Much of the gaming world is enjoying the new Essen games at BGG.con. Sadly, that group doesn’t include me, but I did my best to compensate by getting a second helping of new titles last Saturday. Here are my early impressions on four more games.
The Great Zimbabwe (1 four-player game): Splotter always gives you something different and this design is no exception. Most of the mechanisms do seem at least somewhat familiar (for example, the much heralded VR system, where you can acquire powers by raising your winning VP requirement, is almost equivalent to using VPs to buy abilities, which isn’t that unusual), but the game as a whole doesn’t feel like any other. One potential concern is the turn order auction, which is a mash-up of the systems found in Traumfabrik and Age of Steam. This has the same issues as the AoS auction (if the player who bids before you has a lot of money, you’ll probably wind up going last, even if you were prepared to spend more than others to avoid such a fate), but this didn’t affect our game too much.
Most of the points come from increasing the height of your monuments, and to do that, you need access to different kinds of goods. This is the heart of the game and the planning necessary to achieve this is quite challenging. The process depends on the concept of “hubs”, which seems daunting in the rules, but which thankfully is quite intuitive with the board in front of you. (This is one of many issues with the rules, which are poorly laid out and use unnecessarily non-thematic terminology.) This building mechanic, together with the interesting combos available from gods and specialists, are the most promising parts of the game.
I enjoyed my first game of TGZ, not least because it’s shorter than the typical Splotter game. It remains to be seen if this turns into a big favorite or just a solid offering, but the potential is there and I’m definitely looking forward to exploring this title some more.
La Venise du Nord (1 three-player game): This middleweight from Sébastien Dujardin, one of the co-designers of Troyes and Tourney, has flown mostly under the radar. Like Troyes, it features an innovative dice mechanic. On your turn, you roll two dice and use one of them to move your piece that exact number of tiles and the other to activate the tile you land on. The actions you’ll be taking involve the gathering, production, and sale of goods and there are some innovative rules for these as well. I liked it. There’s a good deal of luck, of course, but it’s appropriate for the weight and duration of the game and there’s plenty of ways to profit even if the dice and cards don’t go your way. It’s much lighter than Troyes, but there’s still enough to keep your brain engaged.
One of the things you can do in the game is to build a bridge between two adjacent tiles, to give you more flexibility in moving and for end game VPs. A small group of gamers on the Geek have declared that the game is broken, because they claim a player could quickly build all five of her bridges (which ends the game) and score a win before her opponents could get their economic engines working. We were all aware of this prior to our game and frankly, I don’t see where it is close to being true. First of all, building bridges isn’t all that easy–the most any of us had at any time was three, and no one had more than two at the end of the game (and we missed a rule that makes building bridges even harder). Getting all five of your bridges on the board that quickly would require some really good luck and some really sleepy opponents. Secondly, it’s not like the only thing bridges are good for is ending the game; a group of five is worth 25 VPs (the winning score in our game was only 42), so the other players certainly have the incentive to tear a few of them down. And finally, it doesn’t really take that long to get an “engine” to pay out. You could make a sale in as few as 5 or 6 turns and that could easily be worth 15 VPs. So even though it’s a little rash to be drawing conclusions after only one game, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say with considerable confidence that the prospect of a “bridge rush” is by no means a killer strategy and shouldn’t keep anyone from trying out this fine game.
Snowdonia (1 three-player game): This is a solidly designed worker placement game with some nice touches (I particularly like that each train you buy gives you some interesting abilities that can shape your strategy, and that you can switch trains mid-game if the situation calls for it). However, worker placement is a crowded field and there’s really not enough innovation here for the game to distinguish itself. Having the events occasionally trigger the government purchase of tracks and stations is good, as it keeps the game moving along, but for this eminent domain to occur randomly was a bit annoying, as it can mess with your strategies. The inclusion of weather was fine, as it lends variety and you have three turns to prepare for it. Other than that, this is pretty standard stuff and it makes for a nice game, but not one that figures to enter the rotation. However, if the theme really appeals to you, or you just can’t get enough WP, then this would make a good purchase.
CO2 (1 four-player game): Fans of designer Vital Lacerda’s first game, Vinhos, will need to curb their enthusiasm, as CO2 doesn’t have the same depth and weight of the earlier design. In addition, the people who are bitching about the game’s ecological theme need to just chill (see what I did there?)–while the construction of non-polluting power plants is infused into the gameplay, the winner isn’t the “greenest” player, but the one who best takes advantage of the reality-inspired economic system. So there’s no reason why players of all politial persuasions shouldn’t try out this title.
With those provisos out of the way, what did of think of the game? The various elements are interconnected in an interesting way, but, as I mentioned, it’s clearly not intended to be as intricate a design as Vinhos. That, in itself, wasn’t a problem for me. More of an issue is the three step process for building a power plant, when a player can only do one of these in a turn. This means that you can’t completely control which types of plant you construct. Lacerda is smart enough to provide the players with nice incentives for taking the first two steps in the process and, in fact, during the first half of the game this seemed to work well. But in the second half, when the players have more resources available to spend, the inability to control the kinds of plants you build did lead to frustration. You wound up taking advantage of the game situation that was left for you, rather than doing what advanced your position the most, and that gave the game a peculiar feel. Given the game’s level of detail and duration, this felt like a fatal blow. CO2 isn’t a bad game, but none of us really warmed to it (ha!) and I don’t have a strong desire to play it again.
That ends my summary of my first few weeks of exposure to the new Essen games. I’d say we’re off to a good start, particularly since there are still others that I’m anxious to check out, like Nieuw Amsterdam and Myrmes. As new titles come to the table (and as I get my second and third shots at the games I’ve already played), I’ll keep you all appraised of my early impressions of the cool new stuff.