1st Impressions: Essen, PEW and more

As always, playing games at Essen is difficult and error-prone. That said, I managed to get a few plays of lighter new games in during the show, but most of the plays were relegated to the following week, when the 2nd annual PEW (Post-Essen Weekend) took place. While I’ve played a whole bunch of new games, I’m going to limit my first impressions to the less common ones that I haven’t seen a whole lot of people post about.

I’m one of those people who only plays things once that I really don’t like. No reason for additional suffering. So those 1 play games are really first impressions….

 Trick of the Rails (Hisashi Hayashi / Okazu Brand)

Times Played: 2

I had preordered this tiny little card game from the Japon Brand booth to ensure I got a copy…good thing ‘cause they sold out at some point. The game is a combination trick-taking/stock acquisition/valuation game. This is one of those games, that upon reading the rules, I was pretty sure was going to be terrible. Far from it, it was a huge hit, as a light yet very interesting game that uses trick-taking as the mechanism to determine, every other trick, what shares you’ll take, and then what the share values will be. Each player is dealt out a random set of “stock/locomotive” cards that are different numerical values (for trick taking), different colors (for trick-taking, stock “color” and locomotive “color”), and different prices (for locomotive values). The type of trick (either stock accumulation or locomotive value increase) switches with each trick played. All sorts of subtle things are in play here: When adding stock to your hand, you keep any non-winning cards you play; however, if you win, you swap your winning card for a card on the tableau. When increasing the value of a locomotive, the winner of that trick decides which locomotive gets the “group adder” (my name for it), which determines how many of the locomotive value cards are used in determining the price of each share. It plays fast (under 30 minutes) yet packs some very interesting choices to be made. Hopefully this will be picked up by a US publisher soon.

 Wurfel Wurst (Inka & Markus Brand/Kosmos)

Times Played: 3

With a grinning sausage (wurst) holding dice (wurfel) on the cover, what’s not to like? Wurfel Wurst is a simple press-your-luck dice game with just enough cleverosity thrown in to make it interesting. Each player gets six discs representing some of biggest losers in the animal kingdom: a cockroach, a weasel, a pheasant, a wasp, a raccoon, and a worm, with one side in color, and the other side in glorious black and white. Players start with the critters’ color side up. Each player takes a turn to roll the four black (sausage-5) dice, along with the four white (1 animal-per side) dice. Players can reroll as often as they like, as long as they put at least one die aside after each roll. After they choose to stop or run out of dice to put aside, the lowest number on the black dice is multiplied by the number of animals (of your choice) on the white dice. If you have 1-3 sausages, your lowest number is 1. But if you have 4 sausages, you multiple times 7! Then you flip over the disc with the animal you scored points for (it’s out of the game), and give the dice to the next player. The game goes quick, it’s great fun cheering for sausages (or against them), and those @#$%@#$ white dice have a tendency to roll the animals you’ve already scored. A very nice, super light filler!

Spectaculum (Reiner Knizia/R&R Games)

Times Played: 2

This game has the goofiest theme ever. It is a minimal shares train game, similar to Paris Connection or Chicago Express (more like the later in my opinion), but it was rethemed as a Traveling Carnival Acts game. The good news is that the theme might get some players who won’t play train games to play it. The other good news is that the theme is so crazily pasted on that it makes the game much more interesting to play than if it was just another train game. The last bit of good news is that it’s actually a very good train game, with a good deal of screwage potential but also some interesting route-building. Each turn you build a few tracks and buy/sell a few shares. The terrain is littered with bonuses and penalties that you can build on. That’s prettty much the game, which is over in about 45 minutes. The bottom line is that if you like train games *or* if you like carnival games, you’ll probably enjoy Spectaculum.

Rule the Roost (Steffan Ros/Odynaut Game Company)

Times Played: 2

Three barns. Three Roosters. And a whole lotta chickens. This is kind of a rooster hook up game. You’re trying to have your roosters hook up with as many chickens as possible in each of the barns. But you can only hook up with the chickens if you have a majority of roosters in each barn (I know, ewwww). It plays really fast. On their turn, each player plays a card face down into a barn. Any other player can play an interrupt card if they have one (though if two or more play they cancel each other out), and send the card you were playing out of the game. Otherwise your card (rooster, chicken or fox) is in the barn. You can also play a farmer, which allows you to look at the contents of a barn and move one card to another barn. When the cards are gone, the cards under each barn are displayed. This is a crazy take-that-and-that-and-that game that has just enough going for it to be interesting.

Shrimp (Roberto Frago/Asmodee)

Times Played: 3

If you like Geisteblitz, Jungle Speed, Tarantula Tango, Fast Food, and similar games, you’ll probably like Shrimp. Consisting of a squeaky mayo jar (I LOVE fried shrimp with mayonnaise…it’s one of those things that the French totally get right) and a deck of Shrimp cards (as well as a few cooking areas to place the cards), Shrimp is fast moving and fun. Unless you dislike the games mentioned above. Then you’ll hate Shrimp. The goal of shrimp is to take as many cards as possible. Each card has 1-3 orange, green or purple shrimp on them in either large, medium or small sizes. And each card also has a flag on it (USA, France, or Japan). Players place on any of the cooking areas. If anything matches, they have to call it out while smacking the mayo. If there are 7 shrimp, it’s a “shrimp cocktail.” If more than one of the items match, you aren’t right until you’ve said it, “Orange Shrimp Cocktail” or “3 American Shrimp”. It’s nice and squeaky and a fresh change, but ultimately not any better than its predecessors.

Confusing Sun (Justin Oh/Gemblo, Inc.)

Times Played: 2

This is hard. Really hard. It’s pattern recognition with math (just addition) thrown in. If you’re good with doing math in your head, you’ll like this and crush your opponents. If not, you’ll probably wish you had stuck with Shrimp. To play, a cardboard sun is placed in the middle of the table, surrounded by ten cards that have different numbers of flames and UFOs. Two dice are rolled, and the roller puts them next to a card on the sun. One die is for flames, the other is for UFOs. You have to find the cards that have exactly that many flames and UFOs, and then total up the numbers on the sun that are next to those cards. One side is easy: numbers go from 1 to 10. The other side is crazy hard, with numbers 11 to 20. Lots of staring, then someone shouting a number, then someone saying “no, it’s…” another number, and repeat several times until everyone agrees that the right number has been called out. The player who got it right gets the cards used for the solution. It feels like work, but it clearly shows off your superiority of basic mathematics, if you’re into that sort of thing.

 Il Vecchio (Rudiger Dorn/H@ll Games)

Times Played: 3

A very solid worker placement game that feels a bit like a weird mashup of Hansa Teutonica and Luna. You place workers on cities which are visited by middlemen (who only move when their associated action is activated by a player). In the process you collect all sorts of resources and use them to gain entry to five different scoring areas. Money is tight, resources are tight, and the movement of the middlemen is interesting. A good solid heavyish Euro.

 P.I. (Martin Wallce/Treefrog)

Times Played: 1

My eyes! How can the box be this awesome and the board so…un-awesome? Martin Wallace’s Treefrog line is known as much for his innovative and solid gameplay as it is for horrendous gameboards. While not as jarring as Last Train to Wensleydale, which was designed by a color blind graphic artist who was clearly on some form of psychedelic drug, P.I. features the Busiest Gameboard of the Year(tm). giant images, some color, some black and white, with miniature versions of those images set inside them, with dozens of tiles with other pictures in them, all thrown onto a garish orange background that makes it hard to focus on any one area of the board without your eyeballs bleeding profusely. If you can get past that, the game is a relatively nice deduction game with some interesting choices to be made. Just thinking about the game makes me squint, however…

HomeStretch (Frank DiLorenzo/R&R Games)

Times Played: 4

While I’m personally against publishers publishing games they’ve designed (it seems so wrong on so many levels), HomeStretch is an exception. It’s the party version of Knizia’s Royal Turf/Winner’s Circle. That said, it’s not a party game, but you wouldn’t know it by hearing all the cheering and shouting that a race takes on. In the game, you “back” some horses, and bet on others (or the same ones). Dice are rolled to determine which horse moves. The winners get big payouts and the owners get even bigger payouts. There is chit-betting ala Royal Turf, but there’s also handicapping that happens right before the race, giving some horses significant advantages/drawbacks. It’s exciting, fun, and the horses are cleverly named. Go #10!!!!

Taschkent (Peer Sylvester/Mucke Spiele)

Times Played: 2

Peer’s games are usually a little bit…different. King of Siam was very interesting, but too unusual for most. Filipino Fruit Market was trick taking at its oddest. And honestly, I just didn’t get last year’s Singapore…it fell pretty flat for me. But Taschkent is different. A finalist in a a competition to use a bunch of parts from other games (glass beads, cubes, a die, a runner token, 5 discs), Taschkent is two things: First, it’s a really good game. Second, the “limitation” of using those specific pieces makes the game harder to grok and somewhat annoying to play. Had Peer submitted this to another publisher, the game would have much better, more appropriate pieces, and I bet a lot more people would be talking about it. The board and cards are great (yay Klemens Franz), but they almost seem like they belong in another game. Taschkent is about you collecting goods and setting up optimal markets to trade them in. There’s some tension each turn as the die is rolled to determine if there is a 3 and 4th round, and money and VPs are scarce and (when earned) well deserved. I’m on the fence about this one but only because of the weird pieces in it.

 Cirplexed (Susan McKinley Ross/Mindware)

Times Played: 3

A fun puzzly brain twister from SMR (Qwirkle), but we played differently than the rules. In the game, you are trying to make as many solid-colored circles as possible. Each tile has different colored quarter circles on it. Instead of pulling out one tile at a time from the bag and waiting for other players, we all played simultaneously with our own stacks/layouts. This made the game tremendously fast (10 minutes max) with no difference in the end result. When played this way, everyone liked it a lot.

Tweeeet (Corne van Moorsel/Cwali)

Times Played: 4

Play this with 6 people, and then it’s great. Anything less and it’s meh. Players are put on one of two teams, the Robins or the Bluenecks. Then everyone gets a turn to eat. Different food gives you different amounts of energy. Use your energy to get to the next morsel of food, and eventually your nest. If you run out of food, you’re dead. The team with the highest AVERAGE energy at the end of the game wins (dead birds get -1, so you don’t want to screw with your team’s average by dying). This is cutthroat, mean, and in 2 of the 3 6-player games, at least one bird died. And it was awesome. Plays in 15-20 minutes. This is right up there with Powerboats and Gipsy Kings as a favorite Cwali.

And now some mini-impressions:

Kakerlaken Poker Royal (Jacques Zeimet/Drei Magier Speile)

Times Played: 3

Take the lying in Kakerlaken Poker and turn it up to 11 by adding a “royal” class of animals and two bonus cards. It’s still the same fun, but with an extra few layers of strategy.

Next! (Gil Druckman & Danny Herskovits/Gigamic)

Times Played: 1

Press your luck with really nice graphics. Nothing particularly special, and even with an unnecessary dice tower built in (with walls too high for anyone but the roller to see the dice), it definitely had us saying “next!” when we finished.

 Pluckin’ Pairs (Stephen Glenn/R&R games)

Times Played: 1

A pretty simple party game: an odd number of tiles are laid out on the table, and each person pairs them up. Then you compare your pairs to the other pairs. The more matches you make, the more points. It’s okay, but even the kids were a little bored after a few rounds.

 Dog Royal (Johannes Schmidauer-Konig/Schmidt)

Times Played: 2

Adds new stuff to Dog. The pieces are ranked King, Knight, Citizen and Jester. Each piece has a superpower. Special spaces on the board give you an extra card. A nice variant on Dog, but not as enticing as I had hoped.

Tokaido (Antoine Bauza/Funforge)

Times Played: 1

Beautiful board and cards. Tiny little scoring markers (too tiny…Clippers tiny). But each time it’s your turn, your choices are very limited, and the score, by definition of the rules, can’t be very far apart from winner to loser. In this case, Tokaido is not a winner.

 Clocks (De Rycke & Vernyns/SandTimer)

Plays: 1

Roll dice and put them on clock numbers. Some dice have special powers. Can’t say this went over all that well, when everyone wanted to know how much longer until it was over.

 Bumm Bumm Balloon! (Rookmaaker/Schmidt)

Times Played: 5

Super silly and fun tension-filled pop-fest. Roll a die, insert sticks that many notches. Choose the right stick. Eventually the balloon pops. Love it!

Aztlan (Colovini/Ares)

Times Played: 2

Colovini style majority battles with a few minor twists. The Meat and Potatoes of Eurogames. I like it. Recommended for Colovini fans, but this won’t be the title that converts you if you aren’t one already.

 Escape: The Curse of the Temple (Ostby/Queen)

Times Played: 4

Fun, but a little too loud. Roll dice with three (or four with the expansion) other people to get out of the temple, while collecting crystals on the way. Mindless fun, there’s always some joker who gets stranded that you have to go back for (which is somewhat compelling). Great for non-gamers, just okay for real ones.

Rondo (Knizia/Schmidt)

Times Played: 2

A pleasant but not overly compelling abstract game that plays fast. Very tactical and nice to look at, with chunky mini poker chip pieces. Different than anything else, but still very easy to pick up.

Panic Lab (Erhard/Gigamic)

Times Played: 3

Pattern recognition, except the pattern keeps changing! Amoebas are loose in the lab. Roll dice to determine what they look like. However, as you search, they change color, shape, and pattern. A little brain burny, but a fresh take on the “find the match” game.

Tea Time (Ornella/Gigamic)

Times Played: 2

A great surprise for a little Gigamic game. Irrelevant “Alice in Wonderland” theme. Characters on two sides of each tile, one is the mirror (with frame) image of the other. Collect as many of each character as you can, but mirrors remove regulars (and vice versa). Fun and addictive. Better with 3/4 than 2.

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10 Responses to 1st Impressions: Essen, PEW and more

  1. Lucas Hedgren says:

    Awesome list, Ted. I appreciate the mini-reviews of the less often reviewed games. But, I’m taking issue with your Tokaido point:

    “But each time it’s your turn, your choices are very limited, and the score, by definition of the rules, can’t be very far apart from winner to loser.”

    In my one game, I won with experienced gamers, I won by a lot. Setting aside the game’s merits for a second, I just don’t agree that “by definition” you “can’t” win by alot. I think every turn poses approx. 2-3 decent options, and the accumulation of those options over the course of the game can really add up.

  2. Dan Blum says:

    I was afraid Trick of the Rails would be terrible after reading the rules, too. And surprise! It was terrible. It might be OK with some kind of stacked deal so you are guaranteed a certain hand distribution – as it stands, with the wrong hand you can be screwed out of any given trick, which is OK in most trick-taking games but not this one.

  3. Ben (chally) says:

    I think Spectaculum’s name and box cover are unfortunate. I realize that I may not be a typical gamer in this regard, but my first association with the title was “speculum.” With that in the back of my mind, the picture of that exceedingly creepy jester holding his prominent golden instrument (is it a mirror?) made me feel rather uncomfortable.

  4. Ted Alspach says:

    Lucas: The limitations of 1-5 points per turn (you can estimate the value of each of your “photo shoots” as this as well) should keep this relatively even (and did in my single play). I will be playing this more ’cause Toni likes it, and hopefully my opinion will change for the better, but I sure felt like we were taking a leisurely stroll through Japan with little consequence for our (in most cases obvious) choices.

    Dan: I don’t think winning the tricks are that important. It’s reading the tea leaves for what the values of the locomotives will be that is important. I would say that winning the tricks when stock is being played is less important than keeping the correct stock, and that playing the right locomotive value (win or lose) is important too.

    Ben: Looked up Speculum. Ewwww.

    • gametool says:

      Except you can’t keep the correct stock if you don’t HAVE the correct stock, as your opportunities to change what you are dealt are extremely limited, or non-existent if (again) you can’t win the proper trick. It does me little good to divine that B&O will be worth a lot early in the game if I only have one share in my hand.

      I think some of the basic concepts in the game are sound, particularly the choice between keeping cards in a company as shares or putting them on the table to increase the company value.[*] However, it needs some different kind of structure than trick-taking, which I really don’t think works at all for this game. I can’t see any reason for it to be a trick-taking game except that someone thought it would be cool to say “here’s an 18xx trick-taking game.”

      [*] Note this is not a NOVEL concept, just a sound one. It’s been used a number of times, e.g. in Knizia’s Honeybears.

  5. peer says:

    Great list! But most of all, Im very relieved you like Taschkent Ted – After trading two copies, it wuld be a shame otherwise :-)

  6. Chris says:

    You said you played Cirplexed different than rules. It’s supposed to be played simultaneously. Was your only change that each player had their own stack of tiles to draw from? Did each player still have two tiles in their hand to choose from when playing?

  7. Ted Alspach says:

    The only difference was the stacks. We didn’t wait for everyone to pull out a tile. I don’t know how much time it saved. I guess that’s not that much different than the rules. But waiting for each player to pull out a tile would have taken some time…or I was just being mega-efficient.

  8. Ted Alspach says:

    Actually, we played the entire game simultaneously (Cirplexed). We didn’t wait for everyone to finish their turn. Each player just did their own area until they were done. Some people took a minute or two longer than others for the whole thing to be done.

  9. Chris says:

    As long as everyone eventually plays the same number of tiles and never has more than two tiles in their hand, that shouldn’t be a problem. Thanks Ted! :)

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