I’m back from BGG.CON in Dallas and ready to report on my findings. I’ve tried 35 of the new Essen games and am here to rank them from top to bottom as I’m wont to do. I have also included a brief blurb on each game to give a sense for my reasoning. More in-depth reviews are sure to come from the OG in the weeks to come. I have broken the games down into groups, but ordered them within each group from favorite at top to least favorite at bottom. I have played most of these games just once so need to play many of them again to shore up my opinion, but I’ve included my number of plays in parentheses for games that I’ve played multiple times. Let’s get right to ranking those games and my initial thoughts on each.
These are the seven games for which I’ll put my money where my mouth is and shell out hard-earned cash. I think they’re all good games and ones that I will want to play repeatedly.
- Last Will (5) – Definitely one of my favorites from 2011 so far. Played it twice in Dallas and the prototype three times back in April. Nothing revolutionary, but feels fresh and tense as you race to outspend your opponents.
- City Tycoon – Came out of nowhere for me, not even on my giant list of new games to try, but a very enjoyable game. Tile drafting is interesting and building up a city (like in 20th Century where proximity was key) was engaging and held my interest throughout.
- Tournay – No resemblance to Troyes, which is a great thing in my book. Only shares graphic design with Troyes, but the game itself is completely different. A quick card game of building a city tableau that earns you money and points, while avoiding punishing events.
- Coney Island – This is classic Schacht, like China and Hansa, in which simple rules and options make for difficult and interesting decisions. An excellent 3-player, light German-style game. The option and timing of lowering your own income stream for the big points or kicking down an opponent’s income stream mid-game is the best part.
- Walnut Grove (2) – One of the new Lookout Games, but a fairly simple and quick one at 45 minutes, with almost entirely simultaneous play. Not much interaction, but a shared challenge of meeting the food and heat demands of the recurring winter phase.
- Yggdrasil – If you like Ghost Stories and Pandemic then you should definitely check out Yggdrasil. It’s not quite at that level, but if you’ve played Ghost Stories and Pandemic 50+ times then you may be ready for something new, like me. Yggdrasil scratches that pure cooperative game itch nicely.
- Singapore – Based on King of Siam, I had to try Singapore and I’m glad I did. Many others I talked to didn’t like it, so take this with a grain of salt, but I plan to buy the game. It’s just cube churning at its heart, but the layer on top of that adds a fun twist, with the risk-reward of black market goods and the zoning selections before each tile-laying phase.
LIKE, NOT BUY
This group includes the six games that I enjoyed, but am not yet convinced to purchase. I would like to try them some more first or may just hope to satisfy any desire I might have to play them through a friend’s copy.
- Champions 2020 – Very similar to StreetSoccer, which I’ve played over 50 times, but with some added complexity. I was worried the new rules for interceptions, goalie saves, and the like would bog the game down, but they were actually a nice addition. Would probably pick this up if it were more readily available.
- Confusion (3) – After three plays, I’m still somewhat on the fence about Confusion, but I think I like it. The concept is really interesting and the components are excellent, but the deduction element may be crowded out by the luck of the setup and randomness of the initial guesses. Or it could just be my lack of spatial abstract skills.
- Pictomania (2) – A gamer’s version of Pictionary with a very clever scoring system. Unfortunately it shares the extended pause to calculate scores like in Bunny Bunny Moose Moose, which distracts from the laughs, but the drawing/guessing rounds are hectic fun. I definitely prefer this over Telestrations.
- Hawaii – A solid classic German-style game. Vaguely resembles Vikings and has the feet from Pantheon for walking around the island, but stands on its own without being particularly derivative. Need to play a few more times to see if it’s worth owning.
- German Railways – The same train game that you’ve seen many times before, like in Chicago Express, although this time with a fair dose of luck thrown in through a giant catch up mechanism (plus shares don’t dilute strangely enough). I actually enjoyed the catch up mechanism of allocating action turns randomly with weight towards those behind on income, but not sure this will appeal to the normal train crowd.
- Dr. Shark – I had high hopes for this Bauza/Cathala game of feeling around in a cloth bag for puzzle pieces based on shape and texture, and almost pre-ordered it, but after playing think I’ll pass. It was fun and the art was fantastic, but dragged a bit long for its light and repetitive gameplay.
OKAY, SOME ISSUES
The next nine games are ones that I thought were okay, but had some issues or concerns with them. They showed some potential, but each was held back by one thing or another.
- Sidibaba (2) – Very clever idea for a timed first-person cave exploration game. One player controls the group’s movement through the maze behind screen, while the others work together to find the treasure and get out. The group only sees a first-person view of the twists and turns in the maze and cannot take notes. In practice it’s fun, but can be a bit frustrating running in circles.
- Ab in die Tonne (3) – This is like a dexterity version of Knizia’s FITS with an amusing garbage theme. It’s a fun game, but the pieces tended to stick to the playing surface after significant convention use, which marred the experience a bit.
- Fistful of Penguins – A light dice game of rolling and re-rolling to score points based on animal sets. The advanced variant was a great addition to keep opponents engaged by allowing them to roll and price a die to sell the active player. The scoring system was a bit convoluted for a simple, quick dice game.
- Molkky – A fun bowling game where the pins stand up wherever they land and you score points equal to the number of pins you knock over or the value of a pin (1-12) if you only knock over one. Having to hit 50 points exactly was frustrating because you reset to 25 if you go over.
- Toc Toc Woodman (2) – A silly Korean dexterity game with a large plastic axe to knock bark off a teetering plastic tree. Obviously a game convention hit.
- Kingdom Builder (3) – The new hotness from Donald X. Has the same addictive quality of Dominion through the variability of the scoring methods and special abilities, but is a very different game that is mostly a spatial abstract, with hints of Through the Desert. The randomness of the terrain card draw can be frustrating. Wondering if we’ll see the first expansion by Nurnberg or if it’ll wait until Essen 2012.
- Takenoko – I had high hopes for this Bauza game that has fantastic components, but was disappointed by how light and random it was. I know it’s a family game and am fine with the die rolling effects, but the scoring card draw and the totally unpredictable opponent moves detracted significantly.
- Dungeon Fighter (2) – Last year saw the dexterity dungeon fighting game of Catacombs with disc flicking; now we get the dexterity dungeon fighting game of Dungeon Fighter with dice throwing. Throwing dice at a target through various silly methods (e.g., under your leg, over your shoulder, while covering your eyes) is amusing fun, but can be exceedingly difficult for new players and for certain people even after much practice.
- Poseidon’s Kingdom (2) – I really liked Antics last year, so the somewhat simpler and a bit more random Poseidon’s Kingdom is not my cup of tea. Poseidon’s Kingdom would be a better family game, but Antics is my type of gamer’s game.
The last seven games are ones that definitely fall into the OG’s “Not for me” category. They weren’t all terrible, but they were games that I don’t particularly want to play again for one reason or another.
- Panic Station – A traitor game (like Battlestar Galactica, although a good deal simpler/quicker for better or worse) that was a fun experience, but the rules as written don’t really work at all as an actual game. The incentive structure seems dysfunctional for the various shifting teams.
- Undermining – A simple pick-up and deliver game of moving around to grab minerals that you cash in for ability upgrades (e.g., faster movement, more action points, more cargo capacity) or for victory points. The turn order bias seemed excessive, although could possibly be adjusted as is done in games like Through the Desert or Antics.
- Nefarious – A very light and silly card game that would be a fun 2 a.m. game but not so much earlier in the evening with all your faculties. The enjoyment is in the amusing evil invention cards, but the role selection is very simple and the decisions rather straightforward.
- Flying Cheese – After watching the awesomely enthusiastic BGG Essen video, I was eager to try Flying Cheese, but in practice I found it too random. My favorite dexterity games are ones where you can improve with experience (e.g., Crokinole, Loopin’ Louie, Tier auf Tier, Bamboleo, Weykick), but launching foam cheese cubes off a plastic catapult did not seem to lend itself to that.
- Meltdown 2020 – Now we get to the bottom three. Corne van Moorsel has designed the excellent Factory Fun, StreetSoccer, and last year Sun, Sea & Sand. But Meltdown 2020 was not one for me. The combination of the off-putting theme, the extremely simplistic pick-up and deliver mechanics, and the drawn out end game with insufficient time pressure made this one a dud in my book.
- Drum Roll – I cannot fathom how this one was ranked so high on GeekBuzz. This was a dull game. It was a very simple worker placement game with a shiny veneer of colorful circus artwork. It dragged on way too long and was repetitive throughout.
- O Ciclo da Agua – The theme of the players being water that is trying to get drunk is awesome, but the game itself is utterly random and pointless. It’s barely more of a game than Candyland and feels like you’re playing Formula De on a track that is so narrow that you can’t switch lanes, so you’re just moving your water cubes around the circuit. The game plays itself and only drags in players to theoretically teach them the very basics of the water cycle.
A Few More Essen Titles
The games above are all ones that I tried at BGG.CON, but I did also have the chance to try the following six new Essen games before I went down to Dallas. These range across the spectrum from games I want to buy, to ones I liked but won’t buy, down to ones that I hope not to play again.
- String Railway: Transport (2) – This one would go in the “Purchases” section above. I enjoyed the original String Railway but thought that it needed more development, and the new Transport standalone version delivers. It adds about 30 minutes, but the removal of the tile draw and the addition of cube delivery make it a game worth repeated plays.
- Freitag – I haven’t decided whether I’ll buy this or not yet. I don’t tend to enjoy deck-building games, but this solitaire one was an interesting challenge. I need to try it again to see whether the game holds up, but may just spring for a copy since it’s so cheap and small.
- Dungeon Petz – Only tried the prototype for this one, so still need to try the finished version. I liked it more than Dungeon Lords, but should note that mechanically it has no resemblance to Dungeon Lords (despite the shared theme and artwork). For more details see my write-up in Czech It Out.
- Trajan (2) – This one would go in the “Like, Not Buy” section. I like it more than Die Burgen certainly, but not nearly as much as older Feld like Notre Dame. He seems to have lost his editor or the ability to prune his games to make them focused and streamlined. Trajan has interesting things going on, but too many of them to elevate it to upper echelons of the Feld canon.
- Mogel Motte – An amusing dexterity card game of trying to get rid of your hand of cards by any means, like dropping them on the floor, without getting caught. Works better with 5 players than with 3 certainly. May pick up a copy at some point.
- Vanuatu – This one would go near the bottom of the “No Thanks” category. A vicious game of blocking other players from taking actions, sometimes because it makes sense, other times just because you can, and at times just by happenstance. It also took too long and was not fun. Then again, some people whose opinions I respect like the game a lot, so you may want to investigate further.
Still More Essen to Try
Despite having tried the 35 new Essen games above, there are still nine more that I want to try at the very least (not to mention needing to play many of the above games a second or third time). The new Essen games that I’m still looking forward to trying out are:
- Casus Belli – The two-player redevelopment of Gerdts’ Antike did not make it to BGG.CON unfortunately, so I need to find it elsewhere.
- Mundus Novus – This intriguing card distribution game from Cathala and Laget was not ready in time for BGG.CON, but I may just order it and cross my fingers that it’s as good as it sounds.
- Ora et Labora – The first of five complex and long games that I didn’t have an opportunity to try at BGG.CON but will hopefully try out soon with a friend’s copy. I gather this new Rosenberg game is more like Le Havre than his others, which is great news for me.
- Pret-a-Porter – The heavy economic game with a funky fashion theme from the designer of Stronghold is one that I need to see to believe. The BGG Essen video was excellent, so hopefully the game will be too.
- Urban Sprawl – Dominant Species was the best game from 2010, but Jensen may have set the bar too high. I’m hearing mostly negative things about Urban Sprawl, but still need to try it for myself certainly.
- MIL 1049 – This one came out of nowhere during the Essen fair to garner a good deal of attention, but since then has been on a steady decline with many saying that it’s not worth the effort. I may still need to try it to be sure.
- Eclipse – This space exploration and combat game has the potential to be excellent, but I decided to wait to try a friend’s copy back home and save those many hours in Dallas for trying other new things.
- Helvetia – The new game from Matthias Cramer that does not look particularly interesting, but based on Lancaster and Glen More, I must try any new Cramer game.
- Rapa Nui – The new one from Klaus-Jurgen Wrede that also deserves a try based on designer alone, especially since it looks quick to learn if/when the opportunity arises.
BGG.CON – Beyond Essen Titles
So I may have practically lived in the “Hot Games” room of the Westin hotel for four days, but I did venture into the other rooms a few times to try older games. For completeness sake, here are the handful of older games that I played while in the Lone Star State:
Biblios (a great two-player game on the flight there), Big Boss (Kramer’s take on Acquire, still feels dated and too random), Polizei-Alarm (an awesome Haba game of frantic fun), Fluch der Mumie (an okay asymmetric game that ran a bit long), Reverse Charades (chaos as whole team tries to silently act out the word for one guesser), Freeze (Meyer’s improv game of guessing randomly assigned roles in each scene’s hierarchy), Crokinole (the king of dexterity games), Le Passe-Trappe (a less good dexterity game), Nexus Ops (the team variant is definitely the way to go for this great game), Jungle Speed (three plays, including once with the totem in another room, fantastic and exhausting, and hopefully a new annual tradition), and Tichu (ended the convention with the classic Tichu, a good card game that just can’t quite measure up to Was Sticht or Njet).
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All in all, a good crop of games with a few that I’m really looking forward to picking up and playing more. There were some duds as always, but even those can be enjoyable with the right people and BGG.CON is full of the right kind of people for having a blast regardless of the game. Hope to see you all down in Dallas same time next year.
Wow Tom, that seems an impressive number of plays.
It was certainly a busy 4.5 days, although the above is slightly misleading since there are sections of games that I still want to try and the Essen games I tried outside of BGG.CON. Overall looks like around 50 plays, so just over 10 per day, but that includes lots of super fast games like Toc Toc Woodman and Ab in die Tonne. Getting to play Dungeon Fighter with Fraser was certainly a blast, and at least he did try to warn me off of Agua. Hope to see you there one of these years!
There’s a school of thought that says I get the NEXT trip to the US … :)
Sounds like a great weekend. Our views differ a bit – though I will also agree that my first game of Vanuatu was not great. We played with 5, and it was way too long and the screwage was too random at times. Since then, I have played with 3 and 4, and it is actually much better with fewer players.
How many people were in your game?
I too played it the first time with five players, and I agree with Dale that this makes the game definitely too long, too frustrating, and too random. After that I played it with four which resulted in a much more enjoying game.
Glad to hear our views differ Dale, I wouldn’t have it any other way :)
Played Vanuatu with 5 players, meant to mention that above. I could see that it might work better with fewer players, but with 3 might be too loose. I know, I’m Goldilocks on this one, but there are so many enjoyable games coming out of Essen this year that I’m not sure I feel like working to find the inner beauty of one that is so finicky.
Regarding Panic Station, I should mention that I played with the rules as written in the box. I now understand that there are version 2 rules that were recently released that apparently may improve the game and make it function much better. So I should caveat my Panic Station opinion with the note that I played with the original rules and your experience may differ if you print out newer rules. I’ve heard the same thing said about Colonial, for what it’s worth, although I haven’t tried it myself. Seems like it may be the Essen of beta releases :)
Tom, definitely keep Helvetia on your Essen games-to-try list. It has been my favorite game so far that I’ve brought back from Spiel.
I’ll make sure he tries it, Valerie. Unlike Tom, I think Helvetia looks very interesting and I agree with him that any of Cramer’s stuff is worth a good look.
Yeah, Vanuatu with 5 for the first play can be brutal. At my first game, most of the screwage wasn’t even intentional, but it left kind of a bad impression of the game anyhow. I have since played it with 4 and liked it better. I agree that 3 may not have enough tension. Someday I will work up the courage to try 5 again (after everyone has had the chance to play a couple of times). For now, I will stick with 4 since the only thing the fifth player may add is playing time.