Essen is coming. Hundreds of new games on the verge of being released and a patchwork of information and snippets available about each one. I've scoured the previews to find a manageable handful of games that really deserve some pre-show attention. These are sorted in the rough order of my interest level. My track record may not be fantastic, what with my 2010 Essen Anticipation list being a mixed bag in terms of games that did and did not pan out, but that won't deter me from sifting through the new releases once again to divine the most notable ones. I've tried to include links along the way to some actually useful information, such as videos or rules, so take a look and perhaps you'll find an upcoming game worth checking out.
1) Trajan (Feld)
My most anticipated game for Essen 2011 is Stefan Feld's Trajan. The designer and cover were enough to grab my attention. The general description of the game, including its repurposing of the Mancala mechanic, were enough to pique my interest. And the Game Preview on BoardGameGeek News shot the game to the top of my list. If you have any interest in Feld titles then you should definitely check out that preview for a fairly detailed look at the game.
My principal reservation is that Trajan is being released by first time publisher Ammonit Spiele, which suggests it may have been turned down by more established publishers. This seemed to explain the drop-off from Le Havre to Loyang, given the absence of Lookout from the latter, so I wonder if the same might go for Trajan. I'm also wary because I feel as if Feld has been turning out games at such a remarkable pace that the games so far in 2011 might benefit from further development and attention, particularly Die Burgen and Strasbourg. Despite all that, Feld has proven his talents again and again through Notre Dame, Roma, Luna, and the like, so any game of his deserves a look and this one especially so given initial information.
The rules are available at this page for anyone who goes for that sort of thing.
2) Galaxy Trucker: Another Big Expansion (Chvatil)
Galaxy Trucker was my Game of the Year for 2007 so any expansion for it is sure to grab my attention. It's such a fun game, but a lot of the fun for me derives from my ship being blasted apart. Unfortunately that began to happen less and less with the base game after 10-20 plays. That's when the first Big Expansion saved the day in 2008 by introducing new horrors of space travel to obliterate my ships. It took another 15 or so plays to begin to get a good handle on the challenges introduced in the first Big Expansion. Now I'm ready for new terrifying space monsters to rip apart my carefully crafted vessels.
I was fortunate enough to try a prototype of the second Galaxy Trucker expansion out back in April and enjoyed it very much. I wrote up an explanation of the expansion's components in Czech It Out, so I won't go into detail again here. Suffice it to say, boarding parties and giant round 4 ships are a blast! I've played the prototype 6 times so far and am just now beginning to have some of my ships survive, but the incidence of being knocked out or utterly destroyed is still pleasantly high.
One other resource you may want to check out is this video on Cliquenabend.
3) Urban Sprawl (Jensen)
I don't know much about Urban Sprawl, but I know Chad Jensen designed Dominant Species and that's enough for me. Dominant Species was my Game of the Year for 2010 so Jensen's follow-up was bound to get my attention. Urban Sprawl seems to have not only gotten that attention but earned it. The concept for the game and its overview on the BGG page is enough to quicken my pulse. I haven't had a chance to read the rules yet, but you should check them out and report back.
4) Last Will (Suchy)
Vladimir Suchy just keeps getting better and better. Shipyard (2009) was good, 20th Century (2010) was better, and Last Will (2011) may just be the best yet. And from what I've heard, League of Six (2007) was the worst of the bunch, although I haven't tried it myself yet.
Last Will is another Czech Games Edition game that I previewed in Czech It Out, so check that article out if you want details on the gameplay of Last Will. After 3 plays though, I can say for sure that it was the standalone prototype game that I was most excited about having tried last spring. The Galaxy Trucker expansion is amazing, but it's Galaxy Trucker so that's to be expected (especially for someone with my declared affinity for expansions), but Last Will was impressive as a remarkable standalone game. It really engaged almost everyone else that I played with, and I played with three entirely different groups of people. The game is fast-paced, yet thoughtful, unique and intriguing, yet easily understandable. It's one that I'm very eager to see how the final product turns out.
5) Takenoko (Bauza)
Another game making the grade despite the fact that I know very little about it. I know Takenoko is designed by Antoine Bauza and I know it has an awesome-looking panda miniature. That's enough for me.
It helps that Bauza designed Ghost Stories, one of my favorites, and Hanabi, an intriguing and strange game, and it doesn't hurt too much that he designed 7 Wonders. My one fear with Takenoko is that it may be too light and simplistic to really capture my interest, but it at least deserves a look before dismissing it. Sometimes a light game can be clever enough to make a lasting impression and bring me back for repeated plays, like Biblios or Cities.
6) Poseidon's Kingdom (Lamont)
The Lamont brothers are back at it again with fishy puns galore. Their designs have been hit-or-miss with me, but are always worth a look. Last year's Antics was my favorite yet and one of my favorites of 2010 so Poseidon's Kingdom definitely merits close attention, especially since it draws a lot upon the Antics mechanics.
I had a chance to try a prototype of Poseidon's Kingdom earlier this year and enjoyed it. I didn't like it as much as Antics, but that's mostly because it was a bit lighter and more family friendly, and my preferences tend toward the heavier and unfriendly side of things.
Then again, the game was vicious. The shark could really hamper your best laid plans and your fellow players could move in unexpected ways to send the shark your way. Some parts of it were the quite the figurative blood bath. Thus, I am interested to see how the final product turns out. If the initial photos are any indication, the Scottish duo may have outdone themselves yet again with the game components this year.
7) Pret-a-Porter (Trzewiczek)
Everything you could ever need to know about Pret-a-Porter you can find in the Opinionated Gamers preview. It certainly sounds interesting from the description in that preview.
The best thing going for this game besides its intriguing description is Trzewiczek's name attached to it, given that he designed Stronghold (my 2009 Game of the Year). The worst thing going for it is the theme, and the theme, and yeah the theme. An involved economic strategy board game about the world of fashion? That is not something I expected to see, least of all from the designer of a siege-based combat game about goblins and orcs... and the undead if you buy the expansion.
I guess I shouldn't judge a game based solely on its theme and it's in that spirit that I'm eager to give Pret-a-Porter a try, although can't help but remain skeptical until I see it in action.
8) Dungeon Petz (Chvatil)
Czech Games Edition has been busy developing a whole host of games this year and we're about to be treated to the fruits of their labors. Dungeon Petz is another CGE game that I previewed in Czech It Out, so head over there for the details on the prototype's gameplay.
For those who might be wondering, Dungeon Petz shares very little with 2009's Dungeon Lords, which for me is a good thing since I didn't really enjoy that previous dungeon offering. Dungeon Petz was similarly involved and complex, but didn't feel quite so bogged down. I was bothered by the unpredictability of the worker placement in Dungeon Lords and by the Galaxy Trucker-esque destruction phase in a game that had so much careful planning. The worker placement in Dungeon Petz is more uncertain than say Caylus certainly, but gives players more control than in Lords. It's also enjoyable to watch the dangerous eponymous pets grow up and evolve over time. Trying to keep the pets alive and satisfied, while at the same time keeping an eye on the upcoming buyers or contests is a tricky challenge that I look forward to trying my hand at again once the final game is released.
9) Ora et Labora (Rosenberg)
Ora et Labora is another one of those games that I know next to nothing about but know that I'm eager to learn more. It's the next big box offering from Uwe Rosenberg and given his ludography, it's obviously worth a closer look as details emerge.
I'm cautiously optimistic because I really enjoyed Le Havre, but was disappointed by Loyang and Merkator. I don't know where Ora et Labora will fall on the spectrum, but it seems as if it may be more complex and involved than Rosenberg's more recent releases, which is promising for those of us that prefer his games with more meat on their bones.
10) Champions 2020 & Meltdown 2020 (van Moorsel)
Corne van Moorsel is releasing two new games this year that may be worth a look. With Factory Fun, StreetSoccer, and now Sun, Sea & Sand under his belt, van Moorsel has built quite a library of solid releases.
Champions 2020 is billed as a more elaborate version of the core StreetSoccer system. It has a larger field and more players, but also thrown-ins, corner kicks, fouls, penalty kicks, and injuries. I'm a big fan of StreetSoccer, but love it for its wonderfully simple presentation of the sport. I am nervous about whether Champions 2020 will add too much intricacy for my tastes, especially given where StreetSoccer has anchored me. Perhaps it will make more sense to view this new incarnation as a completely different animal, but in that case it may be intended for a more die hard fan of the sport.
Meltdown 2020 is about leading an evacuation operation from a damaged nuclear reactor. It's a timely, if potentially off-putting, theme that should help garner some attention. The rules are available here if you'd like to check them out. I'm definitely interested in trying the game out, although ideally someone else's copy first, which is how I discovered and eventually added Sun, Sea & Sand to my collection last year.
And so the countdown continues until the doors open at Essen and we're flooded with even more information, including first impressions and videos from the floor of the show. Until then, best of luck developing your own personal list of titles to anticipate and keeping it to a manageable length.
(See The Opinionated Gamers for this column plus additional comments on it)