Essen Preview #19: My Essen High-Interest List

Last year, the number of games to grab my interest before Essen was unusually low.  I don’t know, maybe I was having trouble adjusting to the sharp increase of new titles, along with the huge number of brand new designers and publishers.  Whatever the reason, that thankfully hasn’t been repeated this year.  There are over 40 games that have gotten my attention during the rollup to the big show.  Of these, 20 are ones I have high interest in, to the point that I’m considering picking them up if other folks in my games group don’t do so first.

Here are my impressions of those games, listed in alphabetical order.  Some of the descriptions are short, if I don’t have a lot to add to what is already known about the title.  In other cases, I’ll explain what it is about the game that’s gotten me so enthusiastic.  A few of these games are limited editions that may be hard for many, including me, to obtain.  But at least I figured I’d bring them to people’s attention, in the likely chance that they pick up another publisher in the near future.

Colonial (Christophe Pont; Stratagem)

This is a programmed action game set during the Age of Imperialism from a first-time designer.  The theme, emphasis on exploiting New World resources, and amazing map remind me slightly of an old game called Material World (although I’m sure it’s just a surface resemblance).  Players select four of their action cards at the beginning of each turn and then carry them out in order.  Each card contains two actions, so there’s a chance to adjust your strategy mid-turn.  The game contains finances, exploration, monopolies, area control, diplomacy, and all sorts of potentially good things.  Most of all, there’s some die-rolling and a level of direct conflict that’s unusually high by Euro standards.  Not really a game of conquest, but possibly not for the squeamish either.  This has the potential to be terrific, as well as the possibility of being yet another overly long, overwrought debut game.  Guess I’ll have to play it to see.

Drum Roll (Dimitris Drakopoulos/Konstantinos Kokkinis; Artipia)

The players try to put together the most popular circus acts in this relatively straightforward worker placement game.  The mechanics are interesting enough that I’m hoping the attractive theme and incredible artwork will make this a nice middleweight game.

Dungeon Petz (Vlaada Chvatil; Czech Games Edition/Z-Man)

I’ve already talked a bit about this one and Tom Rosen wrote up a good preview of it earlier.  It’s set in the universe of Dungeon Lords, but is an independent game.  This is definitely the heavier side of Chvatil, but the gameplay is a bit less unforgiving than in DL.  I really enjoyed my one play of the prototype and look forward to trying out the finished product.

Fortuna (Michael Rieneck/Stefan Stadler; The Game Master)

Players seek happiness and influence during the time of Ancient Rome.  Like the Roman god Janus, there are two faces to this game.  On the good side, it’s based around a really interesting action selection system.  Each player has three action cards in front of them.  On their turn, they carry out one of them, then exchange that card with one of their opponent’s action cards, to set themselves up for future turns.  That has the potential to be really good and very innovative.  However, you also roll a die on each turn which (essentially) allows you to acquire victory points and in most cases, rolling higher is better.  The game gives you some ways to mitigate against poor rolls, but my fear is that good play could be neutralized by bad dice-rolling and vice versa.  Rieneck and Stadler have some good games on their resume, but they’ve also shown they’re not afraid to include a healthy amount of luck in their designs.    The game is probably too intriguing not to investigate, but I may wait for some early reports to quell my fears.

Freitag (Friedemann Friese; 2F-Spiele/Rio Grande)

I previewed this earlier.  It’s a solo deckbuilding game and I really enjoyed my one play of it.  The only question is if I pick up the 2F version or wait until RGG releases it.

Hawaii (Greg Daigle; Hans im Gluck)

I’m not sure how unbiased I’ll be able to be about this game, since I’ve known Greg Daigle for so long (he’s my Gathering roommate) and have been rooting for him to get published for most of that time.  But I have played the prototype for Hawaii under several different guises and have enjoyed all of them.  It’s basically a worker placement kind of game, with the actions arranged in a pyramid structure (so it represents one of Hawaii’s many volcanoes).  On your turn, you move your dudes to the different action spaces, with an additional cost to move up levels.  Obviously, the most efficient way to do things is to grab the lowest level actions first and work your way up, but that only works until an opponent cheerfully jumps up a couple of levels to grab the juicy action before you get there!  Choices like that are one of the main tensions of the game.  The action spaces can also be swapped around prior to play, so that each game can have a different setup, giving it lots of replayability.  There are a bunch of other good ideas in the design, but I have no idea what changes HiG has implemented, so I’ll just wait and see what the finished product looks like.  But I am really looking forward to playing this.

Helvetia (Matthias Cramer; Kosmos)

Matthias Cramer is off to a rip-roaring start to his game designing career, thanks to titles like Glen More and Lancaster.  I’m very impressed and his latest effort might give him a threepeat.  The game takes us back 200 years to simpler times in a series of Swiss villages.  The gameplay description is charming:  each player puts their meeple villagers in buildings, where they can produce goods and possibly get married to opponents’ meeples of the opposite sex (that is, the meeples must be of different genders, not the players!).  You invoke the abilities of characters like the Builder (letting you construct new buildings from your goods), the Trader (who gives you VPs for your goods and their by-products), the Night Watchman (when meeples produce goods, they go to “sleep” and can’t be used again until awakened by the ever vigilant Night Watchman), the Priest (who can marry two meeples), and the Midwife (new meeples!).  It all sounds very clever and cute as hell.  There’s been next to no buzz about it, so who knows how it will play, but if I have the chance, I’ll take a flyer on this one, just on the strength of Cramer’s previous games.

MIL (Firmino Martinez; HomoLudicus)

Yikes, another first-time designer!  It does seem as if that’s where the new ideas are coming from these days, but I have to admit depending on so many untested talents makes me a bit nervous.

Anyway, “MIL” stands for 1049 (yeah, a little liberty was taken with the Roman numerals) and that’s the year the game is set in.  There’s action selection, resource gathering, and the occasional battle between the players’ knights–fairly standard stuff.  The interesting aspect about the design is that your knights age with each action and you’d better take steps to give them an heir before they die or else you’ll lose victory points due to massive probate fees (or something like that).  The aging sounds reminiscent of an older game called In the Shadow of the Emperor, but it seems to be handled in a cleaner fashion here.  I want to see some early reviews, but there might be enough here for me to pursue this.

Mundus Novus (Serge Laget/Bruno Cathala; Asmodee)

Back in 2003, a game called Mare Nostrum became one of the first titles to be given the kiss-of-death label “2 hour Civ game”.  Naturally, it couldn’t live up to that advance billing, but it’s actually a pretty good game.  And its best feature is its trading mechanic.  Each player exposes a certain number of resource cards.  The first player takes any opponent’s card she wants, then the player the card was taken from takes a card, and so on, until all the cards have been chosen.  It’s a surprisingly subtle process that works very well in the game.

So 8 years later, Laget, that game’s designer, and his good buddy Cathala have reworked that mechanic into Mundus Novus, a lighter card game themed around the Spanish voyages of discovery in the New World.  Happily, the pair added several other elements to the design and the combination looks as if it could make a very nice super-filler.  Let’s see how well the game does without the added pressure of impossible expectations.

Ora et Labora (Uwe Rosenberg; Lookout/Z-Man)

Of Uwe Rosenberg’s recent “big” games, Agricola and Le Havre scored highly with me, Loyang and Merkator, not so much.  So the latest title from the Bean Man isn’t quite the automatic purchase it used to be.  And to be honest, even after reading the online rules for this one (in which the players try to best expand their own Medieval monastery–seems like the themes of Uwe’s games have been getting steadily weaker as well), I’m still not sure how it will fare.  The good news is that the game looks like a mix of Agricola and Le Havre, so he’s back on familiar, successful ground.  The question is, will Ora plow new ground or will we just be better off playing one of the older titles?  I don’t really think we’ll know until we take it for a test drive.  I’m certain someone in my group will pick this up fairly soon, so it shouldn’t take too long to find out.  And you can be certain I’ll be sharing my impressions with you, dear reader.

Pala (Jeff Allers; Cambridge Games Factory)

Fellow OGer Jeff Allers has a new trick-taking game coming out that sounds interesting.  The card suits match up to the three primary and three secondary colors of the spectrum and the players can combine these colors in the standard way when playing to tricks.  Jeff previews the game on the Geek and he explains that he first got this idea before other games that used colors, such as Fresco and Pastiche, were released.  Even with the delay, using this mechanic in a trick-taking game is a fresh concept and the fact that two different games are provided (with two ways for the players to determine how the suits will score) is an added bonus.  I’m a big fan of innovative trick-takers so I plan on picking this up as soon as it’s released.

PAX (Bernd Eisenstein; Irongames)

I got a chance to get an early peek at the rules for this cardgame, as the designer asked me to proofread the English rules (so now you know who to blame).  And it definitely got my attention.  Eisenstein scored big a couple of years ago with Peloponnes, which served as an excellent super-filler for our group, and PAX looks like it could fill the same role.

PAX is a set collection game of sorts.  The key mechanic is that the active player draws three cards one by one and puts one in his hand, one on the board, and one back under the deck.  Knizia’s Merchants of Amsterdam and the more recent Biblios have similar mechanisms and it usually leads to tough choices.  Players also have the opportunity to buy cards, so there’s a financial aspect, and to choose from cards from a common display, so there’s player interaction.  Plus, there are two different ways the game can end and these lead to two very different victory conditions (shades of Wallace’s Liberte).  So even though the rules are pretty straightforward, you can see there’s a good deal going on here.  I definitely intend to grab this one as soon as I can and I hope it will give me a lot of game in a short amount of time.

Poseidon’s Kingdom (Gordon and Fraser Lamont; Fragor)

This is another game where I got to try out the prototype at the Gathering, with positive results.  This time, the Lamonts take us under the sea, with a design that features dice as food, an attention-grabbing multiple die-rolling contraption (which actually serves a purpose in the game), and, of course, uber-cute fishy playing pieces.  Best of all, there is a reappearance of the excellent anthill system from their previous game, Antics.  Constructing and generating actions from your anthill is a bit simpler and more forgiving this time around (which is fine with me, as my anthill construction technique in the earlier game was far from optimal).  In fact, the game itself is lighter, but still includes a good deal of planning and decision making.  The lucky few who pre-ordered copies of the sold-out game should brace themselves for a spate of fish-inspired puns from the always ebullient Lamonts!

Power Grid:  First Sparks (Friedemann Friese; 2F-Spiele/Rio Grande)

Pretty much everything I know about this game came from Dale’s fine preview, so I have nothing to add.  The concepts sound interesting and I tend to like Friedemann’s heavier designs, so I’m on board.  Looking forward to the illustrations of cavemen with green hair and, of course, that pink wooly mammoth.

Pret-a-Porter (Ignacy Trzewiczek; Portal)

Like Cramer, Trzewiczek is a rising star, with Stronghold and 51st State being released in the past two years.  Pret-a-Porter’s main notoriety has come from its theme, which is based on the wild and bitchy world of fashion designers.  It’s been a turn-off to some, but I almost always welcome new and modern themes, so I view it as a good thing.  The preview included some very interesting concepts, so the game went on my “go to” list right away.

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm dimmed a bit after I read the online rules.  The game certainly has a lot of moving parts, including pre-turn planning, loads of cards, and a bunch of areas to place your dudes in.  But at its heart, it’s just a drafting game.  I have no problem with drafting (my favorite game of all time, Through the Ages, has drafting at its heart), but in this case, the way it’s used doesn’t seem appropriate for the weight of the game.  Basically, the design seems to lack innovative mechanics and with all the detail included, I was hoping for more.

However, that is far from a kiss of death.  The key to the game will probably be the variety and complexity of the cards.  If they provide lots of options and combos, this could easily be an entertaining and challenging title.  So I still hold out hope for this one.  But I’ll probably wait for the early reviews before pulling the trigger myself.

Quebec (Philippe Beaudoin/Pierre Poissant-Marquis; Asmodee)

This is a worker placement game about building up Quebec over a 400 year period.  There are two attractive twists.  The first is that when you place a dude in a building, you get an extra action, but the person who constructed the building gets VPs.  Somewhat reminiscent of Caylus, without being the same thing.  The other is that players score points by having the most workers in what are called zones of power (such as religion, politics, etc.).  The player with the majority in the first zone gets to carry over some of her workers into the next zone, a cascading effect that can significantly affect scoring.  I’m not sure if those two innovations will be enough to sell me on the game, but they’re enough to get me interested.

Santiago de Cuba (Michael Rieneck; eggertspiele/Gryphon)

This is the third game in what might be categorized as the “Cuban Trilogy”.  The first two were Cuba (by Rieneck and Stefan Stadler) and Havana (by Reinhard Staupe).  All three are published by eggert and have very attractive, evocative, and similarly styled art by Michael Menzel.  Outside of that and the geographic tie-in, the three games have virtually no similarities.

Like Mundus Novus, Santiago de Cuba looks like it could be a refined super-filler.  Nine characters are arranged in a circle.  The players visit them by moving a token (shared by all the players) to their space.  Visiting the next character in line is free, but each additional space costs the player 1 peso.  Each character allows the player to obtain something and is associated with 3 of the 12 buildings in the game.  After using the character’s power, the player must visit one of the 3 buildings to use its ability.  The principal objectives are getting raw materials, converting them to finished goods, and trading them for VPs at the Port.  There are some nice checks and balances built in and the game looks like it might have some interesting decisions in a short timeframe.  Replayability should also be a plus, since there will be a new arrangement of characters and buildings each game.  And Menzel’s artwork always enhances a design.  So this is one I’m liable to check out.

Singapore (Peer Sylvester; White Goblin)

Sylvester came out with the excellent King of Siam in 2007, so that’s enough to guarantee a look at his latest design.  The online rules only add to the appeal of this one.  We’re building yet another city (three guesses which one it is).  Players can move workers over streets to buildings (both buildings and streets are constructed during the game) to gain their benefits.  There are goods (including opium!) which can be exchanged for money and victory points in certain buildings.  Some of the buildings are illegal ones and players who build or use these buildings have to take a black chip.  Periodically, raids occur and the player with the most black chips and opium goods has to pay a fine.  So crime can pay in this game, but only if you don’t overdo it.  It’s an intriguing mix and the duration is only 90 minutes, so there’s a good chance I’ll pick this up.  Besides, any game in which the players get the chance to become Sir Stamford Raffles (who was a real person) has got to be good!

Space Bastards (Jiri Mikolas; Jira’s Games)

This is the latest game to be added to my list and after I stumbled over the online rules last week, I thought I might have a scoop.  Sadly, that industrious Dale Yu previewed it last week.  As Dale mentioned, the system of establishing relationships between the different races (each player owns representatives of each race) is the thing that makes this interesting.  Despite there only being 300 copies printed, I think I’ll have the opportunity to try this out soon, so if I’m quick enough, I may get my scoop after all!

Trajan (Stefan Feld; Ammonit Spiele)

It’s becoming increasingly clear that when it comes to mechanics, Stefan Feld is coming up with more interesting ideas than any other designer in the world.  The basis for this game is just another sign of his brilliance.  The players are trying to gain influence in ancient Roman life.  They do so by taking actions of half a dozen different types and the way they take these actions is based on Mancala!  There are colored tokens in six “cups” on each player’s mat.  The cups are arranged in a circle and each one is associated with one type of action.  On his turn, the player “sows” the tokens from one of the cups and the cup where the last token goes determines which action he can take.  Additionally, if the tokens match the pattern of a bonus action placed at that cup, they get to perform that as well.  Where does he come up with this stuff?  The scope for advanced planning is obviously tremendous, but hopefully there will be a minimum of AP, since there are only six choices each turn.  Feld is on a huge roll (with Macao, Speicherstadt, Luna, Burgundy, and Strasbourg appearing in the past two years alone) and this one has the smell of a winner as well.  We’ll definitely be picking this up and I can see if the man is able to do it again.

I’m sure there will be other games that will catch my eye in the weeks to come, but those are the ones that I’m most interested in at present.  As they get played, you’ll be the first to hear about them.  We’re approaching the most exciting time of every gamer’s year.  Prepare for the onslaught!

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7 Responses to Essen Preview #19: My Essen High-Interest List

  1. Paul Lister says:

    Great article and my high interest list has just got larger.

    I have been lucky enough to play Colonial a few times and its most definitely not over long (a little over 2 hours) or over wrought (a fraction of the moving parts of Vinhos, the core system of using tokens to represent different assets is a model of elegance). Its not going to be everyone’s cup of tea though – its really interactive, bloody and demands constant negotiation- it ‘feels’much more like Diplomacy/Cosmic Encounter than the games it shares a theme with (Endeavor, Age of Empires, et al). My other fear for the game is that it does not always shine on the first play. However, I am a big fan of the game and if I find anything at Essen I like more i will be delighted.

  2. huzonfirst says:

    Thanks for the note about Colonial, Paul. I’ll take your advice and make sure our players give the game multiple chances (which is usually appropriate for a game of this complexity anyway). It’ll be interesting to see how the negotiation aspect is handled; unless a game explicitly includes bargaining (like Genoa, for example), we usually don’t do a lot of wrangling. I’m definitely looking forward to trying the game out, as it seems like something different in the world of Euros.

  3. You could be on to a new advertising jingle:
    Mmmmm mmmmm Essemmm

  4. Jared Scarborough says:

    Enjoyed the great overview, Larry.

    My two-bits on Hawaii, which I’ve played maybe 4-5 times as a prototype:

    There are, unfortunately, precious few designs that combine simulation with euro-goodness. Greg’s Hawaii does this in a way that brings ancient Hawaiian custom to life–down to the various gods of yore.

  5. Surya says:

    I outlined my thoughts on the luck in Fortuna on BGG: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/5393?commentid=2448585#comment2448585

    “Well, you know that there’s less chance of getting to perform the nr 6 favor card than the nr 2 one. So yes, that’s a luck element, but counting on having a 6 every round would be stupid to begin with. So you’re best off doing 2 things
    – Buying extra dice to increase chances of getting the rolls you want
    – Making sure you have some resources for the lower value favors so you can always fall back to those if you don’t roll a 5 or 6.
    Taking the Fortuna card is a good idea too as you will get to do this phase first, having all 6 favors available. If you’re in last place, the chance of not having any favor cards available, due to them having been used by the other players, is bigger. That’s something you know going in and you should keep it in mind.

    In this particular game, I was going for the 3 priestesses, making the nr 6 favor really attractive. And even though I didn’t roll all that many 6es (I only had 1 die), I managed to pull off a win.

    So there is always luck there, but you can choose to compensate for that luck with your actions.”

  6. huzonfirst says:

    That’s good to hear, Surya. Luck that can be mitigated against, either before or after the event, is much less troubling to me than a straight die roll. Fortuna is a game that I’ll undoubtably seek out.

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