3000 Words Worth of Essen First Impressions

OK, having written a full Essen article without once mentioning a game, I suppose the time has come to write about the games.

Back in 1995, Mike Siggins wrote: “What is certain is that on the evidence of Essen, the German hobby is still a hundred times more active than our own, underlying problems notwithstanding, and that the half dozen decent games we gamers can reliably expect have never failed to materialise.”  And since then, I’ve found those words to hold true year in and year out.  Even in a down year, one can count on finding six or so games of interest.  A good year can get up to perhaps 8-10, but six is a much more typical total.

This year, I’ve found 18 games I enjoy enough to add to my collection.  (21 games are listed below, as there are three games I don’t count as Essen releases but which others do.)  The most games I own from any previous calendar year is 14, for comparison.  I’d already been looking at 2013 as a good year; now, I’m wondering if it’s going to prove to be a great year, for me.

I’ve appended a quick rating to each game (similar to the Opinionated Gamers ratings, but modified to better match how I think of games):

Favorite – this game is among my favorites
Own – this game is good enough to want in my collection
Play – I don’t like this game enough to own it, but I’d be willing to play it
No – I’d prefer not to play the game

So, on to the games…

1911 Amundsen vs. Scott (played once) – I’d noticed this game, but my attention was particularly drawn to it by Mark Johnson’s mention on a podcast.  As a result – and as a result of the shortage of 2 player games among those I was picking up for Lobster Trap – I picked up a copy for the event, and it got fairly regular play.  The rules are – not in the best English, but clear enough, and as a two player game it’s not bad if a bit abstract for my preferences.  Play

Arche Noah (played twice) – This struck me much the same way 23 did; it’s a pleasant enough game, and I love the Doris artwork, but it’s not a game I’m drawn to keep playing.  Play

Artifact (played once) – The rules for this game are not well done; there’s a reasonable game hiding behind them, but not one that stood out enough to me to hold on to.  Play

BancoBacno (played twice) – An interesting take on a traditional card game, but after a couple of plays I think I’ve gotten what there Is to get from it, at least for me.  Play

Blueprints (played once) – The basis for this game – creating buildings out of rolled dice – is fine, but the sharpness of the scoring (you can make the best possible building with the dice available to you, and still scoring nothing, because another player happens to build in the same way) makes the game not particularly fun.  No

Bluff im Zoo (played twice) – I am not a fan of Liar’s Dice.  But this somehow manages to be much more charming; it doesn’t hurt that the game has one loser, rather than one winner, and it’s really enjoyable with three.  Own

Bremerhaven (played once) – I’m not usually a fan of blind bidding.  When you add in winner-takes-all elements – it’s definitely well outside of my ideal zone.  No

Café Melange (played thrice) – I’ve been interested in Riedel’s designs since first being introduced to Old Town back shortly after it first came out.  But many of his designs have felt like nothing more than retreads of the ideas from Old Town.  Good retreads, in many cases, but nothing new.  Café Melange, while in the same genre, feels significantly different as the focus is changed.  Favorite

Coal Baron (played once) – I didn’t bother to purchase this in Essen as I knew it would be easy to pick up once back home.  But I still wanted to try it – and I’m glad I did, because it reaffirmed my belief that I need it in my collection.  Own (with a real possibility of becoming a favorite)

Concordia (played thrice) – I must start by admitting that I got the rules wrong.  Well, the first time I played, we _forgot_ a rule, and then we took the way we played as the rules.  Sometimes playing a rule wrong leads to disappointment – I like the wrong rule better, and continuing to play with the wrong rule is going to be tricky.  But here, the correction fixes the only concern I had about the game.  Favorite (and this could end up being my very favorite 2013 release)

Downtown (played once) – I was really looking forward to this, in spite of a theme that didn’t catch me, because I enjoyed the designer’s previous game (Circus Grandioso) so much.  But – it fell very, very flat.  No

Eggs of Ostrich (played thrice) – A filler for three players only, I wasn’t sure on my first play but I think this game has a place in my collection.  Own

Folders – A fantastic set of puzzles.  After playing a prototype of Futterneid (which I haven’t played in published form, thus explaining its absence), I asked Henning from 2F if he had anything more clever with him.  He pulled out Folders – and a whole bunch of us were instantly hooked.  Puzzles have to be special to earn a spot in my collection; these are.

Francis Drake (played twice, once as a prototype) – I like the game – but the lack of build-up in the game really leaves it a little flat with me.  I had a great discussion with Peter in Essen about why that element is in the game, and I understand his reasons – but understanding it doesn’t make it more to my taste.  Play

Fünf Gurken (played twice) – Mostly harmless.  I’d really prefer harmful, on the whole.  I’m curious what Friedemann saw in this traditional game that made it stand out for him.  Play

Galapagos (played twice) – One of a few speed dice game from this Essen, this one looked the best – but ended up falling a bit short for me, as there’s not enough to do with a bad roll.  Play

Garden Dice (played once) – Demoed at Essen, but didn’t really capture me.  No

Gear & Piston (played thrice) – I wanted to like this game, just as I wanted to like Automobile; the theme of the early days of the automobile industry really interests me.  But – this is just too simple a game for me, in the end, to stick without a much better hook.  Play

Glass Road (played six times) – This is the first new game I played after getting home from Essen – and was an immediate hit.  I’m not just sure where it will end up falling for me, but I’m definitely continuing to enjoy it.  In particular, the method for tracking materials is brilliant.  Favorite

Glastonbury (played once) – Mostly served to suggest to me that keeping Kupferkessel Co. in my collection really isn’t required.  Pleasant enough, though.  Play

Händler der Karibik (played twice) – Fascinating use of a standard double deck, and it works better than many such games.  But – I’m really not big on pirates.  Play

Ka-Boom (played twice) – A really charming family dexterity game, if not one of the genre that I’m so taken with as to necessitate owning.  It’s much harder to aim a dice catapult than you would think.  Play

Karnickel (played once) – A bizarre theme (rabbits hunting carrots between the railroad tracks) is usually a dangerous start to a game – and this is no exception.  Playable, but not enjoyable.  No

Käse Würfeln (played once) – There are better push-your-luck, dice rolling games out there.  No

Kohle & Kolonie (played thrice) – What are the odds that there would be two games set around coal mining in Essen released the same year?  So far, I’m more certain of Kohle & Kolonie, but whether this or Coal Baron will end as my favorite – I can’t guess.  Favorite

Koryo (played six times) – A very clever filler, with a fresh feel (in spite of similarities to other games) and an ideal playing time.  I particularly like the tradeoff between in-game abilities and end-game scoring.  Favorite

Kronen für den König (played once) – An even simpler worker placement game than Gear & Piston, and without the interesting theme of that game.  Sorry, Brian.  No

L’Aeropostale (played twice) – Sigh.  I love the theme of this game – the early days of airmail, and the development of runs from Europe to South America.  And – I think there’s actually a decent little light game hiding inside the box.  But – it’s hiding too well.  The rules are tough to get through, and there is a lot of chrome for what the heart of the game is aiming for.  But the biggest problem, from my point of view, is that it’s a game that’s very hard to explain, particularly for the simple game one ends up actually playing.  Who wants to explain a heavy filler for 45 minutes?  As a result, it’s the prime candidate, in my mind, for requiring further development among the 2013 Essen releases.  Play

Letnisko (played twice) – Nice little game, themed around bringing customers to Polish Summer resorts in the early 1930s.  It’s a very simple worker placement game, but with a good theme and a few more options than Gear & Piston – but essentially falls into the same bucket for me.  Play

Lewis & Clark (played once) – I love the thematic elements, and am reasonably impressed by the game play; it’s one of three games (along with Concordia and Rokoko) to have attempted deckbuilding with an open hand that I’ve played from this year’s crop.  Concordia is clearly my favorite of the lot – but I have a lot of hope for Lewis & Clark, and I suspect that the historic information will keep this in my collection once I pick up a copy.  Own

Machi Koro (played six times) – Brilliant little dice filler.  I know some have worried that after a few plays the game will feel similar – but I’ve found that enough different paths work as to keep the game fresh, and it’s short enough to be enjoyable even when things don’t work for me.  Favorite

Madeira (played once) – I expected to love or hate this – so of course I found it just OK.  Actually, I enjoyed the first couple of rounds, but then found that I started running out of interesting things to do.  I think that, for me, the game might have interested more if shortened by two rounds – or if more possibilities were added to the game.  Play

Nauticus (played thrice) – You know, it’s been a while since I’ve played a game which I immediately thought of as a classic Kramer game.  But this one has all of the elements of one – though three plays in I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll enjoy it most with three players.  Favorite

New Haven (played once) – Brian and Kevin have put together an interesting game – but I fear one that’s too abstract for my preferences.  Play

Pasha (played twice) – Another push-your-luck dice game, but another one that goes on too long for what it does.  Didn’t have the feel of a Stafen Dorra game to me – his games usually have a very clever element that was missing for me here.  Play

Patchistory (played once) – A lot of folks have pointed to this as the hit of the show.  And there’s a lot to say positively about it – the whole patching mechanism is interesting and well done, most particularly.  But – often my biggest issue with civilization games is that they don’t quite do conflict correctly, and Patchistory is no exception for me.  I’m glad to have tried the game – but I really don’t need to own it, or play it further.  No

Patronize (played twice) – As much as I enjoy trick taking card games, there are so many of them that I can afford to (and need to) be particular as to which ones hit the table.  And Patronize doesn’t cross that bar.  Play

Pharao Code (played five times, all the previous edition) – A speed dice game, with the unique twist of potentially offering multiple solutions to each roll.  We’ve added a fourth die, which I think actually makes the game more interesting.  Own

Plunder (played once) – Deduction games aren’t generally favorites of mine, but this one is well done (both from a design and presentation perspective).  Play

Polterfass (played once) – Fascinating and unique dice game with non-standard dice (barrels, to be specific).  While I didn’t feel compelled to buy a copy on one play, I enjoyed in enough that I’m tempted; I think this game might improve for me with continued play.  Play

The Rats in the Walls (played once) – Did I happen to mention that I don’t care for Liar’s Dice?  Well, I don’t, and unlike Bluff im Zoo this didn’t present a compelling twist on the system to me.  No

Renaissance Man (played twice) – A nice little pyramid-building game, worth playing.  But for me, it’s not as interesting as Guild, and so suffers from the “I’d rather be playing (insert similar game here) syndrome”.  Play

Rokoko (played once) – Every Essen crop seems to have a mechanism that’s new – but common to multiple games.  It’s never a wildly innovative mechanism, but instead a logical evolution.  But – the games don’t always work equally well, which helps one game to disappear quickly.  I think Rokoko will be that game this year; Concordia and Lewis & Clark each do something more interesting – and with more options – than Rokoko, without taking any longer to play.  No

Russian Railroads (played eight times, including four as a prototype) – This is already a top 50 game all-time game for me – but this year’s crop is so good that that might not be sufficient for it to remain my favorite 2013 release.  Favorite

Sail to India (played six times) – Lorna was nice enough to bring her copy of this to West Coast Meeplefest, so I had the chance to try it (three times) back then, and already knew I wanted a copy.  And I’m enjoying it every bit as much as I expected; it’s a very quick, clever game, very much in the Japanese tradition.  Favorite

Sansoucci (played once) – This is a very pleasant game.  There’s a lot of randomness, and not a lot of control, which I suspect is why it’s under the main Ravensburger label rather than Alea in spite of Stefan Brück involvement.  Play

Say Bye to the Villains (played twice) – I realized, some years ago now, that I don’t need cooperative games in my collection.  I have a fun time playing one now and again – particular one that’s new to me – but I never request them.  This game – fit that pattern exactly.  Play

Sissi: die Bohnenkaiserin (played once) – This is a very interesting take on Bohnanza, adding 50 Sissi beans (with their own Bohnameter).  The requirement that you alternate regular and Sissi beans – or plow the field on your turn – makes for an interesting twist on the game.  It’s still demonstrably Bohnanza, but fun for the occasional play.  Bohnanza is a favorite; I just count this as Bohnanza.  So, Favorite

Spyrium (played eight times, including once as a prototype) – I don’t think of this as an Essen game, but it’s listed as such.  Fascinating central mechanism, and I’m always drawn to games involving issues of timing.  Favorite

Steam Park (played twice) – Being a fan of amusement parks, this instantly moved onto my purchase list – not knowing if I’d actually like the game or not.  My first play was worrisome, if not bad; the game went on too long for what it offered.  So on my second play, we used the Steam Park for Dummies rules – and they work much better.  I don’t care for how they’re written – our difficulty wasn’t in understanding the full rules, but the effect they have on the speed of the game – but they did the game down to the length (30 minutes) the game wants to be, given the speed-dice-rolling central to the play.  Own

Strajk! Skok do wolności (played thrice) – The Lech Wałęsa deckbuilding game.  I suspect that tells you most of what you need to know about the game.  The game does not have a lot of variety – it’s not a game you’ll ever play as frequently as Dominion.  But – it’s brilliant, in its own way.  Own

String Savanna (played six times) – Another game I don’t think of as an Essen game, but a very enjoyable game; it re-uses the String Railways mechanism in a very different, but appropriate, way.  Own

Sukimono (played twice) – When a game shares a central mechanism with a game you already know and enjoy, it has to be _better_ to really make an impression.  And frankly, Das Prestel Architekturspiel does pile-searching as least as well, and with a theme that works better for me.  Play

Sushi Draft! (played once) – Very simply, I don’t see any reason to own both this and Sushi Go!  They’re both competent, short drafting games; there’s a little more game to Sushi Go! and a bit better presentation with Sushi Draft!  Play

Twin Tin Bots (played thrice) – I only played RoboRally once, as during my first three turns I drew nothing but turning cards – and I want more control in the game than that.  Twin Tin Bots succeeded for me because there’s still the delightful chaos RoboRally aims for – but with a lot more control in players hands.  Even better, I’m continuing to learn new ways of doing things.  Favorite

Zahlen-Mobile (played four times) – Still another speed dice game, this one I only noticed due to Hilko Drude, who noted that Reinhold Wittig was at the Kallmeyer booth demoing a mechanical mobile he designed to demonstrate the game.  Herr Wittig was busy when I stopped by – but I had a chance to look at the game, and it intrigued.  And so I bought it – and it’s gone over quite well, in spite of the fact that I haven’t taken the time to translate the rules to English.  Favorite

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16 Responses to 3000 Words Worth of Essen First Impressions

  1. Eric Brosius says:

    It’s interesting that Arche Noah uses the exact same set of purple and green chips as 23. But I like Arche Noah a lot better, and I’m glad you bought it.

  2. Jacob says:

    Finally! When you said you weren’t going to share your thoughts until after this weekend I thought that was kind of mean. :) Thanks for posting this. A couple of thoughts:
    Are you allowed to share what Peter said about Francis Drake? I think it’s a great game and I’m proud to own it, but I’d like to know his design intentions.
    If you did play two less rounds of Madeira do you think that would be too difficult for some strategic paths to be completed?
    And did you forget to mention a little game called Caverna or was that one not of interest to you?

    • Joe Huber says:

      Re: Timing – well, this weekend was when I actually finally had the opportunity to write up my thoughts. If you count up the plays for the games listed above, and note that they nearly all took place over the course of the three weeks following Essen, you can see why it took a while to get to this.

      Re: Francis Drake – essentially, for Peter the completion of three voyages was a vital thematic element to the game, making the decision to build the game around (mostly) independent journeys a necessary element of the game. Which, while I don’t care for it from a gameplay perspective, is a rationale I approve of.

      Re: Madeira – yes, unfortunately; I believe the final two rounds are necessary. I also suspect that our play style might not have been a fit for the game.

      Re: Caverna – I’ve not forgotten at all. I’ve not forgotten Nations, Prosperity, Yunnan, Amerigo, or any of the multitude of expansions, either. Haven’t played them; don’t specifically plan to. (Actually, for Caverna and Yunnan, it would take some arm-twisting to get me to play them, as I’m not optimistic about their fit for me; the others I might eventually get to.) As usual, the games of most interest to me were not necessarily the games of greatest general popularity. The game not listed above which I’m most anxious to try is Expedition: Northwest Passage.

      • Jacob says:

        Thanks for clarifying. I think I agree with you on Francis Drake. I’d prefer some continuity between rounds, but the gameplay is so much fun for me that I can forgive that. I’ve never actually played a three round game.
        Madeira is one of those games I have to get. The look of the board, the complexity of the rules, the publisher’s pedigree . . . it all adds up to a game I have to buy to try out and if I don’t like it, well, I’m sure I’ll sell it for a decent price.
        Caverna is a game I thought every reviewer wants to try just because of the quality of hype preceding it. I wish I could just get my copy already to so I can play it instead of reading about it!

        • Joe Huber says:

          Caverna is a game I thought every reviewer wants to try just because of the quality of hype preceding it.

          Ah – but I’m not really a reviewer, just a game enthusiast. And hype – really doesn’t factor into my decision as to whether to try a game or not. It probably has a very slight negative correlation, just because if given the choice between playing two games of otherwise equal interest, where one has been heavily hyped, I’ll naturally tend towards the other game. But my decision to buy or try a game is based upon how much the game interests me, not what buzz it’s created – and definitely not by any sense of responsibility to play particular games.

  3. David says:

    I was wondering about your change to Concordia. What did you change? Are you playing by the written rules now? (you said not using them would be ‘tricky’)

    • Joe Huber says:

      I was referring to the general case – if you learn a rule incorrectly, and prefer it, it’s generally difficult to play with the rules you prefer – particularly outside of your usual gaming group.

      But the mistake we made was to forget the rule for adding a second settlement to a location. Rather than making it more expensive (as per the rules), we didn’t allow it. Completely unintentionally; we just forgot the rule, and filled in.

      As soon as I have a copy, I will be playing by the rules as written. It was an accidental change, but correcting it addresses the biggest concern I was forming about the game – and thus makes it of even greater interest.

      • Dave says:

        Joe, wouldn’t disallowing multiple settlements in the same location make opportunities for blocking extremely vicious? Making it more expensive seemed like a nice compromise.

        • Joe Huber says:

          Yes, exactly – that was the problem of our misremembered rule. I believe the published rule is absolutely the correct rule – we just forgot it in our first game, which lead to me completely forgetting it by the time of my second game.

      • Dave says:

        Joe, wouldn’t disallowing multiple settlements in the same location make opportunities for blocking extremely vicious? Making it more expensive seemed like a nice compromise.

  4. Interesting your opinion about Patchistory. Could you please elaborate “civilization games is that they don’t quite do conflict correct, and Patchistory is no exception for me”? What’s wrong with it?


    • Joe Huber says:

      Well, I forgot the “ly” on correctly… oh, wait, you meant the game.

      In Patchistory, one of the most efficient actions is to attack a weaker player. There are multiple ways to do this – but they all amount to taking victory points from said player. However, you don’t have full control over your strength (it’s at the mercy of which cards are available), and thus it’s entirely possible for one player to lag significantly behind in strength – without any corresponding gain in other areas.

      In my one play, the player who fell behind finished with half of the score of the other two players.

  5. Dale Yu says:

    Nice recap of your month of gaming! See, you should go back to Essen. Thus far, every year that you’ve gone to Essen, it’s been the best year “ever” for games!


  6. Dave says:

    Re: Steam Park — I’m surprised you like the “dummy” rules for the stands. I thought the powerups were simple enough to understand, and were all very useful. My only complaint was that I was constantly having a hard time telling the security and casino tents apart. But I do see how they can slow the game down a little; my first game was with some slow players and I agree the game doesn’t tolerate much downtime.

    • Joe Huber says:

      Oh, they aren’t difficult in the least. But they are slow – too slow – and it’s a game that wants to be played quickly. I’d rather sacrifice the control of the stands for the speed gained. Maybe with players who are (1) familiar with the game and (2) all quick, it will prove worth using their abilities. But to me, it feels like it wants to be a 30 minute game.

  7. Doug says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Joe. I thoroughly enjoyed Polterfass, and think Russian Railroads is very good.

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