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Pauls Essen 2010
As usual, 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.
This time we had three intrepid gamers along for the trip. So your hosts for this Essen report are Paul, Andy and Oggie.
This year, Easyjet had decided to fly to Dusseldorf. Which was very handy for us because it meant we got a lie-in and only a 45 minute train ride at the other end. The French air traffic controllers made a valiant effort to disrupt our journey but the best they could do was to slow us down for a bit.
As we flew out of what is a nominally London airport, it seemed appropriate that our first game was London. As this was Wednesday night and the doors of the Messe were still to open, we got to use one of the playtest copies of the game. We also got to be guinea pigs for one of the Treefrog rules meisters who would get to spend the whole weekend teaching the game to others. Lucky man.
As you have probably gathered, the game’s about London. I think it’s mainly about rebuilding bits of London after the Great Fire made rather a mess of it. We did this the wrong way around really as we got the chance to do the burny bit later in the week. This is a Martin Wallace game so obviously you get to take out loans. Fortunately you get to do other stuff too. Mainly, pick up and play cards to form your very own little city. I presume it’s really your little bit of the larger city or we’d have been building four different Londons. That would have been a little odd.
The game has a superficial similarity with games like San Juan, where cards can be spent to play other cards. But once again, the designer has managed to create something a bit different for you to take loans out for. The twist here is that you (usually) only get to use the cards once. And because Martin obviously hates us all, you get to take some anti-VP tokens too.
The game turned out to be lighter than I’d expected, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Obviously nobody else thought it a bad thing as it proceeded to sell like hot cakes. Fortunately I’d got my order in weeks earlier. Which means the nice Treefrog people are going to post it to me so I didn’t have to heft it back home.
We turned up on Thursday morning to see the biggest queues we’ve encountered yet. We must have joined the lucky queue because it only took us 40 minutes to get through the doors. Other people who joined at the same time were complaining of being stuck in the queue for up to two hours. Very strange.
After an obligatory bit of wandering round we found ourselves at the Rio Grande stall. There were a few free tables so we grabbed one for 20th Century. The Rio stall seems to be a bit of a Brit magnet as we had four separate “so, what’s it like” visits from other Brits while we were playing.
I’d read through quite a few rule sets before heading out to Essen, to try to weed out the duffs. This out had sounded okay but hadn’t jumped out as a must buy. Obviously I’d managed to forget all but the basic idea by this time so we needed to hit the rules again.
This is the game you’d get if you got a big bag, chucked in Carcassone, Alhambra, Mull & Money and Amun Re, and then gave the bag a good old shake. It has two auctions per round, each of which uses a different currency. The first auction gets you nice things. The second gets you bad things. The trick of course is to maximise the former and minimise the latter.
I thought it played better than this description suggests and was nice enough to buy. When we tried it later in the week with a full complement of five players it seemed to play a bit long so this may be better when pulled out with fewer players.
It was time for one of the highlights of Essen. Something we’d been looking forward to for weeks. No, not Navigator – Frikadellen! For anyone who’s missed out on them, they’re basically little fat burgers in rolls. In earlier years they’d been in all of the food stands but last year we’d not seen many, so we’d mainly munched Bratwursts. This year we were determined to make a better effort. The people who run Essen seemed equally keen to hide them from us so we ended up on The Great Frikadellen Hunt of 2010. After three stalls we tracked them down. Obviously we later realised that the first stall we looked at also had some. For less money. Oh well.
After that, and a bit more exploration, we headed back to the Rio stall suitably girded for gaming. The tables were full by now but we didn’t have long to wait for one to free up. We grabbed a copy of Navigator to play on it.
Navigator is a rondel game. You know the form by now. Trot round the wheel; select an action; do stuff on the board. This time the game’s about exploring the seas and coasts near Portugal. So it’s all about building boats and sailing them across the board. Buildings can be bought which boost production and give end game VPs. These are funded by setting up colonies and selling goods to market.
It’s a perfectly decent game but didn’t seem to add anything new. If you like rondel games you’ll probably like it. If you don’t, it’s not going to convince you. Question is, does the world need another one? In my case, only if it’s as good as Imperial 2030. And it’s not.
This is the first of many games I played that I’d have happily bought a few years ago. But “perfectly decent” doesn’t cut the mustard any more. I’ve enough of those already.
We finished up Navigator with about 15 minutes before the show closed, leaving just about enough time to grab a couple of games to play in the evening.
But before more games, we needed more food. As this is Germany, that largely meant meat. Quite a lot of meat. And beer, in the form of our own personal barrel. As I was sitting next to it, that meant I got to be Dwarven Barman for the night. The barrel was a tad lively at the start but by the time the food arrived I was managing to serve up brews with some actual beer nestling under the clouds of froth.
That meant we were reasonably well lubricated by the time we got back to the hotel. As regular readers of out Essen reports may remember, that has been known to transform us from Mild Mannered Janitor to Gaming God. 7 Wonders would seem the ideal opportunity for us to show our prowess to four other players. Sadly the rest of the hotel must have been aware of our elevated state of gaming and found other things to do.
Not to worry. It plays with three so we gave it a go anyway.
It’s a drafting game, building up an engine to crank out VPs. Well, strictly speaking to store VPs until the end, which are then spat out in the form of a final score. I went into this one expecting a nice, short, scalable game, which had a little bit of meat on its bones. And that’s exactly what it delivered. Certainly not the best game I’ve ever played. But it fills a gap in my collection for an end of evening game to pull out for seven players which isn’t bordering on a party game.
Three players probably isn’t the ideal number for this one. We played again later in the week with five, and that was more fun. More people mean more banter around the table so I think I’ll be keeping this one back for when we’ve got a bigger bunch of players.
After the huge queue yesterday, we arrived today to see no queue at all. Stranger and stranger.
Fresco’s not a new release, and has already won a couple of awards. It was new to us though.
The game shares some similarities with Keythedral. Place workers to get cubes, and dob in the cubes to get tiles for VPs. This one’s themed around restoring a fresco so the cubes represent paints. The base game’s more suitable for families so we added in a couple of the expansions to up the gamer factor. The only expansion we didn’t use was the one requiring more complex paints to claim tiles. Our box only had German rules for the expansions – despite having English rules for the core game. We flagged down a demo guy to teach us the expansion rules and he explained two of them but told us not to bother with the third as we’d already set all of the tiles up against the basic rules.
It doesn’t add anything we’ve not seen before, except perhaps the use of mood as a resource, but plays nicely. We grabbed a couple of copies between us so we’ll find out what difference the other expansion makes. Queen had an additional mini expansion available for a couple of Euros, though their big box of additional expansions hadn’t made the fair.
Nice try Queen but it takes more than a handful of camels to fool us.
This is themed around families trading in the Middle East. In reality it's a train game. Players marry into families (buy shares in companies). They may then place camels (trains) belonging to these families (companies). Points are scored at the end of the game according to how many camels (trains) have been placed into cities on cards you accumulate through the game. Ironically, even the name of the designer has been has been changed from the original.
It's an okay game. Not as good as Chicago Express from the same designer though. I don't think any of us will be disappointed if we don't play it again.
If you're going to play your first 18XX game, you may as well do it on a heady cocktail of beer and not enough sleep. At least then you have an excuse when the two 18XX sharks at the table beat you. Fortunately for us this is a gentle introduction to the genre so we didn't go bankrupt at the merest hint of a dodgy move.
Oddly enough, this was our second train game pretending to be otherwise on the trot. The excuse this time was setting the game before trains had been invented. Okay, I’ll concede them that one. Fortunately boats had been invented. So this time we got to invest in Kingdoms (companies) and place trading posts (rails) in various sea areas.
The game seems to achieve its aims quite well. Its 18XX lite with a playing time of about two hours. It even has one or two innovations. One of the better games from this Essen for me. And made all the sweeter for seeing one of the sharks coming in last place.
The Great Fire of London
The Messe were obviously expecting bumper crowds today as they'd brought a temporary ticket booth online. We were expecting it to be a tad busy too. Saturday always are. So I guess we were all a little surprised to turn up to the sight of tumble weed. It was quite busy once we got into the lobby though.
Speaking of surprises, The Great Fire of London had made it to Essen. This wasn't entirely expected given the problems that JKLM have had recently getting anything printed. Hopefully that bodes well for their transformation into Prime Games.
We were joined at the table by a couple of gamers of unknown origin. Our rules explanation was somewhat interrupted when one of their chairs demanded a blood sacrifice and savaged the poor guys finger. Loss of blood got the better of him so he left us to it.
This is quite a clever game. You play wind cards to fan the flames in one of the cardinal directions. If it gets into a new district it burns down all of the houses in it. That's bad news for the owners as it'll cost them VPs at the end of the game. I expect the owners of the houses which were actually burned in the fire were similarly irked.
We had a jolly time burning each others houses and scoring points for putting out flames. It was pointed out to us that we weren't playing quite like the other demo tables. That's not the first time we’ve been told that. I expect it'll not be the last either. Occasionally the designer would wander over to answer a question or impart a little historical nugget. He always looked a little disappointed that we hadn't turned the board into a raging inferno yet. I think he likes fires.
I liked this one. It had some nice ideas and felt quite fresh. I didn’t like it enough to buy a copy though.
Rio de la Plata
Another game, another couple of strangers. We got a nationality this time though. Actually, more than one. Poland, with a bit of the US and Ireland thrown in for good measure. Observant readers will note that that's three countries between two people. Some people just like to move around a lot.
Over the years we've had some great people teach us games. Sure, some have managed to mangle the odd rule. I'm sure were still using some accidental Essen variants today. This was our first introduction to the "here's a handful of rules to get you going, figure the rest out yourself" school of thought. To be fair, it's a fairly complex game to teach by Euro standards and we did have a copy of the rules to hand. But it didn't help.
The game is about settling Buenos Aires. It came across as a sort of over complex Puerto Rico with occasional combat but without the roles or most of the fun. We played as far as the first battle then aborted by mutual agreement.
Not a terrible game but not a particularly good one either. It looked like it would have taken hours (and hours) to finish and didn't have the feel of something that would work with the group.
Only one stranger this time. Though he managed to progress from Stranger to Stalker on the way home, after randomly appearing right next to us on the tube back to Essen station and than shadowing us for most of the journey home. He claimed to be heading to London, so he gets to enter the Piddinghoe Hall of Fame as “Cockney Stalker”.
Every time Friedemann Friese releases a new game, we start crossing fingers hoping it’s another Powergrid. I’ll put you out of your misery. This one isn’t. It’s a game about brewing beer to earn enough money to build palaces. Nice idea if nothing else. You spend the first chunk of the game building up an economics engine to generate cash, and the rest ripping it down to make way for palaces. The obvious flaw with this plan is once you’ve built all of your palaces you can’t make any more beer. Perhaps we’ll see an expansion next year to remedy that sad state of affairs.
It’s a clever little game that primarily comes down to deciding when to start ripping down your infrastructure. We played the basic game. There’s a slightly more advanced version once you’ve got to grips with that. A single game’s probably going to be quite enough grip getting for most players. I quite liked it but it’s definitely not one of his best. Come on Friedemann. Give us a meaty one next year.
After a trip down to the local Irish pub, we cracked Troyes out. This heavily revolves around the use of dice, which will be enough to get at least one member of the group running for the hills. It uses them in very clever ways though so that low numbers can be just as good as high ones. Or can be transformed into high ones. Or sold to other players.
Over the course of five turns, you get to roll a fist full of dice and then spend them as wisely as possible to generate stuff. Stuff is largely either money or VPs but could be other dice too. This is mainly done by allocating them to cards which do various things. As the game goes on, more and more cards become available. For the last three turns there will be over a dozen cards to choose from. Only a subset of cards is used in each game so there should be a ton of replayability.
This is another game which sold out at the show, and is being heralded as one of the best released this year. It’s very clever. I think I need another few plays to figure out how to play this one well.
So, onto Sunday and a last chance for gaming before heading home. Our second last game is one we get to play each year. It’s the “how do I get all of these boxes into this bag” game. My trusty bag of earlier years had suicided so this year I was armed with a new one. I’d cunningly done a test pack before even leaving home to figure out how many games I could safely buy. But like most plans, this one had gone to pot within hours of getting to Essen. My whole packing algorithm was predicated on rectangular boxes. So I was a bit stuffed when I picked up a pre-order for 7 Wonders and found myself the proud owner of a square box. Bugger. I optimistically popped it into the bag on one edge but the bag stubbornly refused to play ball. Fortunately I managed to cram everything in with a few inches to spare.
Era of Inventions
The last game of the show was Era of Inventions. Oggie has been trying to get a game of this in all weekend so was rather pleased to spot a free table as we strolled through the halls. He was rather less pleased when we made him find a way through the razor thin gaps between the tables to get to his seat.
You would be right in thinking that this game is about inventions. You place workers to build factories to generate resources, and use these (and more workers) to invent and use inventions. Inventing and using give you VPs; collect enough of them and you get to win the game. So it’s a worker placement economic engine game. Nothing particularly new there then.
I liked the theme of this one but I’m not at all convinced that it was fully developed. It felt like it had been rushed for Essen. Another few months in the melting pot would have done it a world of good.
As ever, Essen was thoroughly enjoyable. I played a number of decent games and a few good ones. Met a lot of people I don't see very often, and a few new ones. And ate a lot of meat. I wouldn't say any games were outstanding this year, but that's probably something to be hoped for rather than expected. And now I get to play another annual game - the "how do I fit these new games onto the shelves" game. Somehow that one gets tougher every year.
Comment by Frank
Great report, Paul. Thanks for sharing.
I am intrigued by Troyes.
Did you say it sold out before any of you could buy a copy or did someone manage to bring it back?
Comment by Paul
Andy bought a copy before they ran out.
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