Pauls Essen 2008 01-Nov-2008
 
Paul

Let's start with the standard disclaimer. We may well have misread, misheard or misunderstood rules in any or all of the games we played. Whilst a wrong rule is unlikely to convert a good game into a great one, it may well turn a good game to a poor one. So bear this in mind whenever I describe a game in less than glowing terms. Also, most of my opinions are from a single playing of a game. This might be an outlier, and the game may usually play better or worse.


Dominion

After a bit of wandering, exploring, and balking at the queue for the Lookout Games stall, we sat down to play our first game of the show.

There had been a lot of hype about this game prior to its release. This had made me wary of shilling, but curious to try it. Early descriptions suggested that its basic mechanic was a bit different to anything out there. In these days of seeing the same mechanism spreading from game to game like a cardboard based life form Iím always on the lookout for something different.

I guess anybody reading this is unlikely to have avoided the hype and so will probably be familiar with the basic idea. So Iíll forgo a detailed description. The basic idea is to use cards in your hand to obtain more cards. These all go to your discard deck, which is reshuffled to form a new draw deck when your current deck runs out. The ultimate aim is to add as many victory point cards into your deck as possible by the end of the game. But those cards are useless until the end. In fact theyíre worse than useless as they get in the way of the useful cards which you need to get hold of more victory point cards.

The obvious question is does it live up to the hype? In my opinion, no. What ever does? But I certainly thought it a good game and the deck building mechanism is fresh and clever. It was considered by many to be the best game of the show. I know I didnít play any better.

I do have a couple of reservations though.

First, there is very little interaction between players. I believe that only three of the twenty five card sets impact other players. We used two of them in the two games we played; neither was a big deal. I donít really care that you canít easily influence anybody else. The issue is more that everybody elseís turn is pretty much just something which stops you from getting on with your next one. The main thing youíre interested in during an opponents turn is whether theyíre picking up VP cards. That doesnít take a great deal of attention. Iíd probably prefer everybody taking their turns simultaneously, which may actually be a possibility with most of the cards.

Second, I donít know how much long term appeal there will be in this game. It strikes me as the sort which will get a lot of play in the short term, then people will burn out on it. Extra expansions will no doubt be produced but I donít think thatís really the point. Still, itís not as if we play any game hundreds of times so thatís unlikely to be much of a loss.


Strozzi

First we had Medici. Then came Medici vs Strozzi. Here comes the game to complete the set. Iíve not played Medici vs Strozzi so I canít compare it with that. Fortunately weíve a number of games of Medici under our belts though.

One of Kniziaís trademarks is a scoring system which makes your head hurt. He obviously decided that Medici wasnít causing nearly enough headaches. And decided to do something about it. So what we have here is basically Medici with a more complex scoring system.

We still have the ships and weíre still collecting goods. But this time weíre only working with one ship at a time. Probably the most significant difference is that we no longer have an auction game. Ships are instead claimed via a set of flags, each player having an identical set of three. Each ship comes with goods on it; some also bring the right to claim a tile.

Points are won according to the value of ships and goods collected. Get enough goods and you get the familiar 5 / 10 / 15 bonus points. And majorities of types of tiles bring further points at the end of the game.

All in all, itís a decent game. Quite good in fact. But not as good as Medici. The extra fiddliness of the scoring doesnít really add much to the game. If anything, it detracts from the elegance of the original game. I donít see any reason to pick this one up whilst Medici is still readily available.


Hopplido Hopplida

Itís always handy to have a little game or two that slips into the pocket and can be played down the pub. Especially if it caters for up to seven people. This game comprises of seven dice, so meets the criteria admirably. It also has a little cardboard tile to make it easier to remember past rolls but that can be left at home.

In essence this is a push your luck game. Each of the six sided dice have the same images on them. A rabbit, two rabbits in hutches, three, four and five hutches, and a carrot. You start by rolling all of the dice. You must roll, and bank, at least one rabbit (or, roll and bank all carrots). You may bank one hutch, starting with the double, then the three, etc, too. The hutches are multipliers, so a double hutch doubles your score; a triple hutch triples it, etc. You may then keep rolling the dice not yet banked, banking at least one rabbit, until you either fail to roll a rabbit or you decide to take the score. If youíve banked all of your dice, you get to take all of your rabbits bank into your hand and carry on rolling. Further rabbits add to those rolled before picking these up.

The reason this is a push your luck game is that if you fail to roll any rabbits, you donít score. This is what makes the game interesting

A novel twist to the game is that once a player decides to score, the next player has a choice. They may pick up all six dice and start again. Or they may take over the dice, and position, of the previous player and carry on from there. If the latter, they must roll the unused dice at least once Ė they may not take over the position and immediately stick to grab free points.

I wasnít sure about this when we started playing, but it turned out Iíd misread a rule. The addition of the correct rule, and some beer, turned it into a fun little game. Itís already spawned itís own catchphrase in the form of ďItís a 50/50 chanceĒ.


Sushizock im Gocklewok

Our game of choice for bringing down the pub over the last few years has probably been Heckmeck. So we were all interested to hear that this year there would be a follow up to it.

Like itís older brother, this game reveals itís pub credentials in the form of a set of dice, and a set of dominoes. Well. Strictly speaking, two sets of dominoes. The first set is in blue and these are worth positive points. The other set is in red and is worth negative points. Players take turns to roll the dice and take a domino. Dice can be rerolled up to three times (some must be banked each roll). Dominoes may come from the red or blue collection, or be stolen from another player.

Whilst those negative points are a bad thing, theyíre also essential. Colours are stacked together, so when you get a new blue tile it goes on to of your blue stack. All of your red, negative, tiles score. But blues only count if theyíre matched with a red one. So if you have two reds and a blue, only your bottom blue will be worth anything.

The game has a bit more meat than Heckmeck and gives you a bit more to think about. Most people seem to prefer it to Heckmeck. But weíre bigger fans of the original game than most groups, so I think our general consensus is that the original is still the best. For me, dominoes donít get stolen enough in the new game.

One thing weíre definitely in agreement about is that the rules arenít very good. Despite there only being three or four rules, everybody seemed to be mangling them. We played by four different sets before we finally figured it out. In particular, an example which contradicts the rules is not helpful.


Stone Age

This wasnít a new Essen release, but itís new this year and was certainly new to us. So Iím including it.

This proved to be just the first of the place a worker to get a thing to get VP games which we found ourselves playing. It didnít hurt though that it was probably the best.

Given the name, it takes no leap of the imagination to figure out that the game is set in the Stone Age. Each player has a set of Stone Age people which they take turns to allocate to different areas on the board. Some areas allow for harvesting of resources. Others allow these resources to be converted into Ė primarily - VPs. The three areas which saw most action in our game though are those to gain another person, reduce food costs, and improve the ability to adjust die rolls.

The die rolls come in when claiming resources. You roll a die for each worker you try to harvest a particular resource with. Add the numbers, divide by the cost of that particular resource, and thatís how many of that type you get. The ability to adjust comes in handy if youíre just short of being able to claim another resource of that type.

Iíd not seen the resource rolling mechanism before but pretty much everything else was familiar. Take the worker placement from any of a number of games, add gaining another piece from Leonardo, food management from Agricola, and gaining resources from too many games to count. So not much new then.

It was also a bit processional .The rush for the three limited areas each round Ė food, extra person, adjust die Ė was a bit predictable. And itís a shame the game only scaled to four players. But having said all that, it was a good example of the genre. Iíd be just as happy to play it as Pillars of the Earth or Leonardo, though it felt a little simpler than those two. I just donít need it in my collection, especially with the four player maximum.


Palais Royal

And here we have the second worker placement game of the day. The second of the morning in fact.

This one is themed around recruiting nobles in France. At least, I think thatís the theme. The playing area is made up of two things Ė a park, in which various nobles are standing around rooted to the spot, and the Palace of the title. The latter is made up of a 3x3 grid of tiles. Curiously, the entrance to the Palace is the central tile. Perhaps visitors have to parachute in.

Each noble has a certain cost to recruit. This is made up from money and favour from both the King and the Queen. Once recruited, nobles contribute VPs. Some also contribute a benefit, such as providing a sum of money each turn or generating favour. The amount of money necessary drops as adjacent nobles are bought up, leaving those remaining as Billy No Friends.

Actually, itís probably a little inaccurate to call this a worker placement game. Itís really a worker placement and movement game. Each player has a number of pieces. Some of these are brought into the Palace each turn and a limited number of movements can be made to put them into particular rooms. These rooms provide various benefits. The point of the exercise is to move the people into the combination of rooms which will allow you to obtain the desired nobles. Once used, the workers come back to your hand.

The game continues in this fashion until only a certain number of tiles are left. VPs are then summed. Additional VPs are granted by claiming a majority of nobles along edges of the park, so giving a bit of strategic flexibility when deciding what to claim.

Iíve already spoiled the surprise somewhat by describing Stone Age as the best of the worker placement. So this isnít as good as Stone Age then. At the risk of spoiling future surprises, Iíll say this was the second best worker placement game I played. I liked the fact that the noble placement is random, so there should be plenty of replayability. And the various rewards offered by nobles suggest different strategies to try out.

However, the game did feel rather dry. There was a definite abstract feel to the proceedings. Also, the amount of downtime felt a bit much, even for a four player game. Thereís not much you can do until your turn comes around again, though to be fair a player doesnít do a huge amount in a turn so itís not an enormous wait. As Iíve just mentioned, the game maxes out at four players. Not a positive point for us. And last but not least, balance. There are plenty of options to take nobles for abilities and try to gain majorities. But the winner in our game simply bought the most expensive noble he could afford each turn. Certainly a reasonable strategy, but it does ring a little alarm bell at the back of my mind.


Heads of State

This is a new game from Z-Man. Itís themed around nobility in Europe a few centuries ago. Players have a set of tiles representing various types of nobles which they are trying to place in different regions.

The game is driven by two decks of cards. One has various resources. This is used to produce nobles. The other has various methods of killing. This is used to remove nobles. Cards may be drafted, or drawn blindly, from one or both decks.

Each of the nobles needs a particular combination of resources. Achieve the right combination and you may create a noble. This must be immediately placed onto the board, which represents a map of Europe. Points are earned for being the first person into a particular region. Others are gained by placing a noble in each region in a country, by having majorities in a country, and by building complete sets of the different nobles.

The game is usually played over three turns. We only played the first one, where by and large we could place nobles as we wanted. By the time we had completed it, most areas of the board were filled. Further turns would have seen us resorting to the traditional historic method of promotion, namely murder and assassination. By and large we had no need of this in the turn we played so thatís not a side of the game we saw much of.

Which is a pity as the game would probably have started to get more interesting at that point. All we really saw was yet another majority placement game. None of us were enormously enthused by it. Those of us with reasonably large game collections just donít have a need foe another game like this.


Chicago Express

This is the new Queen version of last yearís Wabash Cannonball. As far as Iím aware, the only difference is the graphics. In other words, it has some.

Given the heritage, what we have here is fairly obviously a train game. Itís a short, less than an hour, game of network building and share auctioning based East of Chicago. Players take turns to either auction a share, extend a network, or develop a hex. Auctions put money into the companies which are used to fund the other two actions. Once enough actions have been taken, a dividend round is triggered which feeds money back to the players. Which is just as well as thatís the only way for a player to get more money. And more money is good as thatís how you win the game.

Iím not entirely sure what to make of this one. On the basis of a single game it seemed quite light. But I could see hints of a deeper game underneath. I can certainly see the potential for stitching up other players, always a popular sport around here. I wasnít convinced enough to buy it, but I can imagine myself making a purchase in a future year. What Iím not keen on is the size of the box. Whilst not of packing crate dimensions itís certainly a lot bigger than it needs to be.


A Castle for all Seasons

And here we have the third, and final, worker placement game. And reading between the lines, Iíve already told you that it was the worst of the three.

This one is themed around building a castle. The game board is double sided, each side showing an identical view of the castle in question. The only difference is the colour scheme. One side is white, representing winter. The other represents summer. A set of cards is sued when the board is in winter mode. We played the summer side on the advice of the local, friendly demo person. I have thus no idea what the winter cards do.

The board represents various parts of the castle being built. Much of it is made up from various buildings such as huts, blacksmiths, etc. Tiles are placed over these buildings showing the cost, and VPs, for building them.

Each player has an identical set of role cards. The various roles allow for collecting money and resources, building, and obviously for placing men on the board. Men are placed into the castle to claim VPs at the end of the game. They may only be placed in a building after it has been built. The different buildings grant various ways to gain end game VP bonuses, so there is certainly scope for different strategies.

Opinions varied upon how good or bad it was. I didnít think the game was dreadful, though others did. It did drag a bit though and just wasnít particularly exciting. Roles are selected simultaneously, so clearly there is an element of both tension and luck there. Neither seemed to be particularly prevalent though. Probably the biggest issue was the downtime. Like other games mentioned above it wasnít massive, but thereís not much to see or do during other players turns. If I was going to pick up a worker placement game at Essen this year, it wouldnít be this one.


The Princes of Macchu Picchu

This is the new game from Mr. Rondel. Itís loosely based around Aztecs hiding from the Spanish.

Players each control an Azten Prince, which they move around a city. The city is split into various districts, each of which allows a particular action to be taken. These actions include collecting resources Ė hmm, that sounds familiar Ė deploying farmers, and making sacrifices. In a small divergence from traditional historical teachings, priests and virgins band together to sacrifice llamas.

The purpose of all of this is to collect sacrifice cards, which are converted to VPs at the end of the game. VPs are earned primarily for collecting tiles representing various gods, and for placing farmers into particular resource growing areas. This is easier said than done as the cards are not easily earned. It will take the cumulate effect of a number of actions to gain one. Effort to collect new ones must be balanced again that needed to meet the criteria to earn VPs against those currently held.

And on top of this, thereís the two possible endings. The game can end in either a Spanish or an Aztec victory. This depends on what runs out first Ė cards, gods or time. In an Aztec victory, the person with the most VPs wins. In a Spanish victory, VPs are manipulated according to who has the most gold. Now, given that gold comes from sacrifice cards, Iím not sure at the moment if this actually makes much difference. After all, the more sacrifice cards gained, the more VPs are likely anyway. I also think a two player game is more likely to furnish a Spanish version and a five player an Azten version. So the variable endings may turn out to be a bit of a red herring rather than something to worry about.

All in all though, this adds up to a fairly meaty game. Probably one of the better games of the show if the Fairplay rankings are to be trusted, and certainly one of those we enjoyed the most. I can see a few ways to approach it, so weíll get a few games out of this one.


Beep! Beep!

If the name doesnít tell you that this is a light game, the components will. What your money gets you is a pack of cards and a squeaky toy car. Yes, you did read that correctly.

This is a speed pattern matching game. The cards each show a silhouette of an animal in one of five or six colours. Each player is given two cards which are placed face up in front of them. The rest of the deck is split into a number of piles. All of these piles are turned face up, and chaos immediately breaks out. Players try to grab cards from the top of those piles which match either the colour or animal on one of their cards. These are then dropped on top, with the effect that the two cards they start with build up into two piles. The game ends when a couple of draw piles run out. The winner is the person with the most cards in their smallest pile.

Astute readers will notice that I havenít mentioned the car yet. Thatís because it's largely superfluous. I expect the publisher had a job and decided to add them to a game. Somehow. Anyhow. The way they were added to this game is by adding an extra rule. If all of the piles are topped by the same colour, a player may punch the car to collect two free cards.

Apparently this can be played in a sedate, gentlemanly manner. We didnít.


Gloria Picktoria

If anybody has played Get the Goods, theyíll be familiar with this game. Itís the same game, with a fox.

This is a card game. There are four sorts of cards. Chickens, wildcards, doubles and score triggers. Players take turns to spend three actions, which are used to take a card, place a card, or move the fox. Cards are taken from a draft and added to your hand. Theyíre played against sets of the same colour. Once a double card is added to a set, you may no longer extend it. At the end of your turn, you always move the fox onto a set of the next players card. Unless you forget. Ahem.

Scoring happens three times during the game, when the fourth, seventh and tenth trigger cards turn up. Players gain points for being the only person to have a set of a colour and for having the longest and second longest sets. Those containing the double cards score double. The set with the fox on scores nothing. Thatís about it. None of us seemed particularly enamoured with it.


Flussfieber

And here we are at the last game we played.

Flussfieber is a racing game, simulating lumberjacks racing down a river on logs. Like Mississippi Queen, the course is made up from a number of modular boards. Unlike Mississippi Queen, the board has a number of logs scattered around sa obstacles, each person has a team of two lumberjacks, and movement is card driven. And there is no coal. Or passengers. So not an exact clone then.

Players have a small hand of cards. Each specifies a team member and a number of movement points. In your turn, you play a card to move that team member up to that many hexes. Obstacles and other lumberjacks can be pushed ahead of you until either there are too many ahead or nowhere to move, or push, into. First person to get both team members across the finishing line wins.

Some of the boards have additional obstacles to progress. We played a fairly simple set with just two boards, one of which had some rapids which pushed players back. We used that a lot. One of our mantras is if in doubt, take the funny move. Pushing somebody else into the rapids and back down the board certainly met that rule. Fortunately somebody decided to win, else weíd probably still be shoving each other into the rapids.

Because we only used a couple of boards this came across as mainly a filler. Adding further boards would make for a longer game, but Iím not sure thereís enough thereto warrant playing for too long. An okay game for a quick play, but Iíd rather Mr. FF got back to his meatier fare.
 
 
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