Essen First Impressions

There are 34 new games this Essen season that are on my list to track down and try out.  Usually my main opportunity for doing so is at BGG.CON in Dallas, but this year a couple local friends ordered a bunch of games directly from Europe.  So in advance of BGG.CON, I’ve already had the chance to try 17 new games, and I’m here today to rank them.  As the title indicates, this ranking and the comments below are based on generally around just one to two plays of each game, so these are certainly first impressions and subject to change with additional plays.  I’ll try to explain what did or did not appeal to me about each game and to mention how many times I played it.  After BGG.CON next week, I’ll hopefully have tried the other 17 new games and be able to return with a more comprehensive discussion of the season’s new releases.

1) Keyflower – After 3 plays, Keyflower is definitely my favorite of the new Essen releases so far.  It came as quite a surprise to me after not really enjoying Key Market or Key Harvest nearly as much as I had enjoyed Keythedral back in the day.  But Breese, in conjunction with Bleasdale, has come roaring back in my mind with Keyflower.  The game cleverly merges the traditional auction and action phases that you’ve seen separated so many times before in classics like Goa and Princes of Florence.  As a result, there’s a lot of tension in determining your priorities as you have to decide which tiles to bid on and which to use all at once.  The game is highly interactive since you need to figure out where your opponents are likely to block you.  And the mechanism of using different color meeples not to represent player colors but rather to restrict bidding and tile use (reminiscent of Asara) is a great addition.

2) Escape: The Curse of the Temple – Escape was a blast!  I’ve only had the chance to play it 2 times so far, but hope to get it back to the table many more times.  It’s a timed cooperative game with a CD soundtrack, like Space Alert, but I think even more frantic and fun.  It’s centered around speed dice rolling (like the great Haba game Polizei-Alarm), but seems to have room for a bit of interesting planning and teamwork in terms of how the group splits up and works together.  I look forward to trying out the modules in future plays, which look like they could add a lot (just like in Queen’s Fresco).

3) Mice & Mystics – I pre-ordered Mice & Mystics back in May and was eagerly awaiting its August release.  I was thrilled when it finally showed up in October and have played it 5 times now (twice as a 2-player and three times as a 4-player game).  As a longtime fan of Descent: Journeys in the Dark, I’ve been really enjoying Mice & Mystics so far (although maybe not quite as much as Descent).  The two games are very similar in my mind.  I was worried that Mice & Mystics might be too simple or too easy since it was being pitched as a family friendly game for young children, but in my experience it has turned out to be complex and difficult enough.  I do wish there was a bit more variety among the monsters, but the system is entertaining enough that I’d be willing to shell out a bit more money for an expansion if it looks good.

4) Seasons – This one isn’t quite as new, so maybe doesn’t belong on this list, but I certainly have a more solid idea of my impression since I’ve played Seasons 13 times, more than most of the games on this list put together.  Seasons is one of the only games on the list I’ve actually bought so far (besides Mice & Mystics and Saint Malo below).  I think the downtime with 4 players is probably a bit much and the draft loses some of its interest with only 2 players, so my preference is 3 players, which is obviously a bit narrow and limiting.  But the game is fun and entertaining, both the initial draft for a hand of nine cards and the decisions each turn about which die to take and when to play your cards.  It’s true there are many turns where you can’t do much of anything, but as long as people keep things moving at a decent speed, then the game satisfies for the middleweight dice/card game that it is.

5) Suburbia – I have only played the prototype of Suburbia, so this is certainly a tentative first impression that could change with more plays of the final version (and could definitely rise, at least above Seasons).  I watched the BGG Essen video of the game though and it doesn’t look like much has changed since I tried it.  I really enjoyed my one play of Suburbia and found it to do what City Tycoon had been trying to do but maybe even better (and this from someone who thought City Tycoon was one of the 7 best games from BGG.CON 2011).  One thing in Suburbia that concerned me was the secret goals that reminded me of Shipyard, which could have different potential end game values.  But the gameplay itself was an interesting combination of the Showmanager slide and Through the Ages per turn VP/money tracks, plus tile laying that’s all about adjacencies and combos.  Besides Age of Steam: Soul Train, this one definitely seems like it could be Alspach’s best.

6) Riff Raff – I played Riff Raff twice and it was great fun.  Anyone who likes Tier auf Tier, which I assume is all humans, should also enjoy Riff Raff.  I think many people will enjoy Riff Raff even more, but I think ultimately I like it slightly less because the boat in Riff Raff is very unstable and items don’t have as much time to build up in interesting ways as they do in Tier auf Tier.  That could just be my inexperience talking, but it’s hard to top the classic stacking game and when you take on the best, you better bring your A game.

7) Tzolk’in: Mayan Calendar – Tzolk’in is another one that I have only played the prototype for, but I played the prototype 3 times, and as with Suburbia, I checked out the final rules and it doesn’t look like much has changed.  I was worried that the gears would be a gimmick (like the waterfall in Niagara), but it turns out that the gears are really an effective and efficient way of making this worker placement game function smoothly.  Then again, the underlying game is a familiar feeling worker placement game for anyone that has sampled from Attia’s family tree.  I enjoyed the implementation of the 1-3-6-10 scale in Tzolk’in to make efficient placement of workers more expensive and provide a sometimes difficult decision about how fast to add your workers to the board and how to time their removal.  I’m on the fence about whether or not I’ll be picking this game up, but will be happy to play it since a couple folks in my game group have purchased it.

8) Saint Malo – As a big fan of Mosaix and Alea games, I just had to try Saint Malo, a blending of the two.  It’s a light dice game, but then again there are light dice games of all types.  I’ve only played it once so need to play it a few more times, but my impression is that it will end up being an interesting dice game like Alea Iacta Est, rather than a boring one like Airships or To Court the King.  Unfortunately, unlike Mosaix which can accommodate more players without taking any more time, Saint Malo would seem to add more time for each additional player, so I’m afraid it won’t work so well with four or five players, since it’s light enough to need to be relatively quick to hold everyone’s interest throughout.

9) Terra Mystica – I’ve played Terra Mystica two times now and it seems like everyone else in my game group enjoys it a lot more than me.  It’s not that I dislike the game, I’m just not seeing whatever it is that seems to appeal so strongly to everyone else.  The terraforming concept is interesting and the inclusion of 14 unique factions is always nice, but as a friend observed, what I don’t enjoy is probably the fact that the game leads you along by the nose a bit too much for my tastes.  While Larry Levy took issue with the openness of Keyflower, I think that’s what I love about games.  It’s the reason I prefer Java, while Larry prefers Tikal.  And it’s probably why I prefer Keyflower and he prefers Terra Mystica.  Of course we’ve been known to debate a thing or two.

10) Great Zimbabwe – I have only tried Great Zimbabwe once so far and I’m pretty ambivalent about the game, which is why it finds itself in the middle here.  Splotter’s Antiquity is one of my all-time favorites and I also enjoy Roads & Boats (if not Indonesia), but Great Zimbabwe didn’t really feel very much like any of them to me.  It was more of a puzzle, perhaps closest to Roads & Boats, with a bit of Neuland in there due to the virtual goods (which is a concept that always makes a game ten times harder to wrap your head around).  The mechanism of special ability and technology cards that adjust each player’s victory point target individually is a neat concept, but the possibility for time consuming analysis-paralysis seems innate to the puzzle of how best to use craftsmen each turn to block your opponents as much as possible.

11) Goblins, Inc. – I’ve played Goblins, Inc. four times now, the prototype twice and the final version twice.  I’m a huge fan of Galaxy Trucker and of team games (especially ones with a single winner like Njet or Krakow 1325), so I had very high expectations for Goblins, Inc. but I don’t think it quite meets those.  The scoring doesn’t really work for me and the time it takes is also problematic.  I think there’s something off with the individual cards counting so much and I think the game weight would better fit a game that took about an hour or less.  You could just play one round, which would be fast enough, but then the game loses one of its principal virtues of pairing up with each person playing once.  Like Terra Mystica and Great Zimbabwe, Goblins, Inc. is in the middle here and one I can’t quite make up my mind about.

12) Copycat (Fremde Federn) – Now we start to move into the games that are “Not for me” on the Opinionated Gamers rating scale.  Copycat is one I’ve played the prototype of twice and I liked it more than I expected, but deck-building games are still not my cup of tea.  I keep trying them all for some inexplicable reason, but I don’t really like Dominion, Thunderstone, Ascension, Puzzle Strike, Nightfall, etc. so my rankings for Copycat and Spellbound below should be taken with a grain of salt.  The mash-up of mechanisms in Copycat from Agricola, Dominion, Through the Ages, Puerto Rico, etc. worked much more smoothly and sensibly than I would have ever thought possible, so I’d recommend that folks at least give it a try.

13) Spellbound – The bits in Spellbound are amazing, even more amazing than all the past Fragor games that you’re used to being wowed by.  Then again, my favorite Fragor game by a good margin is the one without especially beautiful pieces, that being Antics [someone please reprint this game!].  Spellbound is a cooperative deck-building game, although without much of the traditional deck-thinning that tends to be a major part of deck-building games.  I’ve only tried Spellbound once and it was actually more complicated and involved than I expected, so I’d be happy to try it a few more times certainly, but it is in the end a cooperative deck-building game, which is a concept I would imagine with somewhat niche appeal.

14) CO2 – I liked parts of CO2 and wanted to like the overall game more, but the lack of control just killed it for me.  I played with 4 players, which may have reduced the level of control below my liking.  I’d be willing to give it another try with fewer players because some of the ideas in it were interesting, in terms of the carbon emission permits, the scientists and technology tracks, and the phased building of power plants.  But if you want to accomplish something specific and set your mind to it, there is no way to actually accomplish it.  If you want to build a certain type of power plant, good luck because you’ll need it and you’ll need your opponents to randomly put you in position for it.  Many games suffer from random screwage, but this one seems to suffer from the need for random benefiting as everyone stumbles around haphazardly.

15) Al Rashid – I just played Al Rashid once, but it suffered from two fatal flaws.  First, the components were awful.  The font size on the tiles was absurdly small, so small that I assumed it was flavor text you didn’t need to read until I got a closer look and realized it was critical text for gameplay purposes.  Second, the gameplay felt very derivative to me.  It was a worker placement game in the classic worker placement mode without much of anything new to add to the pantheon.  The armies guarding the spots that you had to defeat with your military tiles to gain access to certain resources was interesting, but other than that, I didn’t see much here.

16) Tweeeet – I guess I’m very divided on Corne van Moorsel’s games.  I love Factory Fun, StreetSoccer, Champions 2020, and Sun Sea & Sand.  But I don’t enjoy PowerBoats, BasketBoss, Meltdown 2020, and now Tweeeet.  Four out of eight games is a much better batting average than even Knizia though, so I’m happy with all the ones I own and enjoy playing as much as possible.  Tweeeet though was a racing and resource collection game that just didn’t work for me.  The resource bits were great and the team concept had potential, but the movement just wasn’t very engaging or interesting to me.

17) P.I. – Last comes Wallace’s deduction game.  Another designer that I’m very hot and cold on, with some great classics like Age of Steam, Byzantium, and Wensleydale, but a handful of duds as well.  P.I. is not a game I expected to like, since I cannot fathom the appeal of classic deduction games that I’ve tried like Sleuth and Black Vienna.  But P.I. seemed particularly dry and boring.  The decisions all seemed rather obvious and the ultimate outcome fairly random if everyone makes the sensible moves along the way.

*                    *                    *

That’s it for now, my initial first impressions of the 17 new games that I’ve tried so far.  As I mentioned at the top, there are still 17 more to go.  I’m hoping to try the following new games at BGG.CON or as many as possible: Antike Duellum, Bora Bora, Clash of Cultures, Eselsbrucke, FlowerFall, Ginkgopolis, Il Vecchio, Legends of Andor, Milestones, Myrmes, Nieuw Amsterdam, OddVille, Palaces of Carrara, Robinson Crusoe, Targi, Tokaido, and Urbanization.  I’ll be back afterwards to update my ranking and provide first impressions on the full range of this year’s new releases.

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10 Responses to Essen First Impressions

  1. Tom almost eyery year I think, why do you still play my games. I’ve seen a lot of the worst ratings I got for my games from you (at bgg). I do have my authors, publishers, themes which I just stopped playing, because I know it would be a waste of time.
    It is ok for me that you still try them, but I warn you: I will not change my taste in games and the way I will design them.
    Have fun!

    • Tom Rosen says:

      I think Larry is partly to blame, for all things of course ;)
      He’s the one that made me try Factory Manager at 3 a.m.
      For real though, there are several of your games that I really enjoy, like First Sparks, Fearsome Floors, and Friday.
      It’s true there are certainly others that aren’t my cup of tea, like Fast Flowing Forest Fellers, Furstenfeld, or Felix, but I think that’s the same for Wallace, van Moorsel, Chvatil, etc.

  2. Michael Sosa says:

    Must be tough to review games when you face pressue from the designer! You certainly need a strong character to give out your opinions, but the designer makes an interesting point: should people be rating games they know ahead of time they will not like? Is that fair to the game? After all, games have target audiences. I like wargames, is it fair for me to give random euro games low ratings,even if I do occasionally enjoy one? I do ask myself that question. But if folks only played and rated the games of the type they favored, most games would have high ratings right?

    • Michael Sosa says:

      Also the wording on the review for Fremde Federn makes me wonder if it has been edited after comments from the designer.

      • The wording is not changed and I think Tom knows how to take it. We met at the Gathering, so we know each other.

        I truely believe that some games are just rated high, because they target their audience very well, no problem at all (good marketing)

      • Tom Rosen says:

        Michael – Thanks for your comments. I can confirm that the paragraph on Fremde Federn in my post has not been changed at all from the original. It’s funny that this whole discussion stems from the one “not for me” game that I happened to recommend people still try, but I can promise that has nothing to do with Friedemann’s comment. It’s just that Fremde Federn is a very interesting and novel concept — to explicitly borrow from, mash-up, and pay tribute to several top-ranked games — so is something that people should try (sort of like how Space Dealer was an interesting and fairly novel concept worth checking out back in 2006, but not one that I personally wanted to play more than a few times).

        Your questions though are certainly interesting. I’ve thought about that issue before certainly in the context of children’s games and party games, where a rating that tries to be purely objective about the rules and mechanisms may miss the spirit in which the game is meant to be played. So I usually try to rate those types of games on a slightly different scale, relative to each other, rather than relative to Caylus or Hammer of the Scots.

        I hadn’t really considered doing the same thing for sub-genres of German-style games that I don’t tend to like, such as deck-building games or San Juan/Race/Glory to Rome-style games, but as you recognize, the problem with heading down that path is that it might inflate ratings and make them misleading, like is the case for expansions that are generally played and rated by fans of the original game (which is why the Age of Steam Ireland map sat in the BGG Top 10 for so long before expansions were removed from the ranking, although the issue is creeping back in with deluxe versions and expansions that can also stand alone). If only fans of Dominion rated Thunderstone or Ascension then you could know how those were relative to the original, which might be useful in some sense, but you wouldn’t end up with any sort of overall ranking of modern board games.

        Personally, I think you should rate the random German-style game that you play, even if you don’t like most of them, especially because you do occasionally enjoy one, and that would be a useful data point. As others have discussed already though, ratings are ultimately fairly useless all around without context, which I tried to provide above (while also trying to be as brief as possible since sometimes I write a bit too much I think), and which would make a listing by you of German-style games that a wargamer happens to like very interesting.

    • huzonfirst says:

      Michael, as long as the reviewer makes his preferences known in the review (as Tom did here), then there’s absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t review games that he knows he probably won’t like. I suppose you could question about providing a rating on BGG, since those numbers will be mixed in with all the others, but I assume that most people would have no problem with that.

    • mac72 says:

      For me, there is only one rule for rating games: only rate games you have actually played (and by the correct rules).
      Even if I know I will probably dislike a certain game, I will only rate it after playing. Maybe I like it after all, and even if I don’t, I still have five numbers on the BGG scale to show just how much I dislike it :) , and that will have some effect on the ranking of the game – so I feel my rating will still be useful for some folks.
      Of course, a rating means a lot more if you know the context (what other games does this person like?). Tom’s post does an excellent job in providing context and so I have no problem at all with him rating games he expected to dislike.

    • Ben (chally) says:

      I think everyone should rate any game they have played, so long as it was played with the intent to enjoy oneself. If a friend suggests a game that I think I might not like, I might say yes anyway in the hope that I am wrong (or that I will simply enjoy the experience of spending gaming time with the friend enough to offset anything I don’t like about the game).

      I think an understandable concern arises when those with prominent voices in the hobby feel the need to play a game simply so that they can weigh in on it. Last year, for example, Mage Knight was one of the hotest Essen titles. It did not appeal to me, so I never bothered to play it. But if I were a notable blogger or reviewer, I might have felt some compulsion to play the game, even if I did not expect to enjoy it, simply to meet my readers’ expectations that I address all the high-profile titles in a given year.

      I suspect that this is more an imagined concern than a real one. Most of us are gamers precisely because we enjoy all types of gaming; we hardly need someone to twist our arms to get us to try some popular new game, even if it doesn’t seem to be a perfect fit with our personal tastes (I can’t tell you the number of Feld games I’ve tried and disliked). Moreover, I think the Opinionated Gamers rating system mitigates any sense of unfairness by eschewing any claim of objective quality. Saying a game is “not for me” after having played it does not seem particularly different than saying “I didn’t play the game because it’s not for me,” and both are a far cry from claiming that the game itself is bad, flawed, or broken.

  3. MSosa says:

    True. Although very low ratings can be linked to quality, average ratings just means some people like it and some don’t. Most of us are not going out of our way to play games we know we probably don’t like. On the contrary, I try to stay away from all of the new releases because I know I won’t like most of them and don’t want to ruin the mood for my friends. But when I somehow end up playing games like Trajan, German Railways, etc, well I have no choice but to be honest with my dislike.

    I like reading Opinionated Gamers because of the different perspectives given on new games at the same time. I don’t particularly care for new euro games, but I do occasionally find something that interests me or my kids. From this article I realized I need a game like Riff Raff, and that I would like to try Keyflower. Your thoughts on Terra Mystics and Zimbabwe confirm that I probably won’t like them either, and I was already trying to avoid playing them.

    As for a list of German style games a wargamer enjoys, that’s tough! I can only speak for myself that I enjoy a lot of the cross over games like Maria, Empires of the Ancient World, Struggle of Empires, etc. But the truth is that I enjoy heavy euros too like Agricola, Caylus, Puerto Rico, etc. I guess the difference is that I will not go out of my way to play a euro, but I will travel long distances to play War of the Ring, Hannibal, and the like.

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