Essen First Impressions

Every October the Essen game fair dumps hundreds of new games on us and every year there are good, mediocre, and poor games scattered throughout the new releases.  Some folks subscribe to the notion that there are particularly good or bad years, but given the sheer quantity of releases, I strongly believe that every year offers games all across the spectrum from great to abysmal.  And every year, for some inexplicable reason, I like to subject myself to trying as many of these new games as possible, as soon after the fair as I can, to try to find the gems hiding among the countless new titles.  Normally I can’t do that in earnest until BGG.CON in late November, but this year a friend visited Essen for the first time and brought back a boatload of games for us to try over the past couple weekends.  So I’m here with an early pre-BGG.CON report on the Essen games I’ve had the opportunity (and sometimes misfortune) to try so far.  Since I like to rank things, I might as well rank them from top to bottom based on initial first impressions along with a brief explanation on each.

1) Patchistory – The most impressive game I’ve tried so far hands down.  I tend to be interested in civilization games, so I was eager to try this one.  It felt fresh and innovative with its core mechanism of “patching” technologies, buildings, wonders, and leaders that you acquire into a growing quilt that you build over the course of the game.  Be warned it did take almost 5 hours for our first play with four players, but I think that would come down considerably with fewer players and more experience.  I could see it easily fitting in 2-3 hours, like Through the Ages.  Also note that the game starts very slowly as you build up from very little and feels like treading water doing very little for the first third or so.  But the epic sense of growth combined with the clever puzzle aspect of the game make this a classic civilization game with a twist.

2) Geistesblitz 5 vor 12 – And now for something completely different.  Geistesblitz was a very pleasant surprise in 2010 when it was first released.  I found it to be a great combination of Jungle Speed with Set.  Speed pattern recognition is not for the faint of heart, but for those who enjoy that sort of thing, it’s a wonderfully tense and engaging 15 minutes.  Geistesblitz 2.0 brought the experience to a whole new level in 2012, and now Geistesblitz 5 vor 12 ups the ante again.  This time you’ve got 9 items in 5 different colors and each card depicts 3 items.  Plus there is added complexity with recognizing the time on the clock item under certain circumstances and the item reflected by a mirror in other circumstances.  It may just make your head explode, but in a good way.

3) Bruxelles 1893 – First time designer Etienne Espreman pairs up with Pearl Games (which previously brought us Troyes and Tournay) for this excellent German-style game. It’s got a gorgeous artistic design as you would expect from Pearl.  It’s also got the classic first time designer syndrome of throwing in a lot of mechanisms, some of which might have been pruned away.  But for some reason it seems to work very well and intertwine nicely with a fair number of disparate concepts fitting nicely together.  There is a worker placement element, an auction piece, resource cubes to gather, paintings to create and sell, buildings to build, special characters to acquire and tap, and more.  Suffice it say, there’s a lot going on here and it’s blended beautifully.

4) Concordia – I’m thrilled to see longtime designer Mac Gerdts branch out from the rondel and try something new.  I’m a longtime fan of Imperial and other Gerdts designs, but was getting pretty tired after Antike Duellum last year.  Concordia is a whole new style for Gerdts.  The core mechanism reminds me vaguely of Kreta where you have a hand of cards that you play one at a time to perform different actions, reducing your options, until you play a card that reclaims them all and gives you a fresh start.  Also a bit like the cyclical nature of Tournay I suppose.  The hand-building concept of purchasing new action cards that also determine what aspects of the game score you points at the end of the game was interesting, although I wasn’t able to specialize as much as I’d hoped and felt a bit hemmed in by the card row options.  I look forward to trying Concordia again and seeing how it performs with a few more plays.

5) Yunnan – Yunnan felt like an odd game from Argentium Verlag, the publisher that brought us the excellent Hansa Teutonica.  It’s based on the classic curve of acquiring money and infrastructure before picking your moment to switch to VP acquisition, like Saint Petersburg and countless others.  Ultimately it’s an auction game combined with an odd sort of movement path where everyone is marching their horse and traders along to collect money, with a nasty streak of bumping each other back and being bumped back by the NPC province inspector.  You’re bidding on extra traders, influence to help with the bumping, buildings to earn you more money, and the like.  It ended more quickly than I expected, when one play shoots out to 80 points, giving you less time for infrastructure and financial buildup than expected, but that may depend significantly on group think.  I enjoyed the tricky decision-making, but need to play again to figure out what’s really going on in this “nasty, brutish, and short” game.

6) Citrus – The latest tile-laying game from Jeff Allers was an interesting and pleasant affair.  I’m going to compare it to a lot of games that it’s really nothing like, but that’s just how my brain works.  You acquire tiles in a way that reminded me of Octopus’ Garden, buying a whole row or column, although since few people have played that game it’s a relatively useless reference point.  On your turn you either add tiles/workers to the board to try to build up majorities around fincas (which for some reason I kept calling haciendas), or instead remove workers from the board to earn points and money.  That instantly reminded me of Tzolk’in since you are similarly torn between adding or removing workers, often wanting to do a little of both.  Lastly, it had a pronounced cyclical nature like London where you’d generally build up for a few turns and then cash out for points and money, before repeating the cycle.  I tried to get off-cycle from my opponents since that seems to help in other sorts of games, but I’m not so sure here.  It’s nothing like any of those games I mentioned, but it is a medium-light tile-laying game worth checking out.

7) Auf Teufel Komm Raus – Auf Teufel Komm Raus is a light gambling game from Zoch Verlag.  I didn’t love it by any means, but it was reasonably fun.  The first six games above were provisionally rated 8’s (top three) and 7’s (next three), but now we’re down into the provisional 6’s for these next few games, which is essentially my rating for average games.  In Auf Teufel you bet money each round on how much players will be able to push their luck before busting in a blind draw.  There’s an element of reading the other players’ incentives and motivations, but mostly the strategy is to randomly draw well and laugh when people bust out, including yourself.  It went on a bit long, but was amusing.

8) Steam Park – I had a high hopes for this simultaneous dice roller with whimsical theme park building, but I’m not so sure after my first play.  It may have been group think, but we all found the benefits of stopping rolling your dice quickly outweighed trying to re-roll for particular actions, which made the game more random and less interesting. You can drop out at anytime and grab a player order marker, just like in Galaxy Trucker, or you can keep re-rolling your action dice to try to get particular actions.  However, all of the actions seemed reasonably useful, like expanding your park, building rides, attracting visitors, etc.  The graphics were absolutely gorgeous, as you’d expect since it’s Marie Cardouat, of Dixit fame.  It’s a light and somewhat silly game, but I hope to try it again and see if there’s slightly more there than the first time around.

9) Wildcatters – This is one of those games where you’re trying to leech off other players.  Some in my group are going crazy over this game, but I don’t tend to be a huge fan of games where you’re hoping for others to use your infrastructure so you can gain some marginal benefit.  Wildcatters does have a lot of interesting things going on though.  You’re building oil rigs to acquire oil barrels, which you ship over trains and boats to refineries in order to get stocks or area majority influence (both of which turn into VPs at the end).  The thing is those trains, boats, and refineries may be your own or may belong to other players.  You’re hoping other people use your infrastructure, but even if you build it right where you think they’ll want to use it, they may just decide to go elsewhere.  The other frustrating aspect was that each turn you can build in one region of the board based on a region card that you draw from a Ticket to Ride style display.  So if you desperately want to build in Asia, that’s too bad if there are only North and South America cards up.  Some might say you’ve got to be flexible and adaptable, others might say you’re subject to randomly being frustrated.

10) Prosperity – I was excited to try a new game from Knizia and Bleasdale (of Keyflower renown).  I enjoyed this quick-playing action menu game, although I worry that it may be over balanced.  You know how German-style games sometimes hyper-balance everything, such that everything you do is about as good as everything else you might do. I’m not sure after one play, but that’s my concern.  I do like these action menu type of games though, like Stephensons Rocket or Tigris & Euphrates, where you do 2 out of a possible 4 things each turn.  In this game you either take money, remove pollution, buy a tile, or move up a research track (which makes tiles cheaper).  The tiles move you up and down various other tracks, which impacts your money and/or pollution.  Pollution is bad because having too much prevents you from scoring and having less scores you extra points.  I’ve heard this compared to 20th Century, but that seems like an awfully tenuous comparison since Prosperity lacks the critical spatial element and the auctions of 20th Century.  They both have pollution, but instead this is a light game of min-maxing actions to barely edge out opponents in an extremely balanced and fine-tuned design, for better or worse.

11) Machi Koro – The latest Japanese craze turned out to be a dice-rolling filler.  I can totally see the comparisons to Settlers of Catan since you buy cards that pay out resources based on the die rolls of all players, with the cards for more likely numbers generally costing more. There’s no trading or negotiating, which most would say is the heart of Settlers, but this instead focuses on the bell curve resource production aspect of the game.  I like the aesthetic of the game and would be happy to play this light dice game again, but don’t see what all the fuss is about.  Given the crazy prices this one is demanding at the moment, I’d caution you to pass and instead play something better and more easily available.

12) Rampage – In hindsight it seems like it was only a matter of time until someone designed this game.  You stack meeples to create a landscape of fragile buildings at the start, and then you take turns demolishing the board with your rampaging monsters by flicking, dropping, blowing air, and the like.  It’s a completely silly dexterity game that is almost as fun to watch as it is to play.  Then again, it’s more of a convention game than a game to buy and play repeatedly (like Eggertspiele’s Funfair from 2010).

13) Russian Railroads – Now we’re down to the below average games.  I think the first six games were above average, the next six were average, and these last five are below average.  That just happens to be a pretty even spread.  Then again, this game is one I expect to be adored by many and to shoot up the BGG rankings.  It’s extremely reminiscent of many recent Stefan Feld designs, of the Bora Bora and Die Burgen family.  I like the older and less convoluted Feld games, like Notre Dame, but this recent trend of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink designing does not work for me.  Russian Railroads is that school of design.  It is a classic “point salad” where you can get lots of points for doing X, or Y, or Z.  You and your opponents will all earn hundreds of points, building up an engine that churns out gobs of points in the later rounds.  Mechanically it’s a traditional worker placement game with innumerable point scoring opportunities that are entirely disassociated from the theme.  I don’t understand the appeal.

14) Renaissance Man – This may have suffered from group think and is one that I should probably give a second try, but the first play seemed very random and to lack any interesting player interaction.  You’re racing to build a pyramid of people with each person card resting on the shoulders of two people below (so it looks like the technology pyramid in Sid Meier’s Civilization).  The shoulders have various icons on them, and you need the icons on the card you build to perfectly match the icons and orientation of the cards below. Each turn you draw some new cards and pray that they match your existing pyramid.  If not, you can sit around until next round or maybe tear down part of your pyramid to see if taking one step back helps you take two steps forward.  Meanwhile your opponents are doing the same thing, but I wasn’t sure why I should care.  To be fair, you can take a piecemeal approach to acquiring a wildcard that helps you get past tight spots.  I thought of a semi-ludicrous, semi-serious variant where everyone plays at their own speed, keeping track of how many rounds they played, and when people finish, the winner is the person who used the fewest rounds.  I might prefer that to waiting around for other people to see if the symbols on their new hand of cards match the symbols on their existing cards each round.

15) String Savanna – Okay the string game thing has definitely jumped the shark.  I thought String Railway was cute.  I thought String Railway: Transport was actually an improvement that turned the concept into a real game of sorts.  I think String Savanna is a string game too far.  It’s like String Railway crossed with one of those Pokemon camera video games.  This time you’ve got animal tiles scattered within a string enclosure, and each turn you add an animal tile and temporarily lay a smaller string enclosure to select a subset of animals, scoring points based on the attribute you’re tasked with grouping that turn (like carnivores or felines).

16) Mascarade – This felt like Bruno Faidutti’s take on Coup.  So I suppose that’s Coup crossed with Citadels.  I liked Coup for it’s 10 minutes or less of bluffing and role selection, but I dislike Mascarade for taking the chaos of Coup to whole new level.  In Coup you have two role cards, you know what they are, but you can announce that you have any role card you want and take the corresponding action.  If you lie poorly like me then others can challenge you and you die (or they die if you were telling the truth).  In Mascarade, you do the same sort of thing, except you don’t necessarily even know what role card you have because opponents can blind swap under the table with you — taking your card and their card, mixing them up under the table and giving one to you.  You can spend your entire turn to look at what you have, but what’s the fun in that when you may very well not know again by the time your next turn comes around.  So instead you can just announce a role and corresponding action, but since even you don’t know if you’re lying, the idea of opponents challenging you is also a lot less interesting and entertaining.

17) Glass Road – Last and least was Glass Road.  The latest Uwe Rosenberg game is one of those role selection games where you benefit greatly from reading other people’s minds.  A fan might say that it’s a highly interactive game where you need to pay attention to your opponents’ actions and anticipate their moves.  I’d say that it’s a random, pointless endeavor.  It’s basically a new version of Witch’s Brew, which is all you really need to know to stay away.  Each round you select 5 of your 15 role cards, then play 3 of them and hope that your others are ones that opponents selected and the ones you use are not ones they selected.  Because if they did select one you try to use then your action is seriously nerfed and they get a bonus turn.  The best part of the game is the nifty resource wheel that is reminiscent of Ora et Labora, but actually even more clever.  So Uwe’s games are at least bringing us innovations in physical game design if nothing else.  If you like your resource churning games sprinkled with a heavy dose of mind reading, then run out and find yourself a copy of Glass Road today.

*                    *                    *

As I mentioned above, I found that the first six games were above average, the next six were average, and the last five were below average.  That’s a pretty good mix for the first 17 games from the new crop that I’ve tried.  But there are so many other new games that I have yet to get my grubby little hands on.  My list for trying at BGG.CON later this month includes (in approximately this order of interest): Amerigo, Nauticus, Mauna Kea, Lewis & Clark, Origin, Artifact, Nations, Bremerhaven, Twin Tin Bots, Rokoko, and Relic Runners. I’ll report back on those, as well as any others I run across, and hopefully also on the above games again after I’ve had a chance to play them a few more times.  First impressions are fun and all, but are not always so reliable and games can often rise or fall when subjected to repeated plays.  I’m most looking forward to playing Patchistory again and keeping my fingers crossed for a reprint with a wider release.

In Opinionated Gamers parlance, I suppose I would summarize my initial impressions as follows and preliminarily categorize the games like this:

  • Love It:  Patchistory, Geistesblitz 5 vor 12, and Bruxelles 1893
  • Like It:  Concordia, Yunnan, and Citrus
  • Neutral:  Auf Teufel Komm Raus, Steam Park, Wildcatters, Prosperity, Machi Koro, and Rampage
  • Not For Me:  Russian Railroads, Renaissance Man, String Savanna, Mascarade, and Glass Road
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8 Responses to Essen First Impressions

  1. Jennifer Schlickbernd says:

    I was very disappointed with Glass Road as well. Where’s the game here? There’s no way to have either a long term plan or even do short term tactics because you have no idea what’s going to happen. I also really enjoyed my one play of Bruxelles.

  2. AED says:

    I think this list is only indicative of one gamer’s specific tastes, which is fine. I have a very different list for Essen ’13 and I would place Patch History (which I was only able to demo) at the very bottom (what a mess it is!) and Steam Park near the top (charming, fun for all ages, magical). I am a thematic gamer and I care about aesthetics as well as good gameplay, so this year’s Essen was a bit of a treasure hunt and I am really happy with original works of art like Corto, Lewis and Clark, and Legacy. King and Assassins is already a well played game in my household. The kids LOVE String Savanna. And I am really enjoying the expansions for Last Will, Keyflower, and Suburbia. I have to say that the German games were the biggest letdown…I felt nearly comatose playing Bruxelles and Yunnan! Different strokes!

    • Tom Rosen says:

      I totally agree. This is just my take on the new crop of games and your mileage may vary considerably. I had the benefit of being taught Patchistory by someone who was nice enough to learn all the rules himself, so I didn’t have to struggle through the mess that I understand the rules are. I’m also looking forward now to hopefully teaching the game smoothly to others and helping to present it as a fairly coherent and straightforward game. But anyway, I’m glad to hear Steam Park is working for you. I love the look and the idea of the game, so am hoping I enjoy it more with experience. Galaxy Trucker is one of my all-time favorites so another in that vein would be wonderful. I’m also really looking forward to trying Lewis & Clark as soon as I have a chance.

  3. Doug says:

    Totally agree about Mascarade. Played that 3 times several months ago and expunged it from the collection. I actually really enjoy String Savanna, and have high hopes for Russian Railways (sitting in an unopened box next to me as I type!).

    Never heard of Patchistory – sounds fascinating.

  4. Doug says:

    The one game that looked interesting that nobody seems to have played is Origin, from Matagot. Love to hear some thoughts on that…

    • Tom Rosen says:

      Origin is definitely on my list to try at BGG.CON later this month, although I always like to try to the new Matagot game… it’s generally interesting, if not something I want to take home and play repeatedly.

      Glad I’m not the only one who felt that way about Mascarade, but I guess I’m hearing now that lots of people love String Savanna, so maybe I need to give it another go.

  5. Eric Brosius says:

    I think String Savanna is the best of the string games so far from a theme perspective. (By the way, putting your cube on an animal represents publishing a paper about it in a journal of zoology.)

  6. huzonfirst says:

    I completely agree with Tom about Patchistory–it made a wonderful first impression, in spite of a wonky translation, and has enormous potential. And while our game did get off a slow start, we did use the harder, symmetrical starting cards. I strongly suspect that with the easier cards, it would have a much more accelerated beginning, which I think will be beneficial for the first few games at least.

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