NYC Gamer              

Essen 2009: GeekBuzz Meets Fairplay

October 27, 2009

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.

Data Dump

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

  1. Dungeon Lords
  2. Power Grid - Factory Manager
  3. Agricola: Farmers of the Moor
  4. Endeavor
  5. Roma II
  6. Vasco de Gama
  7. Carson City
  8. Ghost Stories: White Moon
  9. Stronghold
  10. A Brief History of the World
  11. Automobile
  12. Dixit
  13. Mr. Jack in New York
  14. Peloponnes
  15. Middle-Earth Quest
  16. Aladdin's Dragons Card Game
  17. A La Carte
  18. Macao
  19. Funkenschlag: Umspannwerk
  20. Dominion: Seaside
  21. Imperial 2030
  22. Chicago Express: Narrow Gauge & Erie Railroad Company
  23. Power Grid: Brazil & Spain/Portugal
  24. Kingsburg: To Forge a Realm
  25. Tobago
  26. Strada Romana
  27. Hansa Teutonica
  28. God's Playground
  29. Opera
  30. Horse Fever

Notable Absences (GeekBuzz ranking in parentheses)

Fairplay Top 30

  1. Vasco de Gama
  2. Machtspiele
  3. Macao
  4. Endeavor
  5. Dungeon Lords
  6. At the Gates of Loyang
  7. Egizia
  8. Power Grid - Factory Manager
  9. Hansa Teutonica
  10. Carson City
  11. Automobile
  12. A La Carte
  13. Dominion: Seaside
  14. World Without End
  15. Ra
  16. Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age
  17. Assyria
  18. Battlestar Galactica
  19. Tobago
  20. Opera
  21. Peloponnes
  22. Shipyard
  23. Colonia
  24. El Paso
  25. Gonazaga
  26. Havana
  27. Savannah Tails
  28. Seidenstraße
  29. Atlantis
  30. Albion

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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).
  10. 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.
  11. 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).
  12. 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.
  13. 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.

Notable Absences

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

Games On Fairplay, Not GeekBuzz

Games Missing From Both GeekBuzz & Fairplay

In Closing

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.

(See Boardgame News for this column plus additional comments on it)