Ben McJunkin: Swing and a Miss – Another Handy Guide to Essen Games

A couple months back, I put together an article titled “Pitching Essen,” which purported to offer a quick pitch for each of the twenty games I was most excited about heading into the SPIEL fair in Essen.  Now that I’ve had a chance to play almost every game on that initial list, it’s time for me to revisit those predictions.  To emphasize my utter failure in prognostication (as well as my general lack of enthusiasm for this year’s mainstream titles), I’ve converted the Hollywood metaphor to a baseball metaphor, and a depressing one at that.

So how did those top twenty games fare?  Did I at least surpass the Mendoza line? Read on to find out.

Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends (Vlaada Chvatil)
The Pitch: Vladda reimagines Go for the Magic: The Gathering crowd.
Anticipation: Aaaiiieeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
Plays: 1
Outcome: Miss.  Tash-Kalar is a clever game, but the experience of playing was not for me.  I felt more constrained by my hand than I wanted to be and the thought process of setting up for patterns did not feel particularly game-like.  The positional swings between turns were also more extreme than I would have preferred.  I’d play it again if someone really wanted to, but I traded my copy for Machi Koro.

Bruxelles 1893 (Etienne Espreman)
The Pitch: “Trust us; Troyes didn’t look like much at first, either.”
Anticipation: Very high.
Plays: 4
Outcome: Double.  It’s not the home run Troyes was, but Pearl Games put forth another very solid game, this time from a first-time designer.  The game contains a lot of disparate mechanisms, but I quite like that nearly every action has a number of collateral consequences that must be considered.  Those kind of layered tactical considerations make this one of the better titles in the middleweight Eurogame category this year.  Will I get six more plays out of it in the next year?  Probably not.

Russian Railroads (Helmut Ohley & Leonhard “Lonny” Orgler)
The Pitch: The guys who made Stone Age hired the guys who made 1880 to remake Snowdonia.
Anticipation: Very high.
Plays: 1
Outcome: Miss.  The single session I played was fun, but the game is just an absurd flood of abstract points for taking wholly uninteresting actions.  As I alluded to in my original article, I tend to view worker placement exclusively as a game-driver, not as a game in itself; the performance of the actions selected by a worker-placement mechanic need to be independently interesting for the game to hold my attention. By that criteria, Russian Railroads fails.  It is a game almost completely lacking in substance (in the sense that the actions one performs don’t give the sense that they are “about” something), but is perfectly functional for those people who like multiple paths to victories and point salads and whatever other gaming buzzword is trending at the moment.  I expect it to end up solidly in the BGG Top 100.

Prosperity (Sebastian Bleasdale & Reiner Knizia)
The Pitch: Knizia! Ystari! That other guy from Keyflower!
Anticipation: High.
Plays: 3
Outcome: Miss (and then some).  This is like striking out while trying to bunt.  I considered Prosperity to be a very low-risk title.  I had actually read the rules before heading to Essen (something I never do) and I was convinced that this would be solidly among the games that I most liked after the fair.  I could hardly have been more wrong.  I found the game rather bland, and as a result I found myself not caring whether I won or lost.  There was little room for creative play, and the tightly balanced actions left me feeling like I was spinning my wheels.  It seemed as if every possibility involved trading $100 for roughly $100.  I couldn’t see a reason to bother.  It was among the first games sold.

Glass Road (Uwe Rosenberg)
The Pitch: It’s not (entirely) yet another installment in the Harvest Trilogy!
Anticipation: High.
Plays: 4
Outcome: Single?  Glass Road proved to be among my favorite titles this year in the “traditional Eurogame” category.  The game speeds along at a brisk pace, clocking in under an hour on most occasions.  The card play was not nearly so random as I had feared (predicting others’ card selections is entirely feasible), and the intermediate resource conversion elements are, thankfully, relatively minor – for the most part, buildings that allow you to exchange resources for other resources are only worthwhile as part of a narrow strategy.  The game is primarily about picking a couple of buildings that work well together and emphasizing those to the exclusion of other options.  In that sense, it reminds me a bit of games like Dominion, but with more player interaction, however indirect.  The game was not enjoyable enough to keep in my own collection given the price it demanded on the open market, but I would be happy to play it just about anytime.

Bremerhaven (Robert Auerochs)
The Pitch: It looks like Le Havre (don’t tell them it’s not Uwe)!
Anticipation:  High.
Outcome: Miss.  This is my lowest-rated game released at this year’s SPEIL fair.  The game’s rules promised some intrigue, and I went into it hoping for an interesting logistics game that might be comparable to Uwe’s At the Gates of Loyang (perhaps not his best work, but a reliably entertaining challenge).  However, there were just so many things about Bremerhaven that failed to click with me.  At heart, the game revolves around acquiring goods and contracts that depict matching resources.  The mechanism for doing so is blind bidding.  Everything else is just added bloat and distraction to this simple premise.  I’ve been seeking to get rid of the game, but sadly can’t even find someone who is interested in purchasing it.

Field of Glory: The Card Game (Martin Wallace)
The Pitch: Martin Wallace does Battle Line! Martin Wallace’s lawyers do battle!
Anticipation: High.
Plays: 4
Outcome: Walk.  I think I really enjoy this game, but I’ve mostly experienced easy victories due to opponent blunders.  The comparison to Battle Line is off-base; in typical Martin Wallace fashion, FOG:TCG has too many niggling rules to offer that kind of elegant dance (indeed, the one game I had against a challenging opponent was marred by rule mistakes).  Rather, the game seems to be more in line with tactical hand-management games like Summoner Wars, and in that vein I think there is some great stuff here.  Still, I fear it will be a real struggle to ever get it played frequently enough to shine.

Steam Park (Aureliano Buonfino, Lorenzo Silva, & Lorenzo Tucci Sorrentino)
The Pitch: Real-time, dice rolling . . . oh, who are we kidding? Marie Cardouat draws beautiful (and terrifying) things.
Anticipation: Moderate-plus.
Plays: 3
Outcome: Miss.  The game is not bad and the components are indeed beautiful.  And perhaps I’m starting to reach the territory in this list where I need to redefine success.  But it was not a game that I wanted to play with any frequency – its best feature was the hand-drawn illustration inside the box lid – and so I think it falls short of my expectations for the game.  I have more detailed thoughts HERE.

Ginkgopolis: The Experts (Xavier Georges)
The Pitch: More Ginkgopolis! Why does this need a pitch?
Anticipation: Moderate.
Plays: 1
Outcome: Big ol’ miss.  Ginkgopolis’s strength was elegant simplicity.  As far as I’m concerned, every module included in this expansion made the base game worse.  The single session was laughably bad, and I couldn’t sell it fast enough (though I was tempted to keep the included reference cards).  It’s a good thing I don’t believe in rating expansions.  “Not for me” is an understatement.

Citrus (Jeffrey Allers)
The Pitch: A tile-laying majority game that relies on drafting rather than random draws!
Anticipation: Moderate.
Plays: 3
Outcome: Sacrifice fly.  Citrus, along with Yunnan (below), falls into the category of games that I play a lot and yet struggle to decide whether I even like.  I want to play it repeatedly, and I do quite well at the game when it hits the table.  But small issues – both aesthetic and design-related – impinge on my enjoyment.  My first play was of the full game, and the mechanics didn’t seem to warrant the time investment required.  My next two plays were of the short game, and while the weight-to-length ratio felt better, the game seemed to lack the kind of narrative arc I love to see.  Now I’d like to revisit the long game again. But all these plays have more of an exploratory character to them than sessions born out of genuine enjoyment.  Still, I will consider this a success, if only because the combination of colored tile-laying and majority scoring hits a sweet spot for me, whatever the game’s other issues may be.

Concordia (Mac Gerdts)
The Pitch: Gerdts gives up the rondel for deck-building!
Anticipation: Moderate.
Plays: 1
Outcome: Miss.  To the surprise of approximately no one, Gerdts’ deck-building has substantial rondel-like elements to it.  I actually don’t mind the card play, but I found the game’s spatial elements to be lacking, its thematic issues to be distracting, and the hidden trackable scoring to produce a disappointingly solitary experience.  Although I still consider it to be an average to above-average Eurogame, I suspect I would much prefer to see this game reduced to a computer implementation with fully open information.  And since I never play computerized board games, I suspect I’ve seen all I’ll ever see of Concordia.

Rampage (Antoine Bauza & Ludovic Maublanc)
The Pitch: A board game version of a video game version of a Saturday afternoon monster movie.
Anticipation: Moderate-minus.
Plays: None (but the game is in transit)
Outcome: To be determined.

Legacy: Testament of Duke de Crecy (Michiel Justin Elliott Hendriks)
The Pitch: Ignacy told me it’s good!
Anticipation: Moderate-minus.
Plays: 1
Outcome: Single. I get why Ignacy told me it’s good.  Although the rulebook makes the game feel convoluted, it is in fact a pretty smooth game to play, with only a handful of available actions, each of which is pretty straightforward to evaluate.  The heart of the game is in managing one’s hand of “friends” to find exploitable synergies in marriage.  The artwork is lovely (dour cover notwithstanding) and you can take a certain pride in your growing family tree, even if you are not winning the game.  I do worry about the flatness of some of the game’s elements – I would have liked to have seen something like the Mansions bonus cards for Titles, Ventures, etc.  We’ll see how subsequent sessions play out.

A Study in Emerald (Martin Wallace)
The Pitch: Martin Wallace marries Sherlock Holmes, Cthulu, and semi-cooperative gaming to provide a one-of-a-kind experience!
Anticipation: Low-plus.
Plays: 2
Outcome: Miss.  I was right to be wary.  Both of my plays were completely unsatisfying.  One session ended far too quickly as we flailed about without fully understanding the consequences of our actions.  The next dragged on far too long, and featured only a single high point in an otherwise repetitive tug-of-war for a few points.  It is a wonky, unusual game, so it gets credit for standing out in a rather boring pack this year.  But it will only ever work for me with the right players playing at the right speed and with the right level of experience.  No game that limited deserves a place on my shelf.

Mush! Mush! – Snow Tails 2
(Gordon Lamont & Fraser Lamont)

The Pitch: It’s Snow Tails for Dummies!
Anticipation: Low-plus.
Plays: 5
Outcome:  Double.  The game is what it was billed to be – a simpler, more accessible version of its predecessor.  Given my low expectations going in, this out to be considered a wild success.  Unlike Snow Tails, which often emphasized going slow, Mush! Mush! feels far more like the race game it purports to represent.  My more casual gaming friends often request it as a way to close out a game night.  I’m not sure I appreciate the design as much as Snow Tails, but there is little question that Mush! Mush! produces the better experience.

Caverna: The Cave Farmers (Uwe Rosenberg)
The Pitch: Seven-player Agricola. In caves! With spears!
Anticipation: Low.
Plays: 3
Outcome: Ground out.  After one play, I was wondering whether Caverna would replace Agricola.  It only took two more plays for me to lose interest in the title almost entirely.  The components are a big step up from base Agricola, and I love the simplified scoring (including having point values of items written right on them).  But Caverna also extends Agricola’s physical fiddliness to a new dimension.  Not only is the round-by-round replenishment a chore (one which involves paying attention to multiple replenishment rates), but the new expeditions are a time-sink.  Even in 5-player games, it is usually a player’s turn again by the time he or she finishes selecting the “loot” from an expedition.  The ease of feeding one’s workers also turns this into another game of abundant point sources, where the original Agricola was the kind of enjoyable uphill struggle I prefer in my games.

Keyflower: The Farmers (Sebastian Bleasdale & Richard Breese)
The Pitch: People will buy anything with animeeples.
Anticipation: Low.
Plays: 1
Outcome: Single.  The Farmers doesn’t add much to Keyflower, but it reminded me that even my 11th favorite game from last year was better than just about every game from this one.  The recommended first-game setup is more a tutorial than a game, since the basic game tiles are nearly absent.  But when mixed into the base set, the expansion elements will fit smoothly into the Keyflower systems, while providing another cluster of scoring options.

Yunnan (Aaron Haag)
The Pitch: A zero-luck tactical balancing act between spending meeples to purchase upgrades and saving meeples to use the upgrades you’ve purchased.
Anticipation: Low.
Plays: 7
Outcome: Triple.  This is another title I’m not even sure that I like, but it’s my most played title on this list.  My fear about replay value was unfounded (at least for low numbers of plays), and I like the purity with which the game poses an infrastructure/VP efficiency question to its players.  I also enjoy that the game has enough interaction and general nastiness to keep my attention throughout its reasonably short playtime.  I sold my copy to Tom Rosen, so I still have the opportunity to play it in the future.  Given the low expectations, I am very happy with the possibility of 10 plays of this by next year’s Essen fair.

Coal Barron (Wolfgang Kramer & Michael Keisling)
The Pitch: It’s Kramer & Keisling! They could sell a game about cleaning toilets, in which you actually clean a little porcelain toilet, and you would probably still buy it.
Anticipation: Low.
Plays: 2
Outcome: Miss.  It’s Kramer and Keisling, so it’s a flawless little game.  It’s just not a title I can be passionate about.  Distinctly middle weight, with an innocuous and non-confrontation worker placement mechanic, this game is perfect for players who make things like Stone Age the centerpiece of their game nights.  That’s not me.  Part of my Machi Koro trade.

Rokoko (Matthias Cramer, Louis Malz, & Stefan Malz)
The Pitch: A new twist on deck-building where you make dresses to show off at the ball. Err…it’s pretty. Umm…three designers are better than one?
Anticipation: Lowest.
Plays: 3
Outcome: Single.  This was almost a big hit, but then it wasn’t.  The first two plays were smooth and exciting, but by the third time it reached the table, I felt that I had seen and done everything of interest.  Given that I had expected the worst, I’m happy with three good plays and nearly all my money back.

So there it is, the (mainstream) year that was.  I’m sad to say that it was a whole lot of misses and not a home run in the bunch.  That’s not to suggest that 2013 was all bad, mind you.  My favorite games of the fair just turned out to be ones that were hardly on my radar when boarding the plane.  Patchistory, Wildcatters, Machi Koro, and One Night Ultimate Werewolf have all made big impressions on me, and I’m sure you’ll hear much more about them in the coming weeks as I get around to talking some actual reviews.

In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed revisiting just how wrong I am about most things most of the time.

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3 Responses to Ben McJunkin: Swing and a Miss – Another Handy Guide to Essen Games

  1. Garry says:

    No Lewis & Clark? That and Patchistory were two of my favorite games this Essen.

    • Ben (chally) says:

      Hi Garry! The list itself is based on the 20 games I was most looking forward to going into Essen. I was aware of Lewis & Clark, but it wasn’t really on my radar at that time.

      Since my trip to Essen, I’ve taken more note of it. Even though it has received largely positive feedback, I have a feeling that Lewis & Clark is not a game that would appeal to me, so I haven’t made any effort to play it. This happens from time to time – most recently with Mage Knight & Castles of Burgundy in 2011, then Mage Wars & Lords of Waterdeep in 2012.

  2. Ben (chally) says:

    I just played Rampage today – the last unplayed game in this list. It wasn’t bad – little this year was – but it also didn’t wow me. I will need a few more plays to be sure of my opinion, but this was probably another miss – it’s roughly as enjoyable as “fun” games like Mush! Mush! or Twin Tin Bots, but it’s messy and imprecise and likely won’t see play that often around here. Given the size of the box and the cost of the game it is likely another candidate for eventual re-sale.

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