Essen 2019, Day 0: Initial Thoughts, and What I Played (Article by Chris Wray)

Photo Courtesy Simon Neale

Essen 2019 will officially start tomorrow, but Day Zero (or “setup day”) was today. Today starts my daily coverage of the fair, including mini-reviews of what I played.

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10 Great Ticket to Ride Maps (Article by Chris Wray)

Alan R. Moon’s Ticket to Ride is one of the favorite games among writers of this site.  It was #1 on our list of 50 Modern Classics, and it was #1 on our list of games to play first when entering the hobby.  Ticket to Ride is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, and though we’ve written our history of the game, the best account of Ticket to Ride’s past is on an insert in the recently-released 15th Anniversary edition.  Ticket to Ride won the Spiel des Jahres in 2004, and then the Europe map won the International Gamers Award in 2005.  

There are about 27 different maps by our count, but what are the 10 best maps? 

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Tuesday night – first look at Last Bastion

In what is becoming a nice opening tradition, we have a fantastic homemade dinner and a chance to play a new game with an old friend Frank Schulte-Kulkmann.

Two years in a row now, we have gotten an early copy of the new game from Repos, Last Bastion. This is a new version of Ghost Stories.

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8 Bit Attack

8-bit-attack

 

DESIGNER: Lincoln Petersen

PUBLISHER: Petersen Games

PLAYERS: 2-5

AGES: 10 and up

TIME: 20- 60 minutes

TIMES PLAYED: 2, with a review copy I received at no cost

I thought I hated cooperative games after the first few times I played one.  Even when no one was being pushy or overbearing or just grabbing my cards and playing them, I still felt like I wasn’t really playing a game and I never enjoyed the experience. One fateful day all that changed. I was invited to sit down to a game of Arkham Horror; I might have said no, but I really wanted to play a game with the particular group of people who had invited me and I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t cool, so I agreed. It turns out I am all about cooperation when we’re battling Cthulhu and his minions.  When I was offered the chance to try this game I jumped on it, since it is right up my alley. The game is being offered on Kickstarter as of today.

8 Bit Attack is a cooperative game for 2 -5 players.  Each player is playing their own character, working with the rest of the team to fight the evil and save the world. The game takes place over 5 rounds; in the last round you must fight the biggest, baddest boss in order to be victorious. While the game takes place in a sort of Cthulhu/D&D sort of location, knowledge of either isn’t necessary.

To set up the game you divide the decks of cards into separate piles – champions, aliens, cultists, demons and myths – and lay out all of the components, including the round track that helps mark your progress towards your impending doom.

Characters are assigned either at random or by choice; it is up to the players to decide. All characters have a basic and an upgraded side; the basic side lets you roll two battle dice and gives you two abilities, while the upgraded side lets you roll three battle dice and adds at least one additional ability.

Each player starts the game with 4 energy, which let you use your abilities, a healing potion that heals 6 HP and a revival potion that brings you back to life if (or maybe that should be when) you die. You also get 2 battle dice.

At the start of each round players decide which level of champion they would like to fight, from 1 to 7. Level 1 is easier as the champion won’t be too hard to defeat and will have fewer minions, but you only get 1 medal for beating them. Level 7 will be really hard, but you’ll get 7 medals for beating all those nasty creatures. I mean, who doesn’t want to win medals, right? Those medals certainly do come in handy, because they let you buy upgrades and restock your potions (more on that later).

Once you’ve decided on a level you flip over the champion and see what’s about to happen to you, er I mean who you are going to kill! The level tile you chose replaces the monster’s original HP and tells you how many minions you will be adding.

Each monster has to be assigned to a particular player, and players can freely discuss how to do that. Players can fight any monster in play, but monsters will attack the player they are assigned to, so some planning is needed.

Once the monsters have been assigned players roll both their battle dice and one player roles the champion die. The champion die has 3 different colors, which correspond to attacks the bad guys will make if that color is rolled.

Battle dice will provide either a slow hit, a fast hit, a critical hit or an energy token. Players can discuss as a group who should attack which monster, what special abilities could be used, etc. and then the players carry out the attacks in the order of their choosing. Generally hits provide 1 damage, but critical hits provide 2. Both players and monsters may be able to defend against one or more of a particular type of attack. If a monster is killed, it is removed from the game. Players can use potions on their turn to either heal or take 4 energy; if they die they can use a revive potion to come back to life.

After the players attack the bad guys attack. They attack the player they are assigned to, unless indicated otherwise (some may allow players to select one player to be targeted, and some may affect all players). Their card indicates what type of attacks they make and what other effects may happen.

Both heroes and enemies can also be buffed and debuffed, giving either hero or enemy an advantage (increased damage) or a disadvantage (taking extra damage or not being able to use abilities. When you get a buff or debuff you put 2 timer tokens on the card; at the end of each battle a timer comes off and once you have none the card goes away.

This process is repeated until all monsters have been killed. Once that happens medals are awarded based on the levels and players decide how to spend them. One medal will let you buy a set of potions or an upgrade tile that provides you with extra HP, attacks or defense. Two medals will let you upgrade your character to its enlightened side, which will let you roll 3 dice and give you one or two bonus abilities.

Each hero resets to full HP and energy, and the round marker moves up on the track and the process is repeated until all the players have died or until you reach round 5, where you have to fight the final champion/enemy – Set up is essentially the same, except that you don’t choose a level and you just follow the instructions on Cthulhu. Players have hopefully upgraded themselves to the strongest they can be to take on the evil one. If players defeat him, they win. If they die an unspeakable death, well, that’s never a good thing, is it?

MY THOUGHTS ON THE GAME

Let’s start with the components, which are great. All of the bits are sturdy and well-made, and seem like they would hold up well to repeated plays. And the art – well, the art is fantastic. All of the pictures in the game are beautiful, (although one of my fellow players noted it would have to be 16 bit to include some of these colors, but I digress) and part of the fun is looking at the art on both the heroes and the baddies. The box art is really cool. and catches your eye right away. The box is also sturdy, and the inset works well enough for the components. There are player aid cards that detail the steps and include some, but not all, of the icons. Also, the enemy die has numbers as well as colors, which is a nice touch for those who have trouble distinguishing between colors.

The rule book is fairly clear and includes iconography; learning the game from the rules did not present any problems, and it was easy to teach the 2nd time around. There are some ambiguities, mostly related to powers and abilities, but these could easily be addressed with a FAQ, and they didn’t hinder our ability to play; we just decided as a group what we thought we should do and did that. The only major rule confusion we had was that the rules tell you to choose a final boss, but we only had one to choose from – Cthulhu. He’s plenty hard to beat, but variety would be nice, in part because he is so hard to beat. I might like to work up to him, rather than feeling like we’ll never be able to win the game.

The game play itself is pretty fun. Trying to find that balance between earning enough loot to upgrade while staying alive long enough to be able to spend it is really interesting, and since you likely won’t get enough medals to do everything at once you truly have to cooperate with the other players to decide what’s best for the group. You aren’t necessarily rewarded for taking the easy route, and going all out is tough, but not undoable if you roll well, so is it worth it? Maybe

The buffs/debuffs can make the battles more interesting, and the timer mechanism for those is pretty cool. The fact that the enemies have different attacks based on different die rolls makes it harder to plan but also keeps each battle from being repetitive.

My only concern with the game is whether Cthulhu is actually beatable. He gets 25 HP per player to start with, and he gets minions. Each turn he stuns one player, essentially making them unable to do anything except use a potion. So, while you are fighting a super, super hard enemy plus all of his minions each round you have one player who can’t fight at all but who can take damage. Sure, they can spend a potion, but each player can only have one of each type of potion at a time, so that only works for so long. In the 2 games I played one was 2-player and one was 3-player; we did come slightly closer in the 3 player game, but only just. I am curious to see whether it is easier with more players, in which case this game might be best for 4 or 5, or whether we just needed to figure out a better plan. Either way, it was a fun ride to get to the final enemy, despite that battle being frustrating.

I like the game, and look forward to trying it again, although I will be sure to do that with at least 4 players.

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Essen Hidden Gems: Pact & Evidence

There are so many games being released these days, it’s getting easier to miss some real gems. The quality of a game’s design isn’t enough to sell it anymore—even in Essen, where Indie game designers have been bringing their wares for decades. Now people employ aggressive marketing  tactics in order to get their games noticed, and the cards seem to be stacked against the more soft-spoken game crafters.

The only time I ever write reviews for games is when I find good ones that no one else seems to be talking about.   Being a game designer and having founded a game designer’s meet-up 13 years ago also means that  I play more prototypes than finished games.  And two of my favorite prototypes from the past several years are finally getting published, which means I finally get to talk about them.

Yes, there is a disclaimer, for those of you who care about such things. Pact designer Bernd Eisenstein and I have been friends for over a decade and have had a blast designing several games together. Evidence designer Ore is a newer arrival in Berlin from Greece, but has also quickly become a friend. And Michael Schmitt, founder of publisher Edition Spielwiese, is the owner of the café where our group meets, and he’s been a friend almost as long as Bernd.  Other than that, I don’t benefit financially from this review or from any games sold. And I’ll be honest: not every game these designers make has made me this excited. But I have always known that these two games deserved to be published, and I’d like more people to know about them.

Pact

Designer: Bernd Eisenstein

Illustrations: Inkgolem

Publisher: Irongames

Players: 1-5

Time: 30-45 minutes

Pact is on the lighter side of the Irongames spectrum (more like Pax than Peloponnes) , but it is still a bit deeper than the typical card games put out by the bigger German publishers. In fact, the early prototypes could have easily been published by Amigo, but Bernd’s target group has always been gamers, and he worked an extra couple of years on the design in order to give it enough depth and balance for that audience.

The backstory to Pact is a thematic tie-in to last year’s Irongames release, Pandoria (which I co-designed with Bernd). In Pandoria, 5 mythical realms were forced to flee the Hiddenlands in the face of a Goblin invasion and build new civilizations elsewhere. In Pact, players take on the role of those goblin clans who are now in control of the Hiddenlands, as they compete for power and build a chaotic anti-civilization.

The goblin cards are separated into suites: there are builders, chieftains, warriors, merchants, scientists and shamans. The artwork on the box cover and the cards is both beautiful and evocative of the theme.  One can imagine a horde of Gremlins being unleashed on Middle Earth. Nevertheless, this is a Eurogame through and through, and the gameplay is in the mechanics, not in role playing.  It is a highly interactive Eurogame, however, so there may be times you will want to growl or groan like a goblin.

On the surface, Pact doesn’t seem that novel:  draft 2 goblin cards from a face-up row or the deck, and then send those goblins to complete one of the face-up “tasks” for victory points.  On a turn, you can either draw cards or play cards. So there is a rhythm to the game familiar with anyone who has played Ticket to Ride, Splendor, etc..

That’s it?  Not quite.

In order to complete a task, you must first play goblins face-up in front of you (up to 3). Having your goblins visible to the other players is key for two reasons.  First, it can reveal to your opponents which face-up task cards you may be trying to complete.  But more importantly, any player can complete a task with their left or right hand neighbor, making a “pact” with them and using their goblin cards! These tasks are placed between the players. Both players in a pact get one victory point from that shared task, but you can use as many cards from one of your neighbors as you wish, and they cannot refuse the deal. This means that you have to be careful with the cards you play in front of you.  

On one hand, you want to complete tasks alone, if possible, so that you can have all the points to yourself (2 points per task, as opposed to 1 point for each shared task).  But you don’t want to give your neighbor the chance to fulfill a task through a “pact” that uses up more of your goblins than theirs.  And you might want to pre-empt them by making your own pact, as you get a bonus goblin card every time you initiate one.

None of this requires complex rules, but it forces the players to constantly be looking at each other’s face-up cards (especially those of their neighbors) as well as the changing task cards. And you are constantly faced with the dilemma of completing a task through a pact or trying to save up to do it alone.

There are also “specialists” in the game: cards that give you a one-time special ability, such as being able to draw an extra card, play an extra card, draw and play in the same turn, etc.  Once you use one of these, you pass it to your right-hand neighbor, so they rotate from player to player, depending on how often they are used. You may only use 1 specialist per turn, but when one is used at the right time, it can be very rewarding.

Those are the basic rules. The game ends at the end of the round when the task row of 4 cards can no longer be refilled. Each player then counts up 2 VP for every task they completed alone, and 1 VP for every task in a pact with their two neighbors. Every player also counts up how much dynamite are on all the cards they scored (alone or shared) and the player with the most takes one of the task cards that had not yet been completed, if there was one (what is essentially 2 VP more in the base game).

In the “expert game,” the dynamite has a more important role. Each player gets a dynamite card and a wooden disc to move it along the dynamite track on the card.  Now, if you have 5 or 6 different types of goblins in your display at the end of your turn, you get to move your disc 1 or 2 spaces and get more dynamite! Some of those spaces award bonus VP at the end of the game, but you can also use dynamite to “blow up” one goblin needed to complete a task, if you don’t have everything you need.

Each player also gets a “master goblin” card with 3 goblin figures in their color. In addition to either drawing cards or playing cards, you now have a third option: placing one of your master goblin figures on a shared task.  This costs 3, 4 or 5 goblins of the color matching the task, but each figure gives you an additional VP, as well as a permanent goblin which you can use to fulfill every future task that requires that type.

Finally, each player is dealt 2 secret command cards which award more bonus VP for things like advancing on your dynamite card or fulfilling tasks in specific colors. You keep at least one of these, but if you keep 2, you have to fulfill it to some level to avoid a penalty.

Pact offers a lot to think about in its short 30-45 minute playing time, but the rules are easy to grasp and turns are quick. Even as a prototype, we would usually follow up one game with another, and there were plenty of laughs and groans around the table as pacts were made with players who were trying to complete tasks by themselves. At other times, players begged their neighbors to make a pact with them for a particular task card.

It’s far from a “take that” game, but in a market stuffed with quiet, multi-player solitaire games, I enjoy this lively, interactive gem, and I’m glad I will finally have a copy to play outside our game designer’s group.

Pact is available at the Irongames booth in Essen, 2-A128.  Artist Inkgolem will sign copies of the game (and possibly a sketch as well) on Saturday, October 26, at 12:00. Bernd Eisenstein will be at the booth every day.

Evidence

Designer: Orestis Leontaritis

Illustrations: Marek Blaha

Publisher: Edition Spielwiese

Players: 2-5

Time: 20 minutes

Evidence is another card game, but quite different than Pact. This one has deduction, bluffing and betting. Thematically, players are journalists investigating 6 of “the world’s greatest mysteries,” such as the Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot, etc.  We’re all actually sure that these creatures do, in fact, exist, and we need to find enough evidence to convince our editor-in-chief to place our stories in the most prominent places in the newspaper (i.e. award us the most points).

Each of the 6 mysteries (suites) have 6 “rumor” cards with values from -1 to 4.  Each mystery has a different distribution of these values, so there are also 6 overview cards that show which values are present in each suite. For example, the blue suite has values of -1, 1, 1, 2, 3, and 3, while the brown suite has values 0, 0, 0, 2, 3, and 4.

Each suite  of rumor cards are shuffled separately, then 1 card of each suite will be placed face-down, not to be revealed until the end of the game. These cards are more than rumors: they represent how much evidence there actually is for that particular mystery. The remaining rumor cards are dealt to the players (with less than 5 players, some rumor cards are placed face-up).

There are also 6 time-out cards that are placed next to their matching mysteries.

And finally, each mystery also has a number of search cards, with the more valuable “hot leads” on top of each deck, which rewards the journalist who takes the first search card from each mystery.

When it is your turn, you do 1-3 things.  First, you play one of the rumour cards from your hand face-up next to its matching mystery. In this way, all players will gain information about each mystery as the game progresses. 

Next, you may take one or more search cards.  You can only have as many of these as the number of rounds you have played, so it is only possible to take more than 1 search card if you have forfeited this action one or more times.

Finally, you may use one of the time-out cards to swap all your search cards from the mystery matching the time-out card with the same number of search cards from any other mysteries. There is only one of these for each mystery for the entire game. Each player is also limited to one time-out per game.

After the 6th round, all the evidence has been played by the players, and everyone flips over their search cards to reveal their newspaper articles. Each article is worth as many points as its matching mystery, so if  the blue mystery had a value of 2 and I had two newspaper articles for blue, I score 4 points for that mystery. Each hot lead is worth an additional point, regardless of the value of its matching mystery.

A “tools” variant is provided, in that the 6 time-out cards are replaced with 6 special actions or end-game bonuses, and these no longer correspond to any one particular mystery (although one of the cards retains the “time out” action of exchanging search cards).  As with the time-out cards, each player may only take one during the game.

Although I have yet to play the published game, I played a prototype multiple times over the past year, and the only thing I have not yet had experience with is the tools.  

This is certainly on the lighter side of deduction games, suitable for playing with children, but it also does avoid the problem that many games in the genre have—when a mistake by one player throws the game for everyone else.  

There are two points of tension in Evidence that I enjoy very much.  The first is the difficult choice of which rumor card to play from my hand every turn. You want to hold back information on the mysteries you are investigation, but at the same time, you don’t want to make it easier for players who are busy with other mysteries, either. It’s good to keep track of what other players are playing and taking, and to try to play rumors that don’t rule out the lowest or highest scores for a mystery. 

The second point of tension that I find novel in this type of game is the ability to pass on your “bids” in order to save them up for later, so that you can take more than one search card when you know more information.  This is easier said than done, however, because the search cards can go fast, like a run on a hot commodity on the stock market floor. More than once, I waited too long to make my move. If you simply take one search card every turn, however, you might give away what you have in your hand by focusing on particular mysteries.  Sure, you can bluff a bit, but the game is too short to do this for more than a couple of turns. 

I find Evidence to be a fun, light deduction game for casual players, children, and as a fun filler among gamers.

Evidence is available at the Edition Spielwiese booth 2-D114 in Essen, and Ore will be teaching and signing games there on Friday from 12:00-14:00 and at the Pegasus booth on Thursday from 13:00-14:00

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Silver Bullet (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  • Designer: Ted Alspach
  • Publisher: Bezier Games
  • Players: 2 – 4
  • Ages: 14 and Up
  • Time: 45 Minutes
  • Times Played: > 10

Silver is a fast-playing card game designed by Ted Alspach.  Based on the system from Cabo, Silver is a hand management and set collection card game with a werewolf-themed twist.  Silver (a.k.a. Silver Amulet) was released at Gen Con 2019, and I reviewed it back in August.  The sequel game, Silver Bullet is going to be released at Essen 2019. I received an early review copy, and my family and I have been playing it over and over: we love the Silver series, and Bullet is a fantastic follow-up to Amulet.

Silver Amulet and Silver Bullet are the first two games in a planned series. The games can be combined, so sort of like with Dominion, you can mix different sets to make custom decks.

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Monday setup in Essen

So I arrived in Essen this morning, and as I could not get into my hotel room until 3pm, I walked around. Saw the city. Got a new German SIM card so I can post this piece, ate something duck for lunch.

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Dale Yu: Review of Cat Sudoku

Cat Sudoku

  • Author: Ta-Te Wu
  • Publisher: Sunrise Tornado Game Studio
  • Players: 1-6
  • Age: 10+
  • Time: 20 minutes
  • Times played: 5, with review copy provided by Taiwan Boardgame Design (TBD)

Cat Sudoku is a game that I hadn’t initially paid attention to because I thought that I had had enough cat games in my life for one year – and after initially writing this one off as YACGFK (yet another cat game for Karen), I found myself seeing multiple comments online about it saying that it was a great roll and write using a bit of Sudoku reasoning.  And, of course, as I love both of those things, I found myself wanted to play it more and more… so when the opportunity arose, I requested a copy of the game, and I am really glad that I did.

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Dale Yu: First Impressions of Shadow Rivals

Shadow Rivals

  • Designer: Halifa
  • Publisher: Moaideas Game Design
  • Players: 2-5
  • Ages: 12+
  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Times played, 2 with review copy provided by Moaideas Game Design

In Shadow Rivals, you will be leading a team of 8 skillful bandits each with a different specialty, robbing the riches from the extravagant parties that take place every night. But there are rival teams that also want to rob these patricians, so you will need all your wits to gain the upper hand, and make sure you get the biggest slice of the pie. The church bell has just rung for 6 pm, so put on your cloak and go meet your crew in the dark alley near a fancy mansion. It is now time to roll and show them who leads the most notorious team of bandits in town, laughing all the way to the bank.

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Dale Yu: Essen Preview of Clip Cut Parks

Clip Cut Parks

  • Designers: Shaun Graham and Scott Huntington
  • Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
  • Players: 1-4
  • Ages: 8+
  • Time: 20-30 minutes
  • Review copy provided by Renegade Game Studios

As many of you likely know (if you read this blog regularly), I am a fairly big fan of the roll and write genre.  Sure, most of the games in this class are light; but I like the way that they challenge players to maximize their results with a common set of die rolls.  Clip Cut Parks caught my eye as it is advertised as the first Roll-and-Cut.  What?    Yeah, that’s right, this game comes with 4 pains of scissors and a bunch of sheets that instead of writing on, you cut up into little bits.

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