Pauls Essen 2012 28-Oct-2012

I failed to do an Essen write-up last year due to various things, but here we are in 2012 and no excuse this time.

Let’s get the usual disclaimer out of the way. We may well have misread, misheard or misunderstood rules in any or all of the games we played. We’ve very likely been mis-taught at least one game. 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.

Three of us went along for the trip this time – Oggie, Tel and myself.

In a fit of even worse than usual organisation, we managed to bring exactly one game with us. Why would we bring a game to Essen you might ask? Well, what else are we going to play on the Wednesday before it opens? As it turned out, one game was precisely one more than we needed. Given a choice of Mystery Rummy or beer and big slabs of meet, the latter won.

This year, the show coincided with school holidays so we were expecting a fair crowd when we arrived. As it turned out it was fairly quiet when we got to the ticket booths. Sadly it was somewhat less quiet when we got inside. Good job we weren’t in a rush to get to a table for a particular game as we’d likely have been disappointed. Instead we did what we normally do on the first day. Have a bit of a wander round, and sit down if we see a free table for something which looks interesting. Tel’s eye was drawn to a table for Kingdom Builder as we passed one of the Queen stalls so we decided to make that our first game of the show.

Kingdom Builder

As this is an award winning game, and from last year to boot, I’ll not dwell on a description. English rules were available but we managed to grab a demo person straight away so were saved the effort of reading them. Hurrah. It’s quite a light game and the various combinations of boards and VP conditions should give it a lot of replayability. It was right up Tel’s street so he bagged a copy before the day was out.

Dr Who

After a bit more wandering we found ourselves in one of the indy halls. As if by magic an empty table appeared so one of the Frogs (hi Tim!) offered to teach us one of Martin Wallaces’ new games, Dr Who.

There’ve been a few Who games over the years but this is the first card game I recall. A look at some of the cards suggested there wouldn’t be a great deal of meat but what the heck, only one way to find out.

The basic idea is to lay out location cards in front of you, and score at the end of the game for those which you’ve defended or are attacking. Other cards represent various bad guys, for attacking, and the Doctor and various companions for defending. Sadly everything is based around the current Doctor, so the best Doctor ever doesn’t make an appearance.

Sadly also first impressions bore out and there’s not a huge amount going on. This makes it more of a family than a gamers game. The most interesting decisions come from the need to pass three cards each turn to the player to your right. This gives quite a bit of control over which cards that person gets to play with, so I quickly hit on the idea of always attacking that player and never giving him any defensive cards. It wasn’t quite a winning strategy, but I think it did result in making the game quite miserable for Tel.

Crude – The Oil Game

This is a reprint of a grail game from the 70’s, which is known as either Crude or McMulti, depending on whether you’re German or not. As the name suggests, this is a game about the oil business. Players drill for oil, convert it to petrol, and trade both commodities across a number of markets. The game comes with a ton of plastic bits and a very garish box. Whoever decided to use the cover picture should be shot. The plastic bits represent various oil extraction, conversion and selling equipment. Each player has a 6 by 6 grid in which to place their bits, and these are triggered by the roll of a pair of dice each turn. So no auctions, workers or shuffling of wooden cubes.

We only played enough of the game to get a flavour for it. Its age does show, with its dependency on dice and lack of more modern Euro mechanisms. This made me a little wary, especially after a conversation the next day with Derek Carver, who had played the game quite a bit in the past and was able to offer insights into its gameplay compared to today’s designs. However, it looked like an interesting economics game which a few of the group would probably enjoy so I took a punt and grabbed a copy later in the week when I saw the pile for sale was declining.

We played a full copy back at the hotel with somebody who knew the original. He pointed out a number of places where the original’s warts had been improved, such as a change in the way that nodding donkeys enter the game and the addition of another market. There does seem to be an issue with triggering of new economic conditions though as it appears quite difficult for a severe downturn to occur. This reduces opportunities for trying to make money by buying and selling assets so the game seems more focused now on making profits though oil and petrol.

We missed one vital rule which would have had a big impact, not realising that assets are unlimited. I didn’t find that out until the next day when I had to get a replacement for a misshapen oil derrick from the Stronghold stall. The chap who gave me the replacement said “of course, we provide more of each type of asset than you’ll ever need – and the bits in the box aren’t meant to be a hard limit, anyway.” We ran out of derricks quite early in the game, with most of us choosing to erect as many as we could fit in our grid. Maybe that was poor play but it certainly seemed the logical thing to do. Other prospective buyers may want to be aware of this.


This turned out to be our last game of the day at the show. The theme here is of renovating a city. The board is a grid which is filled in randomly with buildings in need of renovation. The back of the tiles show the renovated building. Our friendly demo person told us it was easier to see the wood for the trees if we just removed them from the board instead so I suppose we played a demolition variant instead.

Points are scored each turn by renovating building or having control of specialists, one for each colour of building. End game points are scored by bonus cards, of which only three can be in play per player. You can pick up as many as you like, but only three will be scored.

Players take turns taking two actions. These can be used to take cards, hire specialists, renovate buildings or play a bonus card. Turns don’t take very long so the game moves on fairly snappily.

It probably falls on the light side of medium weight but does allow for different approaches. We’ve now played it twice and each time a significant number of points have come from the end game bonus points. Ignore them at your peril. These are played face down, unknown to everyone else, so those who dislike games with this sort of mechanism should probably stay clear. It’s a nice enough game otherwise though, and convinced Oggie to open his wallet.

Love Letter

We had a few minutes spare in the hotel before we headed out for more slabs of meet and our personal barrel of beer. This proved long enough for a few games of Love Letter.

This is a very small game, consisting of about 16 cards. Each card has a role, most of which are used to target another player. The idea is to either be the last man standing, or have the highest role at the end.

We’re not usually fond of elimination games but with this one you’re only out for a couple of minutes before a new game kicks off. Not that you’ll necessarily survive long enough to actually have a go in the next game. Oggie managed to get eliminated in the first two games without having a single turn. And he was start player in one of the games.

Nobody will mistake this for a deep strategy game, but it serves its purpose as quick filler. And it’s entertaining to watch people getting knocked out. I think everyone rather enjoyed this one. Except Oggie.

Again, we failed to play any games back at the hotel. And again, it was due to the brew pub. This time we upped the ante a little with our own barrel at the end of the table and it would have been rude to leave before it was empty.

And so to Friday, which came around a few hours too early for some of the intrepid group after The Night of the Barrel.

We werent particularly surprised to see that it was busier than the day before. It turned out to be the busiest day of the lot, which unfortunately made it a bit tricky to find a free table for much of the day.


We were a bit undecided about where to head when we first got in. In previous years we’d tended to head to the Rio Grande stall to try a couple of games but these days it’s just a sales desk.Eventually we figured we’d head for hall 5 and see what caught our fancy. I’d earlier read the rules for Homesteaders and suggested it would be worth a play.

So for the second morning on the trot we kicked off with a game from last year.

This is an auction and resource management game. Like many games, there are various buildings which give benefits to the person who builds them. These are indirectly obtained by auction. What actually happens is the winner gets the right to build one, and needs to pony up a bunch of resources as a build cost. Benefits are largely in the form of additional resources, paid out each turn. The better the building, the higher the cost and reward. So essentially it’s a build up an economic engine and then crank out VPs sort of game.

All in all, a nice medium weight game which combines mainly familiar mechanisms well. Tel was enamoured enough to declare his intention to snag a copy about a pico-second after we’d scored up.


By now the halls were full and free tables were rather thin on the ground. Eventually we had the bright idea of heading to the Queen stall, figuring that there should be fast turnover on the Escape tables. After all, it’s only a 10 minute game.

This is a cooperative game, a theme we were to encounter in a number of games this year. It’s nominally about exploring a temple, or ruin, or who knows what. In reality it’s an excuse for frantically rolling dice while wandering from tile to tile trying to collect gems. The game’s accompanied by a soundtrack which plays various bonging sounds from time to time. Collectively, you need to collect enough gems to allow everyone to escape before the final bong.

Sadly we messed it up by playing with the wrong tiles, making it impossible to complete the game. So we were all trapped, crushed, or eaten by beavers - whatever the final fate is for people failing to escape.

Tel was a little temped by this, for a fun occasional filler. €35 was a bit much for a 10 minute filler though so he ended up passing on the deal.


After a break for sausage and a chat, we spent some more time fruitlessly looking for another table. Well, that’s not quite true. The place was awash with tables. Just not tables with empty chairs. In the end we decided to split up and stake out a couple of tables.

Oggie was quite keen to give Seasons a shot but found out that all the English copies had already gone. So he came to join me and Tel just as a table for Qin emptied.

This is a thinly veiled abstract by the good Dr Knizia with a very loose Chinese theme. Everyone gets a series of pagoda shaped bits and some tiles. Tiles are played on a board, which is just a grid with some squares filled in. Each tile covers two squares, and each half is in one of three colours.

If you place a tile so as to connect at least two squares on the board with the same colour, and nobody else has a pagoda in it already, you get to stick one of yours in. You can add a second if the area covers at least five squares. Some of the pre-printed areas on the board represent villages, and you get to add a pagoda if you control most of the squares in regions surrounding it. This seemed to be source for much of the strategy in our game. In a nod to E&T it’s also possible to merge with a smaller region and take over it, though I don’t think that happened in our game.

It ended up more of a brain burner than we’d expected going in. A few years ago we’d probably have bought a copy but now it’s not good enough to make the cut.


One of the guys at the hotel had tried this and thought it pretty good. We’d watched a group playing earlier in the day and decided to wander back over to see if we could get a game. Fortunately for us, a table freed up pretty quickly.

This one’s themed around the space race. Players hire scientists to increase their abilities in various areas. Then they perform a mission to earn VPs. At the start of the game you are only able to take on simple missions, but once you’ve got enough scientists you can start to be a bit more ambitious. The big VPs are to be earned on a mission to the moon - and, hopefully, back.

To mix things up a little, you can also recruit spies. These basically become one of your scientists but take up a slot on another players board - effectively preventing them from using that slot yourself.

Ironically, for a game about firing rockets up into space, it felt a bit flat. It really didn’t give much of a feeling of the space race. The theme could really have been about anything. It’s essentially a worker placement game where you can’t move your workers, with a series of small races. There’s a lot of luck in rolling dice to move up the VP tracks, and in taking cards to help or hinder this progression. So there’s not enough meat to make this the gamers game that the theme would suggest that it aspires to be.

Little Devil

I got this for 2 Euros as a combined deal with Crude. The good things about it were it only cost 2 Euros, it comes in a nice tin, and the deck of cards are numbered 1 to 54. There’s surely another game we can play with such cards. We played it with 3 players, a number which it says it supports, but it was pretty awful. Maybe it works better with more players.

The game’s a sort of mash up of 6 Nimmt and a trick taking game. The aim is to avoid collecting devil heads which are printed on the cards. The twist with this game is that the second player decides the winning condition for the trick (highest or lowest card played).

Not one which we’ll be rushing to play again.

Tricks of the Rails

This is another mash-up, this time between a trick taking and a railway game. Cards played in a trick either become part of a railway line operated by one of five companies, or shares in these companies. Players are trying to gain shares in the most valuable companies, and increase the value of companies they have shares in. Each company will end up with a train assigned to it which will determine how much of a railway line will contribute to a company’s value.

We’ve played a couple of times now and the game seems best with fewer players. With five players there’s not enough tricks to make the game anything buy an exercise in luck. It probably takes a couple of games to get your head around which tricks to try to win and which to lose. Overall, a decent little game in a small package. Just don’t think you’ll be getting anything approaching the depth of an 18XX in card form.

After a quick break for sleep, we found ourselves back in the breakfast room plotting another day in the halls. And, in my case, shaking my head in incredulity at both Oggie and Tel munching their way through scrambled egg sandwiches. Madness. Anyway, the plan for the morning had slightly more substance than the previous days in that we at least had a stall in mind to aim for.


Yet again, our first game of the day was from last year. This is a worker placement game based in, believe it or not, a village. The twist on the classical worked placement genre is that time is a currency and your workers can die.

You start with a set of first generation workers which can be sent to various parts of the board for various actions. Some provide immediate benefits such as crafting or selling at a market. Others are longer term investments such as sending a worker out on a journey for end game VPs. Well, I say immediate benefits. Many of the actions have a cost in time and thus use up some of the lifespan of a worker.

We only played a shortened version of the game and thus didn’t really see the full impact of the aging mechanism. It also biased the scoring towards short term gains as the game didn’t run long enough to accrue full end game benefits. I suspect we therefore didn’t see the game at its best. We ended up collecting a lot of resources which didn’t get used because of this so the game felt a lot looser than it is probably supposed to. As a consequence of this, we didn’t really see anything which lifted it above the morass of worker placement games now on the market. However, we could see potential for a better game in there so Tel snagged a copy.

Vampire Empire

Expecting table space to be at a premium again we sat down at the stall next door when we saw one of theirs was unoccupied. This turned out to be a two player card game. Three into two doesn’t normally go but Oggie and I teamed up against Tel.

This is an asymmetrical game where one player is human and the other vampire. The human player wins if he kills the three vampires. The vampire player wins if he either gets the vampires into play and reveals them, or kills the 9 humans.

Each turn, each side can take a couple of actions. Mostly this involves trying to identify the vampires or setting up a fight between two characters – the loser being removed from the game. It involves a bit of bluffing by the vampire player to try to hide the identity of the vampires, which is not ideal when two people are playing the vampire side and trying to decide on a course of action.

Overall this didn’t do a great deal for us. There didn’t seem to be as much scope for bluffing or clever play as the demo person suggested. Also, it looked like the vampire player would be very lucky to get all of his vampires in play without the human player slaying one of them once their identities started to become known. Hence it would in all likelihood become a war of attrition.

Viva Java

Cunningly, we’d expected it to be tricky to get a table and so booked a game of this in advance.

This is another semi-cooperative game, this time themed around blending coffee. Players first choose a location to place their dobber, each location giving a coffee bean and also a small benefit or disadvantage. Locations form regions, and players in the same region team up for the rest of the round and decide to produce a blend of coffee or to engage in research on a small technology tree. The purpose of blending coffee is to try to get onto a leader board of blends, thus gaining VPs. Researching is done to improve abilities – such as gaining additional beans when going to a location – and to get end game VPs.

Two things became obvious fairly quickly. The luck of the draw when creating blends means this is not a heavyweight game. And it doesn’t work all that well with three players. This should have been enough to put this straight into the no-buy category.

However, it accommodates eight players and looked like it would work well with upwards of five. Thus it should work nicely when looking for a game for a lot of players which isn’t a card or party game, but is still light enough to be a bit of fun. So it’s not a game that will come out a lot but it fills a gap and has quite a fresh feel to it. Into the buy category it went.

Uruk 2

Just as I wandered over to have a closer look at this, the people playing it finished off and departed the table. Perfect timing!

This is a card base civilisation building game, and is a follow up to a similarly themed game from a few years back. Cards represent locations, and are played to a limited number of slots before each player. Placement involves a San-Juan like payment for each card. Once placed they confer resources or other benefits. The game is played over four ages, each separated by a disaster which must be taken into account and hopefully mitigated by each player.

In a turn, you may draw or place cards or take the benefit from those already played. Alternatively, you may build a town or city at a location. These increase the value of each location. VPs at the end of the game are scored according to the worth of each of the players’ locations.

A big pile of cards, and a set of different disasters each turn, should lead to a reasonable amount of replayability. And it all comes wrapped up in a small box which is a definite advantage.

One of the joys of Essen is discovering good games which appear out of nowhere. We all enjoyed this and would surely have picked up a couple of copies between us. Sadly though the game was not available for sale due to all of the wooden bits not being available from the supplier in time. One for next year then.


We’d listened to a group being taught this and decided to take a punt on buying a copy as it sounded quite different. We gave it a go back at the hotel.

In essence it’s a city building game. You play cards, possibly combined with tiles, to gain resources and VPs. So far, so standard. However, it’s quite a clever game and didn’t really feel like anything else I’d played. In fact, it took us a few turns to really get our heads around it. The iconography in the back of the player screen doesn’t really help to clarify things either – if anything it just adds to the confusion.

Once we’d figured out what we were doing, it turned out to be fairly straightforward. In a turn you must take one of four possible actions. These will give a combination of resources, tiles and VPs. All of these are hidden behind a player screen. Most VPs are scored at the end of the game, in the form of bonus points on cards played and on ownership of tiles played to the city. This is not a game for those who dislike games where it’s difficult to track scores. While VPs are all trackable it would take a considerable effort to do so.

This game packs quiet a lot into a short timeframe and definitely has a bit of a learning curve so it should stay fresh for a while. During our first game I don’t think any of us were keeping much of an eye on end game VPs, being too busy trying to figure out how to keep a resource/tile engine going. We’ve since played again though and made a much better job of that second time around.

For me, this was one of the best games of the show. It was the only big box game that we bought more than one copy between us. I’m not convinced by the end game though. Once all tiles have been taken, players can sell some back for a VP each. The game ends once those have been used up. In both of our games this has happened in the very next turn, due to the engines in place by then. It may have been better just to end the game once all the tiles were used up the first time, and to have those not used by each player worth a VP. As it stands, players may as well just sell back all but one or two tiles as they’ll likely not have a chance to play more than that. It does seem a bit of a clunky ending on an otherwise elegant game.

After that, sleep called so we made this the last game of the night.

We always take Sundays quite lightly. Do some packing, find out what space we have left, wander into the fair and maybe play a game or two or make a last purchase. This time we mainly mooched, playing only one turn of a game.


Desperados is yet another semi-cooperative game. The fair seemed to be awash with them this year. In this one, there is one sheriff and lots of desperados. Just like Colditz, none of us wanted to play the Germans, erm sheriff, but I found myself nominated to take the role. Lucky me.

Game play is a bit like Scotland Yard. The criminals move around the board, robbing banks and stagecoaches, and the sheriff tries to catch them before they steal too much. The location of a criminal is only known when they take an action at a location, and the sheriff’s location is only known at the start of a round. So it’s largely a matter of wandering around hoping to bump into, or avoid, each other – depending on which side of the fence you’re on.

Not a game which appealed to any of us so we made our excuses and left after the first round and went to mooching and buying instead.

And so the curtains came down on another Essen. As ever, we had a great time, played a fair number of games, and got to meet up with people we don’t see very often. And ate plenty of meat and drank plenty of beer. Again, nothing we played is likely to become our favourite game ever but we gave up expecting that to happen regularly a long time ago. So all in all, a good year.

Next year should be interesting as this year is the last time that Spiel is held in the familiar halls. They’re all scheduled to be demolished and replaced with new ones over the next few years. It’s going to be like being a newbie all over again as we try to figure out where the heck stalls are located now. Still, bring it on!

 Comment by Tel   29-Oct-2012
My first Essen for a few years. And whilst I thoroughly enjoyed it and really wish I could still make it every year, there was nothing spectacular this year that made it stand out from other years I have attended. We played some good games (though I'm not sure any were great games) and we played some poor games. Circumstances meant I didn't go into this years fair with as much preparation as I would have liked, so there may have been a couple of games that missed the radar. But in general I'm happy with the games that I managed to pick up, and the couple of games that I didn't pick up that I liked, made it into Paul or Oggies purchases.

The biggest surprise to me this year was the number of stalls we passed where there was a "camera crew" interviewing or taping a demo of a game. I'd seen a few videos floating around before the show, so was expecting to see the BGGeek crew around somewhere, but wasn't expecting to see so many others.

I agree with Paul that from the one game of Uruk 2 we had, it looks to be a stonking game and one to certainly keep an eye on for next year. This has to be a contender for my favourite game of the show along with Ginkgopolis, Kingdom Builder, Viva Java and Crude. Though I am looking forward to trying Snowdonia and Tzolkin, neither of which we managed to try, but both found there way heading back to Brighton.

Paul said "nothing we played is likely to become our favourite game ever but we gave up expecting that to happen regularly a long time ago", whilst I agree I have given up expecting it to happen, I still hope.
 Comment by Frank   29-Oct-2012
Interested to hear Ginkopolis being rated highly, being by the bloke who did Troyes. As for Snowdonia, I had planned on playing it solo tonight,but may not get it finished, because it is 8.30pm and I haven't set up the board yet. I also loved the idea of Love Letter and look forward to my first play with Chrissy.

No mention of CO2 here, so assuming you didn't get to play this over the weekend. Clearly beer is more important than pollution. :D
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