By Nathan Beeler
By the time this post sees the light of day Opinionated Gamer readers will no doubt already be waist deep in a flood of first play impressions, as the yearly wave of new games from Essen comes crashing down onto many of our tables. Being content to go with the flow, I’m here to report on some of these games that I was able to play before, during, and after the recent Sasquatch convention here in cloudy Seattle. Jennifer Geske went to a great deal of trouble to make sure her show was overflowing with these Essen goodies, and as an attendee (and sometimes helper monkey) I was able to play a small portion of those available. Sadly, I seem to have missed some of the ones I heard people raving about (Terra Mystica and Ruhrschiffahrt, namely), so I can’t yet report on those. For now, here are some of the games that I did play that either floated my boat or sent it crashing into the rocks.
Snowdonia (Tony Boydell)
Snowdonia was pitched to me as a medium weight worker placement game about constructing rail lines in Wales, and for the most part that’s what it is. However, when I did play it quickly and more haphazardly, I was frequently surprised when the critical stages of my plans didn’t work out as I thought they would. I was thwarted by factors that could have been predicted given more time to look around and cogitate. And while the game only has a few actions to choose from, it has a timing aspect to each of them. All actions trigger in order after all workers have been placed. So it can be critical not only to choose the correct location for a worker, but to choose where within a location a worker needs to go. Some actions are extremely limited and it is important to anticipate which ones the opponents are likely to snap up before the next placement. Then there are the goal and train cards: the former gives players scoring goals which should help guide play, while both of the card types offer ways for players to break rules in ways that have to be factored into any pre-move calculus. Those card effects are what really zapped me as I played the game quicker than I wanted to. Suddenly I wasn’t scoring points for digging rubble, because the player digging in front of me took more than I counted on. And now the game is ending prematurely because another player has a card (across the table and upside down to me) that says that he can lay two tracks instead of the one I was expecting. There may be a dozen card effects and train cards in play later in the game. Given that all this information is open and freely available, a player can factor it all in and make plays with open eyes. But I found I couldn’t do all that and keep the game moving at the pace others wanted or the game warranted. I’m hoping that experience will help me with some of that, because I generally love streamlined games that offer an ability to plan ahead. Snowdonia has that in spades.
Myrmes (Yoann Levet)
I was a bit skeptical about Myrmes because of an irrational fear that it could be a kin to Antics, a game I didn’t enjoy at all (see Spellbound below). Obviously, that’s unfair, so I didn’t let my hangup stop me when someone suggested it. The game has players managing an ant colony over the course of three years; producing larvae, building soldier ants, and sending workers off to collect food and lay down pheromone trails for points (as you do). Nurse ants are the workers in this worker placement game, letting players first choose which actions they want to do in a given season. A set of dice tells everyone which of these actions to take to get a little bonus during various seasons of the year. Timing your future actions to match those dice is one key to getting the biggest planning bang for your buck. Like most worker placement games, getting more workers early is a key objective. But you can’t neglect the disposable worker and soldier ants, and you would do well not to ignore the winter time food debt. All in all, the game felt a little dry and a little long to me. But in the moment it held my interest, and I was forced to plan ahead up until the very last moments. I would play Myrmes again, but probably wouldn’t seek it out.
Spellbound (Gordon and Fraser Lamont)
So far, the Lamont brothers’s games have not thrilled me (The Three Commandments excepted). Their famous bits have never made up for me not enjoying the playing experiences. So I was highly skeptical heading into their latest effort, Spellbound. The game plays a bit like a lightweight Lord of the Rings, with players collectively fighting fires on different tracks around the board using scarce resourses. I love Lord of the Rings, so this should have been the game to finally win me over to their style. And in truth, there was an interesting base to it, with players using a communal deck building mechanism to coax allies to help them fight a rising evil. I was with it in the beginning. Unfortunately, Spellbound seems to have missed several opporunities to be really interesting, and soon I lost interest. All the locations were the exact same, so the only reason to fight on one track over another was if one happened to be in a worse position. And all the characters were the exact same, too. This was really frustrating, and meant the only reason one person did something instead of another was simply because of timing or occasionally other tactical considerations. The whole thing just felt dry and repetitive. So the game didn’t win me over, and in the end I just felt put off that they spent whatever time and effort they did on the goofy bits at the expense of the playing experience. I’m still waiting to be spellbound.
Trains (Hisashi Hayashi)
Like most Dominion rip-offs/clones/homages, Trains seems to have come from a pretty obvious idea. In this case, it was to take Dominion and add a spatial board element to it, to give the cards something to do. Players build their network on a hex board map of Japan by using certain cards to lay tracks and build stations. Building anything on the board leads to end game scoring, but it also adds one or more waste cards to a player’s deck which do nothing except take up space and gum up the works. A lot of the game is spent dealing with or cursing the waste that inevitably chokes everyone’s hands before long. That part feels interesting and different to me, because unlike most deck builders, it isn’t left solely to the victory point cards to perform this role, and they don’t just come in near the end. The veep cards are there too, but they take on an interesting lesser role because they are no longer the only one way to score. The main bulk of scoring in Trains is done over the board, and this is really where my problem with the game lies. The board play is not overly complicated or interesting, and all it does is confer end game points. I desperately wanted there to be some reason why I would want to build one place instead of another that related to my cards. You can easily imagine feedback with the board and cards in any number of ways: a card worth money based on the number of large cities you’ve built to, or cards that can’t be built unless a player has built to a type of location. But no. I got two points here or four points there. A missed opportunity in my book.
Tokaido (Antoine Bauza)
My eyesight has slowly eroded over the years, and I was never great with colors to begin with. So I found playing Tokaido to be a mild form of torture. Its board is just a long white strip, representing the titular Japanese road, with tiny little circles of (for me) fairly similar designs and colors. Once I got through the struggle of figuring out what was what each round, I felt the game played a bit like a simplified form of the main mechanism in Egizia. Players can jump ahead to the things they really want, or hang back and try to collect a bunch of other things. Add to that a dash of Jenseits von Theben/Thebes, where the person in the last position always moves until they are no longer in last, and you’ve got the main idea. Seems fine, and there were occasionally interesting decisions to make. But in the end I’d much rather play a game like Egizia that offers more variety and tension.
Among the Stars (Vangelis Bagiartakis)
Among the Stars features players drafting to get cards used to build up their space stations, all in the name of their alien races that each have unique abilities. The game screams out to me so much that I believe its spouse recently filed for divorce. And yet, I was unable to requite that love for it. Firstly, it was overly long. If I played again I would consider playing only three rounds, even though that might throw off what I hope were (but suspect were not) delicately balanced cards. More importantly, it just felt very samey after a while. To me that is a death knell for a game that is supposed to be about making funky combinations of cards where proximity matters. I want to imagine how I can build things differently next time and see what synergies I can come up with. The vast majority of the cards in Among the Stars simply gave players points now, points at the end, or possibly some money. Nobody I played with had much fun and were all glad when it was over. Maybe someday they will release an expansion with cards that were actually interesting. Until then, on to the next game.
Copycat (Friedemann Friese)
The last new Friedemann Friese game I played was Black Market, a game I found so unfun that I didn’t immediately jump at the chance to try his latest offering at Sasquatch. So when my friends were raving about Copycat, his game that intentionally pays homage the mechanisms from other great games, I went to considerable lengths to borrow the convention copy and get it to the table. And my friends were right; it’s great fun! Copycat is a worker placement game, in an Agricola style where more and better actions become available as the game progresses. The actions generally allow players to buy cards from a Through the Ages-like card display to put into their Dominion-esque decks. The cards and the action spaces tell a player what he can do on a given turn. There is also a nifty mechanism, that is probably from something else I don’t recognize, where players do a blind bid for turn order each round using values on their cards. Generally speaking better cards have better values, so using them to bid means you can’t use them otherwise on the turn. This is sometimes a great dilemma and a fun decision. Ultimately, the game is about points, which come from either playing cards to score points or from gathering point chips that collect on unused board spaces in the same way coins collect on unused actions in Puerto Rico. There’s even a fun nod to the scoring track error on the original Ticket to Ride board. I’m really looking forward to my next game, and if it is as fun as the first I will be buying the game.
Riff Raff (Christoph Cantzler)
This dexterity game may have been one of the surprise hits of Sasquatch, though it happened to be one that I was already eagerly anticipating thanks to a friend alerting me to it a while ago. The game consists of a large wooden ship that balances precariously on a gimbal, with a counter weight beneath to give it whatever stability it has. Players are given a set of pirate themed objects (chest, bottle, crate, monkey, etc.) that they must place on the ship in order to win. As players do their packing the ship will eventually start swaying. One of the neat things about Riff Raff is that a player can attempt to catch the bits as they come flying off the rocking ship. Any pieces that aren’t caught are put in the player’s pile, but those that are are out of the game. So there are two moments of dexterity, one of high tension and precision and one that comes on with a sudden urgency and most likely a great deal of laughter. A sure fire winner in my book.
Alright. That’s a good arbitrary stopping point for now. There are surely a lot more quick hits to come as we wade through the sea of games. If we’re lucky we might even find a few more pearls.