They’re finally here: the new Essen games! For the card-carrying Cult of the New gamer, it truly is the most wonderful time of the year!
Last Saturday, I got together with my good friends KAS (on the Geek) and fellow OGers Ben McJunkin and Tom Rosen for an orgy of new Essen gameplaying. KAS had just returned from Germany with no fewer than 40 new games! In addition, Ben has a bunch of new games on order. Do I have great friends or what??? At any rate, we obviously have plenty to keep us busy for quite a while. In fact, I hope to be able to fill my Saturdays until Thanksgiving with spanking new games from the Essen fair. And I figured it would be a great opportunity to let you all know what we thought of them. So this is the first of several weekly articles about my personal Essen experience. Let’s get started!
La Granja: We started out with this farming-themed game. It’s definitely interesting and all four of us enjoyed it. I have a few reservations, which might disappear as I gain more experience with the game. First, there’s nothing really innovative about it. That’s not a deal-breaker for me, as a game which combines existing mechanics in a skillful way can still be a winner. But there’s no question something truly innovative adds to the appeal of a new game and makes it more exciting to play. As it so happens, La Granja uses a mechanic that I’m growing a bit tired of: dice drafting, which we’ve seen an awful lot of recently. The theme is also less than original. Of greater concern to me is that there’s a huge number of options available to each player, particularly when you consider all the ways in which you can play your cards. It was almost overwhelming picking up the initial hand. I didn’t see any way in which you could even come close to figuring out an optimal way of doing things, so I just went with a reasonable strategy and ran with it. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but it did feel a little unsatisfying to me. I have no desire to master a game (certainly not after one play!), but I do feel better if I can at least think I’ll be able to get my arms around the strategy. Still, the game was fun, the scores were ridiculously close, and I am looking forward to playing it some more. So game #1 was a success!
Hansa Teutonica: Britannia: This expansion of an old favorite of my group was next. I like Hansa T., even though it’s basically an abstract, a genre I’m usually not too fond of. But there’s enough going on, much more than in the typical abstract game, that it works for me. My buddies, however, love the game and play it a lot more than I do. So I tend to be behind the power curve when I play it. In a situation like that, I try to avoid expansions, since with a shakier grasp of the basic game, I feel at an even greater disadvantage. However, for some reason, in this case the opposite was true. Maybe the expansion changes things enough that it brought the others to my level. I’m not sure what was going on, but I was not only competitive, I won! I got my third action early, via a bonus marker. I got control of adjacent cities Coventry and Cambridge early on and for some reason, this was a popular connection, yielding me a lot of points over the course of the game. I was also the only player to score points for placing a disc in Plymouth. I hung on to win when the game ended through the bonus markers running out. Not surprisingly, it was my favorite game of Hansa T. I’ve played—it’s amazing how one’s attitude improves when you have a clue about what’s going on! We’ll have to see how future games go; it wouldn’t surprise me if I turn out to be a one-game wonder! Regardless of my future success, I really do like the expansion.
Orleans: This is one of three bag building games from Essen. The things in the bag are characters like Farmers and Craftsmen and you draw some out every turn and place them on actions on your personal board, which require multiple specific characters to activate them. Actions let you do a bunch of things, which include recruiting new characters for your bag, gaining technology tiles that automatically replace characters on an action, moving your token on the central board, building trading stations, and so on, most of which directly lead to VPs. I liked it quite a bit. It’s a challenging middleweight and reasonably forgiving, but there’s plenty of options and it plays very fast. I found planning for which tokens would assist me, as well as the tactical process of best assigning the characters you draw each turn to be quite enjoyable. It’s also primarily multi-player solitaire, but I don’t mind games like that as long as they’re well designed. Reaction to this was widely mixed (both Ben and KAS didn’t care for it at all), but I’ll probably buy a copy to play with my other games group. So not necessarily a great game, but an enjoyable one that I look forward to playing some more. In what might be a weak year for me, it could easily make my top 10.
As for the game itself, I won a narrow victory. I put tech tiles on both my wagon and building actions and focused on traveling by land throughout the countryside, grabbing goods and constructing stations. The one expansion tile I picked up gave me two books when activated, which helped me get my Development Status up to 5. Since I wound up with 8 stations and 3 Citizens, those units alone made up almost half of my 115 points. Two other players had scores about 10 points behind mine and one finished much further back.
Gaia: This is a light game based around playing tiles to build cities and then claiming the ones you create or the ones you can mooch off of your opponents. It kind of looks like Carcassonne, but it plays completely differently and the basic design seems clever. I’d call our play “pleasant”, which I suppose is damning by faint praise, but it’s still a better word than “miserable”, for example. Certainly the game’s attractive theme and excellent art help. We played the most basic version of the design, which might be the source of the problem. The problem is, the more advanced versions have a lot of nasty elements that might turn off some groups (including ours, although not, I can assure you, Ben!). It isn’t clear if this will get to the table again, but I suspect that if it does, it’ll be with one of the more aggressive versions.
Col-Or-Form: I’m terrible at speed recognition games. So I wasn’t too thrilled when this Adlung title was pulled out. Much to my surprise, I was actually competitive at it and found it reasonably enjoyable. The game uses cards, each of which contains one of several shapes in one of several colors. 9 of these are dealt out in a central 3×3 array. Each player gets 4 face-up cards, along with 2 face-down objective cards (which I’ll call “o-cards”). The round then starts as everyone simultaneously reveals their o-cards. Each of the o-cards shows an item in some of the 9 squares of the array. In order to fulfill an o-card (and you can fulfill any of the o-cards, not just your own), the array has to be such that each space either matches the shape or the color of each of the indicated spaces on the o-card. You are allowed to rotate the o-card however you like. In addition, you can replace any cards in the array with some of your 4 cards. This continues until all the o-cards are gone or the players agree that the remaining o-cards can’t be achieved. Then deal out 4 more cards and 2 more o-cards per player and continue until the deck of o-cards runs out. I was very surprised to find a speed game I actually like and am actually decent at. Later on, I was equally surprised to find out that this is a Kramer game! From the KRAG Team, to be exact (Kramer, together with his long-time co-designers Hans Raggan and Jurgen Grunau, hence K-Ra-G). The Master strikes again!
Gloobz: Ugh. Another speed recognition game, but for this one, my performance was more typical, which is to say utter incompetence. You’ve got colors and shapes and you have to grab the figure which represents the most or the least of one or the other, except when there’s a magnifying glass or it’s a month containing the letter “R” and who the hell knows. After several rounds, I had managed to achieve one whole point, so I politely excused myself and went into the other room to watch the World Series game with Tom’s wife while the other three continued to play. My presence wasn’t missed at all and the other guys seemed to be having a grand time with it.
100!: Another Adlung game, but this one wasn’t nearly as successful as the first one. Everyone’s trying to assemble a 10 card straight in their hand, with at most one gap. Play is simultaneous, with players placing a single card face down on the table and quickly swapping cards with an opponent. So there’s no information and it’s extremely chaotic. We finished one hand in a few minutes and then realized we’d probably have to play at least 20 more in order for someone to reach the victory conditions (100 points, of course). We unanimously decided that one hand of this was enough and proceeded to the next game.
Patchistory: KAS had to leave at this point, so Tom, Ben, and I decided finish the evening up with one of our favorites from last Essen, Patchistory. Technically, this doesn’t belong in this report, but since there were only 50 English language games of this produced last year, for the vast majority of you, the new version from StuntKite represents your first chance of owning this, so a few comments are in order. The patching mechanic in the game is one of the best and most innovative ideas I’ve seen in a long time. The rest of the game is very good as well, but it does have some rough spots and potential balance issues. We’d been hoping that an established publisher would pick this up for the reprint and give it some world-class development, which we thought could turn this into an all-time classic. Alas, they went with StuntKite, a brand new publisher. The good news is that they did make some changes and all of them appear to be improvements, so kudos to the new guys. The balance issues remain, at least in theory, but it’s possible that these are an inexorable part of the basic nature of the game. Quite possibly, eliminating them would have made the game fairer—and far less interesting. I have to admit, amidst all my beloved finely crafted Eurogames, it’s nice to have at least one title with wild swings, outrageous card effects, and the potential for a runaway victory lurking behind every new card exposed. Considering I hadn’t played this in almost a year, I did okay, finishing second, but well behind the leader. Patchistory continues to be one of my favorite Civ games. It’s long, but the gameplay makes it well worth it. The patching mechanic and the hugely interesting card abilities make it one of the most exciting games I play.
So that’s how I spent the first day of my Essen Experience. No game knocked it out of the park (it was telling that I enjoyed last year’s Patchistory more than any new game we played), but there were several titles that were well worth playing and which I look forward to exploring some more. Ben and I are set to play at KAS’s tomorrow for Week 2. More new games—I can’t wait!