Well, it’s that time of year again. For the full-fledged Cult of the New Eurogamer, Essen is like Christmas, Halloween, and your birthday all rolled into one. Just the thought of shiny new titles appearing one after another on the game table is enough to make you salivate!
And this year is no exception. Even though there isn’t any one design that’s causing me to go out of my mind with anticipation, there are still a bunch of spanking new games that I’m looking forward to trying out. Naturally, there are some that are higher on my list than others. So on the eve of the Fair, I thought I’d list the top dozen here, together with why I’m anticipating checking them out.
1. Russian Railroads – I’m as risk-averse in real life as I am at the game table, so it’s no surprise that the top two games on my list are ones I’ve already gotten the chance to try. I played the prototype for Russian Railroads in April and really enjoyed it. It has a different feel than your standard Worker Placement game and I particularly enjoyed the many different ways of scoring, most of which employed different ways of playing. With the world-class developers at Hans im Gluck working hard at this for the past six months, I have no doubt this will be even better than it was back in the Spring.
2. Spyrium – This is a little bit of a cheat, as it’s already available, but technically, this is an Essen game. It’s another excellent effort from William Attia, that plays quicker than Caylus does, but has similar depth. The way that placing your meeples simultaneously represents a potential bid for a tile and a way of earning money is clever and elegant. The technology cards give you different goals and abilities, which yields different strategic approaches. This is already firmly in our rotation and should stay there for quite a while.
3. Caverna – I wasn’t all that enthused when this was first announced. Agricola is terrific just the way it is–why bother with a nearly identical spinoff? But when I checked out the online rules, I realized that there are significant differences between the two games. And a lot of the new touches sound very interesting. So now I’m really looking forward to trying this out, particularly since I had the same initial reaction to Rosenberg’s Ora et Labora (which seemed so similar to Le Havre), but now Ora is one of my all-time favorite designs.
Rosenberg continues to grab my attention (in addition to Caverna, I include his Glass Road in this list), but I do have one small, but persistent complaint with his newer titles: what’s with the lame themes? Ora featured the wild and bitchy world of monasteries, which I not only found supremely dull, but which didn’t even seem to be implemented logically. And with Caverna, we now have cave-dwelling, crop-growing, non-fantasy dwarves. Huh? Why not cavemen or Vikings or just about anything else? Fortunately, if the gameplay is good (and with Rosenberg, that’s a pretty good bet), I can always overlook a theme, but a solid background does improve the game experience. And after the very thematic Agricola, it seems as if Uwe is going out of his way to come up with increasingly bizarre themes. It’s a small thing, but it does have me scratching my head.
As a final aside, with the release of Caverna, Rosenberg has now completed what I’m calling Uwe’s Triple Double: two families of three games apiece, each headed by a multi-player mega-hit (Agricola & Le Havre), followed by a 2-player, perfect information spinoff (All Creatures Great and Small & The Inland Port), and finished up with a similar, but differently themed and differently nuanced multi-player title (Caverna & Ora et Labora). I find the similarities most intriguing and, given Rosenberg’s regimented design style, probably not coincidental. After the success of the first five titles (each of them an award winner), I’m really anxious to see what he has in store for us with those damn dwarves.
4. Amerigo – And so we reach the finale of the Feld Foursome. And when the quartet was first announced, this was the title that I was least excited about, primarily because I dislike the cube tower (or at least the way it’s implemented in Wallenstein) and I was worried that this might be too Ameritrashy for me. I should have known better. Feld uses the tower to give us yet another clever way of randomly generating a pool of actions, which is both innovative and very, well, Feldian. The rest of the design seems quite intricate, with lots of interlocking parts, all of which sounds very attractive to me. So I’m stoked, as prime-cut Feld is about as good as it gets these days. I originally had this a little higher in the list, but there have been some concerns about the quality of the components, so I knocked it down a notch. But I’m hoping Queen will get everything fixed in time for the Fair.
5. Concordia – Or Mac Gerdts asks if there really is Life after the Rondel. I like most of Gerdts’ games and I adore Navegador, so this is one I’ve been tracking since it was announced. There certainly are touches of Navegador here, along with many of his other more successful designs, but at first glance, it doesn’t seem imitative. The rondel is gone, replaced by a more traditional card-driven mechanic. And, as is typical for Gerdts, this is a near perfect information game, which is great. All the positive signs are there, but until I try it out, I won’t know if it’s top-of-the-line Gerdts or good-but-ultimately-forgettable Gerdts (c.f. Hamburgum). Fortunately, it’ll be fun finding out which category this falls into.
6. Prosperity – When the online rules for this Knizia/Bleasdale design were first released, a number of gamers expressed their disappointment that the game appeared to be so light and non-interactive. But I’m not sure I agree. I like the fact that most of the tiles you’ll be selecting help you in some areas but hurt you in others, meaning you’ll have to walk a carefully judged tightrope in order to succeed. The research mechanic also seems interesting. And while there’s no direct interaction, I’m sure there will be considerable angst over whether an opponent will snatch a much needed tile just before you get the chance to do so; in this respect, the game is similar to many other Euros. Hopefully, the luck factor of when tiles appear (e.g., just before or just after you get a chance to boost the level of the scoring symbol displayed) won’t dominate play. And the fact that this was developed by Ystari gives me further hope that this will be a worthwhile title. There’s no way this will be the second coming of Euphrat & Tigris, but there’s a very good chance that this will turn out to be an entertaining and absorbing game.
7. The Capitals - I was probably more enthused after reading the online rules for this game than any other Essen title this year. City building is always appealing and there are some very nice innovative touches, such as the clever turn order mechanism. Just as with Prosperity, it looks like you’ll only be able to advance yourself in a couple of areas at the cost of dropping back in a few more, but that aspect is implemented much more dramatically here. My main concern is that there seems to be a lot of information displayed and I hope there isn’t too much to take in (which was an issue I had with another recent city-builder, Suburbia). This has slipped down the list a bit, since my fellow players aren’t as enthusiastic about it as I am, but I really hope I get the chance to try it out.
8. Nations – This is my biggest boom-or-bust game of the Fair: it could be my game of the year or could be a one and done. I love civilization games, even though many are too long or warlike for my tastes. The concept for this one really hits all my high notes. The potential problem with it is a significant one: it is clearly inspired by Through the Ages, to the extent that you could describe TtA and check off a related part of Nations point by point. However, there is certainly room for more than one card-driven Civ game in my collection. My hope is that this will turn out to be faster and more streamlined than the Chvatil classic (TtA is my all-time favorite game, but its intensity and duration keep it from getting to the table very often, and I refuse to play it with 4 due to downtime issues). Ideally, once we get familiar with it, Nations will clock in about 2 hours and the 4-player game will turn out to be playable. However, if it turns out to be closer to 3 hours duration, I’ll probably wonder why we aren’t playing Through the Ages instead.
9. Glass Road - Here’s that Uwe fellow again. This looks interesting, as all his games do. I’m not sure what will make this one special, but I trust in his design abilities a good deal, so this will definitely get a look. My main fear is that the hidden card selection will turn out to be too chaotic or luck-driven. Hopefully, these choices will turn out to be predictable and players will be able to take advantage of them, rather than be victims of happenstance.
10. Bremerhaven – Admit it: the strong similarity in appearance to Le Havre is what grabbed most of you at first. I was no different, but I need more than a pretty face, even from Lookout. Fortunately, there’s a good deal going on here, so the hope is that it will all mesh together nicely and make up for a somewhat prosaic theme. My concern is that I usually dislike games with hidden bids, as players can often luck into wins or guess wrong and lose a series of bids somewhat randomly. As with Glass Road, I’m hoping the process will be at least somewhat predictable (as, for example, it tends to be in Aladdin’s Dragons, a hidden bidding game I quite like). I also note that there are quite a lot of things to bid on each turn, but that you only have 5 cards to bid with (and you can bid multiple cards on the same item). I’m not sure exactly how that will affect things, but it could easily be a defining feature of the game.
11. New Haven – Brian Leet is a friend, so I checked out his first design as soon as the rules were posted. And I was happy to see that it’s an interesting take on a tile placement game. The game isn’t complex and looks like it should play quickly, but there’s definitely the scope for some interesting decisions. I’m quite fond of middleweight games with some meat on their bones and I’m hoping this one will fit the bill.
12. Renaissance Man - Anthony Rubbo is another buddy and I’ve played more than a few of his games. Renaissance Man is the only one of the new batch of Rio Grande Games that I’m at all interested in, but it sounds promising. The interconnection of the various cards sounds appealing and having to worry about building your pyramid so that you don’t unduly restrict your actions should be a nice challenge. As with New Haven, I’m hoping this will be a snappy middleweight to cleanse the palate between those heavier monsters appearing earlier in the list.
Well that’s my Dirty Dozen. And now, because we always give you more than you expected at the old OG, I’ll make it a Baker’s Dozen by providing a bonus title:
?. Patchistory – This one gets a question mark rather than a number, partly because there will only be 50 copies of this Korean game at Essen, meaning my chances of even getting to try it aren’t that great. But even if we manage to snag a copy, this remains something of a wild card because the English translation of the rules is so incomplete and led to so many questions. Without an improved translation, I’m not sure it’s even worth the bother. But this does have a lot of potential: another Civ game, with an epic sweep but manageable mechanics, and an intriguing way of playing cards to your display (you can choose which segments to cover up as you play them, which almost feels like the splaying mechanic from Innovation). If by some miracle, one of the industrious members of my group succeeds in picking this up, I’m sure we’ll do our best to figure it out and spread the word on how well it plays.
That’s the top of the list, but there are many more I’m interested in almost as much. However, I’ve prattled on long enough, so let me just list a bunch of them alphabetically:
• Bruxelles 1893
• Cafe Melange
• Coal Baron
• Kohle & Kolonie
• Lewis & Clark
• Lost Legends
• Sail to India
• Ticket to Ride: Nederland
Yeah, that’s a whole lotta games, but it’s only a fraction of what will be debuting at Essen over the next several days. And I guarantee you there will be other interesting titles that will take us by surprise. I have no idea how many of these games I’ll get to try, but I do know it’ll be a total blast checking out the ones I do. I hope that each of you also has a wonderful time exploring all the new designs during this most wonderful time of the year!