Control F for the description, be warned that Kulkmann spells Havana with two n's as Havanna).
Savannah Tails - As with the downward decline of my interest in Ystari releases, Fragor Games has unfortunately followed suit. I enjoyed Shear Panic (see Caylus). I thought Antler Island was okay (see Mykerinos). I did not like Snow Tails at all (see Amyitis). So now I'm wary of Savannah Tails (see Assyria). It's nothing against the Lamont brothers and their fantastic ostrich costumes, but rather has more to do with my general prejudice against racing games, even the most widely respected ones like Formula De, TurfMaster, and Mississippi Queen. Racing games generally overstay their welcome for me and are fairly boring for some reason, so I've learned to steer clear of them for the most part (which is probably for the best since my steering in my last game of Snow Tails was abysmal). While the name Savannah Tails suggests a connection with their previous release Snow Tails, this video demo of the game shows that Savannah Tails is actually a good deal simpler than Snow Tails.
Games Missing From Both GeekBuzz & Fairplay
Last Train to Wensleydale - I played Wensleydale twice and really enjoyed it (once with 3 players and once with 4 players), but the other players were not as enamored. I liked the fact that it felt very different from other train-themed games (I'm not going to call them train games since there seems to be so much debate over what qualifies as a "train game"), such as Age of Steam, Steam, Steel Driver, and Chicago Express. I liked the fact that you didn't need to really think about long deliveries in Wensleydale and plan out long routes, unlike AoS (and I'm a big fan of Age of Steam), but it was a nice relief in this game to not have to wrack your brain searching for long deliveries. It's more about short-term gain and managing many different currencies. I liked the four different influence tracks and the way the auction worked to gain influence. I liked the way you always needed more of each type of influence and never seemed to have enough of any of them, and I liked the way most of the currencies could be spent for a variety of things (e.g., red influence for connecting to red cities and also for selling your track to the red company, or investment cubes for bidding in the auction and for building track and for converting to engine points, or the white government influence for going early in turn order and also for kicking farmers out of your way so you can build track in their land), which made it hard to figure out how to spend all of your various currency. All in all it felt fairly unique to me and remarkably straightforward for a Wallace game. The board was rather ugly (which is putting it mildly, as it looks sort of like a diseased lung), and the setup rather fiddly, and the final turn rather anticlimactic, and the geography of the board may favor a particular region, so it's certainly not without its flaws, but I am definitely looking forward to playing it for a third time.
Greed, Inc. - I'm a fan of many of the games that Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga publish through Splotter Spellen (especially Antiquity and Roads & Boats), so Greed, Inc. is certainly on my radar. I've been disappointed by Indonesia and Duck Dealer, and a bit ambivalent about Bus and VOC, so a new Splotter release doesn't warrant an automatic purchase for me, especially given their prices, but it does warrant seeking out an opportunity to try the new release (hopefully next month at BGG.CON in Dallas for this one). I have to say I'm somewhat skeptical of the game due to its topical theme, which makes me wonder if it was only recently designed to capitalize on the inherent interest that comes with being topical. Plus I still have a sour taste in my mouth from Duck Dealer, so Greed is one I'm eager to try with some trepidation. How's that for having mixed feelings about a game; eagerness and trepidation at the same time!
The BoardGameGeek Game - Richard Breese's homage to the 10th anniversary of the founding of the BoardGameGeek website is one that any active member of the BGG community has got to want to try I presume. I'm certainly very intrigued by it and am assuming that it'll be readily available to try at BGG.CON next month. The inclusion of 1,000 BGG user avatars on the box was a stroke of genius. See this GeekList and this photograph.
Day & Night - Valentijn Eekels's first published design was the surprise winner of the recently announced 2009 International Gamers Award. I've read the online rules to the game and am definitely interested in trying it out. Like Dixit (and Krakow 1325 AD last year), this is yet another card game with fantastic artwork on the cards, which really helps to spur my interest in the game. The game appears from the rules and reviews (such as this excellent review) to be fairly abstract in practice, which is not something that necessarily turns me off, but also makes me a bit wary, since I have trouble getting games like YINSH, DVONN, and Blokus to the table. Then again, perhaps the thin theme of Day & Night will help give it that extra push to get it enough table time to warrant importing the game. That artwork is certainly something to marvel at, and was enough to get me to import Krakow 1325 AD last year.
BasketBoss - As a huge fan of StreetSoccer (which took home the gold in my Varsity Geek column), I can't help but be interested in Corné van Moorsel's new sports-themed board game. Then again, Powerboats was disappointing last year so I have some trepidation about BasketBoss, but I'll just chalk Powerboats up to that whole anti-racing game thing, and dive right into BasketBoss hopefully.
Bunny Bunny Moose Moose - This video of Doug & Shelley Garrett playing Bunny Bunny Moose Moose is pretty hilarious (skip to around the 35 minute mark). Actually, I think just about anyone playing Bunny Bunny Moose Moose would be hilarious. This new game from Vlaada Chvatil continues his trend of consistently designing games that are completely and utterly different from his previous designs. It's a silly party game, as I assume you've already seen from the video, where players are quickly trying to give themselves bunny ears or antlers with their hands to satisfy conditions on cards being flipped up (for example, see here for a great photo of the designer playing his own game). It looks like a good late night closer game.
Alcazar - The re-implementation of Wolfgang Kramer's classic Big Boss surprised me by getting no attention from either GeekBuzz or Fairplay. I suppose it's a re-implentation with a new theme so people aren't getting worked up about it, but I seem to remember people getting very excited for the re-implementation of Wallenstein as Shogun and the reprint of Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, for instance. I for one can't wait to give Alcazar a try, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say I, the only one, can't wait to give Alcazar a try.
10 Jahre Alea Schatzkiste - I feel as if the Alea Treasure Chest has been available in Germany forever, and we've been waiting for a U.S. release forever. This is supposed to include expansions for Puerto Rico, San Juan, Notre Dame, In the Year of the Dragon, Witch's Brew, Louis XIV, and Princes of Florence, so you can imagine my excitement. Well, it goes on the list, even though it wasn't an Essen '09 release because I really wanted it to be, and I'm sad to see that it wasn't. One of these days I'll eventually get my hands on this set of expansions.
Car(d)cassonne, Ra: The Dice Game, Samurai: The Card Game - Last and most definitely least, comes this new trio of card and dice games based on succesful board games. These three uphold the long tradition of releasing yawn-inducing card and dice game versions of succesful board games to critical disdain (see, e.g., Alhambra: The Dice Game, Tigris & Euphrates Card Game). Personally, I have never found a card or dice game version that I've liked. Admittedly I've avoided playing many of them, but have tried a few and disliked all of them, including Settlers of Catan Card Game, San Juan, Caylus Magna Carta, and Ra: The Dice Game, among others. Most recently, Larry Levy tied me down and forced me to play Ra: The Dice Game. The only benefit of suffering through this is that now I can write a rational and impassioned rebuttal of Larry's inconceivable praise for Ra: The Dice Game in his latest Boardgame News column. At least now I can legitimately criticize it, rather than just ranting against it and its ilk. I'll save that rebuttal for another day since I'm at the end now of a very long and meandering column, so once I collect my thoughts, I'll get to winning that debate on the merits or lack thereof of Ra: The Dice Game and all of the card and dice game versions that it stands for. As a Carcassonne fan, I have to say that the very idea of Car(d)carssonne makes my stomach turn, even more than Carcassonne: Catapult and Carcassonne: Wheel of Fortune (I can hardly believe these things are real, and not just April Fools jokes).
With all that being said, I'm personally most excited about Ghost Stories: White Moon, Imperial 2030, Macao, Dungeon Lords, Mr. Jack in New York, and At the Gates of Loyang, despite only two of those six showing up in the Top Overlap Games. The data is useful for sifting through the hundreds of new Essen releases, but useful only to a point, and in the end it really comes down to your own personal predilections. There are plenty of other games on my "want to try" list though, so hopefully I'll get to try a few of those before having to decide whether to purchase them, such as God's Playground, Greed Incorporated, BasketBoss, Day & Night, Carson City, Opera, The BoardGameGeek Game, Alcazar, Middle-Earth Quest, Shipyard, Stronghold, Vasco de Gama, Bunny Bunny Moose Moose, Tobago, and Colonia. So it looks like I have plenty to keep me busy for the next 359 days until Essen 2010 rolls around. Hopefully you've also found a few games among those above to investigate further and have enjoyed following the exploits of fellow geeks in Essen over the past few days as much as I have. It's no substitute for actually being there I'm sure, but living vicariously through those in attendance will certainly keep you pretty busy.