Larry Levy: My Essen First Impressions #3

After spending some quality time with family and friends during Thanksgiving (I hope you were all able to do the same), it was back to the gaming tables last Saturday to catch up on some more new Essen titles.  Here are my early feelings on the new stuff I got to play:

Nieuw Amsterdam (1 three-player game):  I already gave my impressions on this as a comment in Ted’s review of the game on Tuesday.  Just to summarize, I liked the game, but it did suffer because we played it with what is probably the worst number of players.  I’m hoping that with more players the auctions will be more contested and that the game will have a tighter feel.  I certainly won’t mind if the game requires more players in order to succeed; most of the new Euros don’t even handle 5 players, so a game that is at its best with that number is always welcome.

Ruhrschifffahrt 1769-1890 (1 four-player game):  Or, as we like to call it, the “3 F” game.  (Honestly, when’s the last time you saw a word, in any language, that has three consecutive F’s in it?)  This is a pick-up-and-deliver game (the players are transporting coal along the Ruhr river) from a first-time designer that is unfortunately saddled with a dreadful rulebook and a few more historical hooks than is optimal.  But once you get past those, you’re left with a reasonably straightforward game with two compelling innovations.  The first is that at each stage of the game, turn order is determined by how far upriver the players are; this leads to lots of interesting tactical decisions.  The second is that players can acquire skills during the game and the type of advancement achieved each turn is determined by the player’s destination type and the kind of coal delivered.  Different combinations of advancements will open up different abilities as the game goes on and much of the strategy is based on acquiring the right abilities at the right time.

All of this is genuinely interesting and our game was a success.  However, by the end of the game, I had some reservations.  One had to do with the events.  At the beginning of each turn, an event is drawn, most of which only minimally affect the game.  But we got an awful lot of “No Pilot” events, which greatly restrict what the players can accomplish that turn.  Specifically, they mean that one key destination (from the point of view of skill advancement) can’t be reached.  Consequently, the players who delayed going there during the early turns were locked out of a bunch of advancements for almost the entire game, which didn’t feel balanced.  Even without that aspect, I really didn’t care for the No Pilot events; they’re too disruptive in a game with this amount of planning.

There are a few other things.  There’s almost no variety in the advancement paths at the beginning of the game; just about everything funnels through delivering to that one key destination I spoke of earlier.  I would have liked to see a few more options.  But the thing that concerns me the most is that just about all of the advancements are about finding different ways of converting money to VPs.  There are different areas of the board you can access and different structures you can build, but in each case, it’s all about spending money and getting VPs.  I just think the game would be much more interesting if some of these advancements gave you different kinds of benefits, maybe something like greater flexibility in pickup or delivery, or even opened up completely different subsystems.  The existing achievements work, but it does feel a bit like a wasted opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a good game.  We made a lot of strategic mistakes and it’s obvious that there’s a learning curve here.  With four or five more plays, the game’s full potential would probably be much clearer and the play time would undoubtedly go down.  But I have a lot of other Essen games I like more that are waiting for those extra plays, so I’m not sure I’ll ever fffind the time to devote to this one.

Coup (2 four-player games):  Since I am a certified geezer, let me tell you that this has a lot in common with a 30-year old game called Hoax from the Eon designers (the trio that brought you Cosmic Encounter, Dune, and other great titles).  A tweaked German remake of Hoax also appeared in 1999 under the title Die Erben von Hoax, so some of you may have experience with that version.  I played Hoax quite a bit back in the day and enjoyed it.  It’s a more strategic game than Coup (while still being a crazed, role-switching extravaganza), but Coup is much more fast-paced and probably better suited for the modern gamer.

With its high luck factor and wild swings of fortune, it’s hard for me to take Coup too seriously.  On the other hand, it’s also hard for me to ignore its considerable charms.  I will say that it’s one of the very few bluffing games that I can be talked into playing.  The roles are well thought out and decision-making, as well as bluffing ability, is rewarded.  As a game that handles up to 6 that only takes 15 minutes to play, it’s no wonder that it’s gotten notice as a solid option while waiting for the other table to finish.  All I can say is that it accomplishes just about everything it sets out to do and that’s as good a definition of a successful design as any.

Tzolk’in (4 three/four player games; 2 with the prototype, 2 with the published game):  In my last game of this, my final score in this election year was barely old enough to vote.  So clearly, different tactics were required.  This time around, I figured coming up with an actual strategy, rather than just stumbling around from turn to turn, might be a radical notion.  So I studied the buildings and monuments and noticed that two of the latter paid off with big end-game VPs for technologies.  Therefore, I set my goal toward grabbing both of those (figuring I’d almost certainly get at least one of them), while raising my technology levels at every opportunity.  I don’t know if it was a good strategy, but having a goal allowed me to play a much more focused game, with a minimum of flailing around.  I wound up only buying one of the targeted monuments, but thanks to achieving the third level in three technologies, it was worth a mighty 33 points at game end.  That allowed me to finish third in a four-player game.  Even though I was far behind the leader (who kicked butt with a building strategy), this time I at least felt as if I was actually playing the game.  Thankfully, in spite of my struggles, I continue to love Tzolk’in, so I am content to keep making baby steps until my play improves.

That’s the scoop from my most recent session.  Hopefully, I’ll be back here soon with more first impressions of the new Essen titles.

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4 Responses to Larry Levy: My Essen First Impressions #3

  1. Stuart Dagger says:

    The three f’s are the result of the German fondness for combining words to create new ones. Here we have Ruhr + Schiff + Fahrt (= Ruhr Boat Journey). There was a time when, faced with three consecutive letters all the same, they would have suppressed one of them, but a few years ago there was a grand German-Austrian-Swiss committee set up to reform German spelling and this piece of common sense was one of the things that, in true committee fashion, they decided to suppress. Another instance is the word for “ballet dancer”: Ballett + Tanzer = Balletttanzer — three consecutive t’s.

    • Christian Frank says:

      It was a little bit more complicated before the spelling reform (we Germans are also fond of rules and regulations…): the third consecutive identical letter was only dropped, when the letter was a consonant and then followed by a vowel. So “Schifffahrt” was spelled with only two f’s while “Sauerstoffflasche” (oxygen bottle) was spelled with three even before the reform. Three consecutive identical vowels were either written with a hyphen, if the two combined words were nouns like in “See-Elefant” (sea elephant) or as one word like “seeerfahren” (sea experienced). The hyphen rule was dropped alltogether in the reform.

      German spelling was so much more fun then…


  2. Ben (chally) says:

    Your comments on Ruhrschifffahrt intrigue me. I generally prefer games with just a few, highly contested strategic paths and an abundance of tactical decisions. From the sound of it, Ruhrschiffahrt might be better suited for me than for you. I am hoping to play it in the next few weeks. :)

    • huzonfirst says:

      I actually like highly tactical games too, Ben. There are definitely tactical aspects to FFF, but at its heart, it’s a strategic game because so much depends on which advances you choose to go after. My issue isn’t strategy vs. tactics, it’s that I wish the strategic side had more variety. But you still may enjoy it, so by all means check it out.

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