Catching The Latest Essen Releases at Lobster Trap

Lobster Trap is a small invitation only games weekend in Boston that takes place the second weekend of November.   As befitting the time of the year, the focus of the event is on Essen games, with a large selection available for folks to try out just in time for the holiday shopping season.  Below is the commentary from a couple of OG contributors Joe Huber and Craig Massey (one of the Lobster Trap organizers).

Joe’s Commentary – I’ve played eighteen Essen (or Essen-like) releases there, and six others before or since, plus a couple in prototype form.  Overall, I’m not terribly impressed with the games I’ve played from this year’s Essen crop – but there are a few games I expect or know I’ll enjoy which I am not counting yet, likely once again bringing Essen to the six-good-game level (thank you, Mike) that it has typically enjoyed for me for as long as I’ve been following the event.

Starting with the games I played at Lobster Trap, some quick thoughts:

Alba Longa – players try to get their cities to be the Rome of ancient Italy. The game has a purely take-that war element (with a variant that at least gives some advantage to attacking, if not making it more interesting), and rather a linear feel to it otherwise. Not the worst game I’ve ever played, but I would not play it again.

Tournay is a game of balancing actions with resource collection, set in the Troyes universe. Better than Troyes, IMHO, but I didn’t care for Troyes, and I didn’t enjoy Tournay enough more as to feel any need to play Tournay again.

Master Merchant is an interesting try at a minimalist deck-building game, but felt played through after a single play.  To be fair, I’m not a fan of the genre, which undoubtedly influenced my impression.

Drum Roll was the first game I played at Lobster Trap that felt close to being one I wish to play again.  Still, the theme was weak and there wasn’t anything to the mechanisms that came close to making up for that.  Further, the abilities of the performers did not feel well balanced to their costs, at least to me.

Tuareg is a typical Adlung game – not a standout, but a solid game.  Players load their camels, trying to hold majorities in each of the goods.  But we played with 5, and that left 2 players buried.  If I were to play again, I wouldn’t play with more than 3, but I don’t really feel any strong desire to play again.

Master of Pizza is an interesting take on trick taking, where the last card played in each suit in tricks you win is what counts for you.  I think there’s a workable game in there, but I’m not convinced that Master of Pizza has found it.

Toc Toc Woodman is not technically an Essen release, but expanded its audience there.  It’s a dexterity game, wherein players try to knock the bark off of trees, without disturbing the core of the tree.  Quick and with some fair amount of skill involved, for a long time this was my favorite game at Lobster Trap of the new releases.

Terra Evolution is a deckbuilding game that made me long for Master Merchant.  The central idea – evolving your beasts – was fine, but there weren’t many (any?) interesting decisions to be made.

Mare Balticum is a game themed around Baltic fishing, and was – close.  It’s a bit light, perhaps, but playable.  It reminds me, in some ways, of Fishy, the old Alan Moon game, and it struck me similarly.

Kingdom Builder is a simple tile-laying game from the designer of Dominion.  And, absent Dominion, I didn’t see how Kingdom Builder would have been picked up.  Not that there’s anything wrong with it – it’s just rather mediocre.  I’m not a huge fan of Paris Connection, but I thought there was more game to Paris Connection, with a shorter playing time, and more replayability in spite of some elements in Kingdom Builder there for just that purpose.

Singapore is a game set around the trade of various goods in Singapore including opium – with the danger of penalties for those who deal in illegal trade.  It was described to me as a cube-pusher, and that’s not inaccurate, but for that it’s a reasonable game – one I could happily play again, even if I’m not tempted to pick up a copy.

Fliegende Teppiche can most easily be described as It’s Mine with card flinging.  Each round, a number of cards are set out, and players fling their card, trying to land it, face-up, on the positive cards – ideally multiple positive cards.  This works very well – it’s a light game, but a very playable one, and one that somewhat tempts me to pick it up.

Paperclip Railways is essentially an attempt to turn String Railways into a bigger, heavier game.  Not a bad idea, but the overhead of connecting the paperclips was annoying, and I found that the system wasn’t well suited to this weight of game in my opinion.  The game draw lots of positive comments, though.

Eminent Domain is, roughly, a mix of Race for the Galaxy and Dominion.  But – not as interesting as either game, in my opinion.   And I’m really worried about the balance of military and colonization – military ability has to be rebuilt each time, and built up further to succeed, which seems to make it inherently worse than colonization.

Vanuatu is a game set around fishing and tourism in Polynesia.  I thought the game had promise – but there are a number of areas where the game is extremely sharp.  First, when it is your turn to execute an action, if you do not have a majority position on one of the actions, you take no action, and lose the investment of your pieces.  Second, the tourism action is sometimes restricted to a single player, leading to an all-or-nothing investment for the action, where a more reasoned rivalry would be more interesting.  In addition, the final turn of the game was _very_ anti-climatic; the game would be better if it simply ended after 7 turns.  And thus, on the whole – I don’t want to play the game again as is, but neither am I so taken by the game as to pick up a copy just to try tweaks.

MIL is a game set in the 11th century, themed around vassalages, estates, and royal marriages.  It reminds me a lot of De Vulgari Eloquentia, in being one that would always take a long time to explain, but without as unique a theme as that game.  It’s also a game that has an optimistic play time; the game lists it at 90 minutes, but the first round of our game lasted about that long – at which point we punted.

Principato is a traditional Eurogame, but with actions available coming from a deck of cards.  This has the unfortunate effect of making some necessary actions very difficult to actually find, as they’re either held on to by other players, or swapped out in such a manner that they’re discarded and out of the game.

String Railway Transport was the last new Essen (or Essen-ish) game I played at Lobster Trap – and my favorite.  For me, this was the best implementation of the String Railways system – more _game_ to it than the original offered, but appropriately light given the system.  It’s the only game from Lobster Trap I’ve worked toward acquiring a copy of afterwards.

Besides these games, there are six others Essen releases I’ve had the opportunity to play in the past month:

Artè is a worker placement game, stripped-down to the very basics.  I’m not generally a fan of the genre, and to the usual problem of not being able to do what you would like is added the issue of a very dry and minimalistic underlying game system.  Add a nasty turn-order issue at the end of the game, and it’s not a game I’ll play again.

Coney Island is a game themed around boardwalk carnivals, a theme that tempts me.  But a game with such a theme should feel lively and fun, somehow.  Say what you will about Fun Fair – it provided a sense of excitement in the play.  Coney Island does not, and has something of a nasty side-effect confrontational feel to it as well, where player end up hurting other players somewhat at random.

Hawaii is a game I’d played before as a prototype, and hadn’t been very impressed by.  I though Greg had a solid game, and one with potential, but not one that was polished.  But between Greg’s additional work and Bernd’s development, the published game is notably better than the prototype.  Additionally, the theme works well, and is well integrated into the mechanisms.  I’m considering purchasing it, though I’m not yet certain about it.

A Fistful of Penguins is Jonathan Franklin’s first published design, a cute little die-rolling, set-collection game.  With each player only taking three turns, the game is a filler, but one with plenty of meaningful choices for the length.  Not a game I’m rushing to purchase, but one I’ll happily play again – which if you’re keeping track places it near the top of the class.

King of Tokyo is another dice-rolling game, here with a king-of-the-hill theme, with super-powered monsters added for variety.   I found the game did what it tried to do exceptionally well – it’s intended to be light and confrontational, and the mechanisms fit that theme very well.

Walnut Grove is a ranch-development game from Lookout.  There’s a lot of nice features of the game – I didn’t find the rules explanation I received particularly clear, but once I understood the rules I appreciated elements of the system.  Except – by aiming to keep the length of the game in check (a very reasonable and appropriate goal), the game ends of leaving players with only eight important decisions for the game.  Well, slightly more than that – but most of the game revolves around the actions in town, and you’re limited to eight of those.

So, in summary…

String Railways Transport is good enough that I’ve tracked down a copy.

Toc Toc Woodman, Fliegende Teppich, Mare Balticum, Hawaii, A Fistful of Penguins, and King of Tokyo are good enough that I’ll gladly play them again, and I might end up purchasing copies.

I would be fine playing Tournay, Drum Roll, Master of Pizza, Singapore, Paperclip Railways, Vanuatu, Principato, and Walnut grove again, though I don’t intend to seek them out, and doubt they will grow to be favorites even if I do play them again.

Craig’s Commentary – I did not get the chance to play as many of the new releases as Joe did, but I was able to try a fair amount including a few that Joe didn’t play and a few more post Lobster Trap.  We did overlap on a few of the games.

It is too soon for me to really assess the overall quality of the 2011 Essen games.  There are so many and I have only scratched the surface.  I did get a sense for what seemed to be popular throughout the weekend.  There were a few copies of Kingdom Builder that seemed to be in constant use from start to finish.  Whether this is because it is another hit in the making or because it is easy to teach and quick to play as a filler is to be determined.  Eminent Domain saw heavy play throughout the weekend with several copies in circulation.  Last Will and Nefarious both saw steady play though with one copy of each.  On to my perceptions of what I had a chance to play that weekend and a few since.

Alcatraz: The Scapegoat seriously underwhelmed me.  There seemed to be a kernel of a good idea here and the theme certainly had me interested when I sat down, but the actual play left me cold.  I was hoping the voting would make for interesting alliances as you positioned yourself and possibly others for the win, but in almost every turn, it seemed rather clear who to vote to be the scapegoat making the process feel rather pointless.  I thought the game might need the “right” audience, but our group fit what I thought would be that audience.  No need to try again.

Colonial: Europe’s Empire Overseas is a game that needs another playing.  We started it later in the evening and powered through the rules.  It definitely piqued my interest and we stuck with it to try the basic game without some of the included variants.  I’m not quite sure where this game fits on the spectrum of traditional Euro verses a more American style game as it has elements of both and the game play will probably lean one way or the other depending on the group.  For some reason my play was rather non-confrontational – probably due to tentative play and some confusion about some rules, but after the game was over, we were all eager to try it again soon and pledged it would be a much more interactive affair.  I have high hopes for a second play.

Coney Island has the potential be stick around a long time, but I’m a confessed fan of Herr Schacht’s designs.  No one packs as much in a 30 to 45 minute game in terms of decision making and depth.  The theme certainly adds to this, but admittedly themes for past Schacht games are rather superficial.  Coney Island has plenty to think about and there is a fair amount of player interaction for a Schacht game with a constant exchange of special characters as well as tile play on the board.  I didn’t think that game felt confrontational as Joe did.  This has the potential to be a long term keeper for me.

Kingdom Builder will be in the discussion for Spiele des Jahres come next spring. To me it has the same general appeal as a Keltis or Ticket to Ride.   I played three times and found it very easy to learn as well as teach.  I thought there was a nice amount of variability with the modular boards and different scoring cards.  The also seems to have a system that will lend itself to expansions ranging from more modularity with additional boards and cards to something more complex.  Regardless of what happens with the game, it is going get a spot on my game shelf as a quick opener or closer.

King of Tokyo saw a fair amount of table time.  Again, theme helps to make the game.  I commented during the game that I thought it would be great if there were some differentiation between the monsters.  Seems like this will be happening in an expansion.  I played three times over the course of the weekend and as long as you have the players to keep this game moving along, it is a fun romp in dice hurling action.  As soon as the pace slows and players get too tactically ponderous the game bogs down.

Last Will is the hit of the show for me at the moment.  Four plays in the short weekend is evidence of that game probably has some serious legs.  My first play required a rather extensive rules explanation and set up leaving me with some trepidation.  It was the theme that really attracted me.  The whole “Brewster’s Millions” idea of spending yourself broke to get more had fantastic appeal.  The move title in fact made explaining the goal very easy.  The conversation went something like, “Have you seen Brewster’s Millions?  Well, that what the game is about.” This was followed by a chuckle remembering the movie and an “I get it” look.  I actually found the game very easy to teach after my first play and successfully did so whittling down the start time from twenty plus minutes my first game to about five. The game itself is a nice mix of drafting cards and actions to set up an engine to lose a lot of money. Nothing about the game felt terribly new, but then nothing felt familiar either and the mix of mechanics along with the theme made the game a lot of fun – more so than so many of the Euro games over the last several years with tired themes and reused mechanics.  I’ll definitely be adding this to my collection and I think it will hang around long term.

Nefarious is the other hit of the show.  I only played it once the whole weekend and that particular playing was pretty forgettable, but again the theme really intrigued me even though I’m not sure the mechanics and game play do much to reinforce the theme.  The game is quite simple to play (though the speculation action takes a bit of effort to explain).  The artwork coupled with the whole “Despicable Me/Megamind” theme make the game quite fun as long as you realize you are playing a twenty minute filler.  There’s plenty of variability with the twist cards to keep it fresh.  I’ve played it almost a dozen time since that first play with all numbers of players and it has largely been a hit, even with the non-gamer crowd.

PAX is the latest game where I got a major rule wrong and it completely changed the game (this is a long entrenched habit of mine).  My first few plays of the game before Lobster Trap had me convinced that the only way to go was to attempt to win the conspirator race and win as a traitor to the revolt.  This is due to the fact that I thought the cost to play cards was equal to the coins on the cards or in other words, I’m an idiot. This makes it damn near impossible for the revolt to win.  One two player go at Lobster Trap cleared this up and the game made a lot more sense. Anyway, I enjoy the game and will be writing a more detailed review in the next few weeks.

Pictomania has everyone drawing a separate clue while at the same time trying to make a good guess as to what everyone else is drawing.  You take your guesses and hope that people can guess yours.  Person who can do this the fasted and most accurately wins more points.  Repeat this for several rounds and see who comes out on top.  Its very simple and quite fun, especially when you get some harder cards. It keeps everyone engaged and doesn’t have the problem that some drawing games have where if you have some kind of mind meld with a partner or team you can draw a dash to get your team to guess Mona Lisa.  Good stuff.

Tschaak! was played a handful of times throughout the weekend.  I don’t think anyone walked away raving, but no one walked away hating it either.  I was amused by my only play, but I think the others playing with me were less so.  It is an odd trick taking like game with the interesting twist that over the four rounds, everyone will play each of the original hands dealt. No grumbling about a garbage hand here as everyone has to deal with it at some point.  It works, but is unlikely to set the world on fire.

Vanuatu hurt my head the most out of all of the new games.  My first piece of advice is avoid this with the over analyzers as the game will slow down to a pass near glacial.  I consider myself a pretty quick player and found lots of moments to ponder a myriad of options.  Also, the game looks great and has a pleasant theme, but it is actually quite interactive.  As Joe said above, there is plenty of all-or-nothing risks to take in an attempt to score points.   I would play this again, but I’m not sure it will be something I’ll be asking for more than another time or two.

Summarizing the weekend and subsequent weeks – Last Will, Nefarious, Kingdom Builder and Coney Island are already on the shelf or soon will be.  Colonial needs to be played again and Pictomania has great party game potential  Tschaak! and Vanuatu are middle ground and likely forgettable. Alacatraz: the Scapegoat is one and done.

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