The Essen Experience: Week 3

Yet another week in which Ben, Tom (who decided to join us again), KAS, and Larry work their way through the pile of shiny new Essen games we’ve acquired.  While there have been some fun titles, I’ve yet to find one I would call “great”.  Will this be the week in which one new design breaks through?  Only way to find out is to keep on reading!

Villannex:  This is another Japanese minimalistic game, but minimalistic doesn’t necessarily mean simple.  Each player is dealt 6 cards and puts 2 out of play.  The remaining cards are all exposed for the players to study.  Each card has a scoring rule modifying the value of one or more of the goods the players can acquire.  Some are simple (such as “Add 2 to the value of Wood”) and some are complex (such as “If 5 Grain are produced by the table, add 7 to the value of Pigs”).  In addition, each card also has two possible groups of goods that the player can choose to produce.  After everyone has checked out the cards, each player secretly chooses 2 of his 4 cards and selects one of the two production possibilities for each card.  The cards are then revealed, the value for each good is calculated, and the player with the highest VPs from their goods wins.

Every gamer has designs that they grok right away and others that they just can’t figure out.  Villannex is not only one of the latter for me, but is a game that I can’t imagine even coming close to being competent at.  Being faced with 16 cards, each loaded with information and none of which is guaranteed to be in play is completely overwhelming to me.  Information overload at its worst.  Maybe it’s because I have no interest, nor any ability at psychological guessing games, because my fellow players all seemed to be working through things just fine, with thoughts about “I expect him to do that, which means I have to do this, but if instead he does the other…” and so on.  But me, I would just uncross my eyes, make some choices (with little reasoning behind them), wait for the scores to be calculated, and then nod at the result (including one game that I won somehow!).  If everything in the game was written in Swahili, I would have gotten just as much enjoyment from it as the English version.

This is a perfect example of a game where my OG rating would be “Not for me”.  That doesn’t mean that the game is a poor one—it’s actually clever as hell, albeit highly chaotic, and I can see certain players having fun with it.  But because of some gaming gene that I clearly lack, it’s just not a game I will ever be able to appreciate.  Oh well.

AquaSphere:  Feld’s latest heavyweight and as such, quite anticipated.  Feld tends to design very distinctive games, so that for many of his games you know it was by Herr Stefan.  I don’t think that’s the case here.  Sure, the game is quite involved and allows you to score in multiple ways, which is quite Feld-like.  But If I didn’t know who the designer was and you told me it was Feld, I wouldn’t have been surprised, but neither would I have thought that it had to be by him.

The most distinctive thing here is the programming aspect, but it didn’t necessarily play out like I thought it would.  Briefly, there are 7 potential actions and they are laid out randomly at the beginning of each turn in a display with three rows of 2, 3, and 2 actions, respectively.  One of the things you can do on your turn is to move your figure up the display, allowing you to take the action you move to on a future turn.  However, you can’t have more than 2 such actions stored at a time.  So there’s a limit to how much real “programming” you can do.  Often, I just programmed an action and then carried it out on my next turn.  But there were also times in which I stored an action because I wanted to carry them out in a different order or for flexibility purposes.  So there’s potential for interesting decisions here, but in my first game, at least, it had less of an effect than I thought it might.

If I had to compare this to other Feld titles, I’d say the feel is about midway between Luna and Amerigo, which is pretty good company.  There’s an awful lot going on and, not surprisingly for a learning game, I only grokked some of it.  I definitely liked it, but I’ll need to play this several more times—and get a better feel for the mechanics—before I decide if I love it or not.  It doesn’t have that very innovative central mechanic to grab me, but there’s still plenty of potential here.

Rolling Japan:  We rolled this filler out for a second play.  After our first game, I reread the rules and discovered that we were playing incorrectly.  In our game, the player with the fewest spaces with X’s in them was declared the winner, but the actual rules say that you should add together the number of X’s and the number of blank spaces.  We decided to continue to play with our inadvertent variant, since we felt it added to the strategy (it behooves you to fill out an island early, so that all future dice rolls for that color can’t cause you to add any X’s).  The game was still enjoyable, but now I’d like to play with the rules in the box, to see which way we prefer.  I’ll let you know when we get a chance to try that out.

Zhanguo:  This game annoyed me.  A lot.  It’s not really because of the gameplay.  Mind you, I don’t think it’s a title that will ever be a personal favorite—mechanically, it’s quite simple, with all the complexity coming from heaps of detail in the scoring and bookkeeping areas, which isn’t my preferred type of game.  But it’s not a bad design; in fact, there’s a reasonable chance that it’s pretty good.  The problem, instead, was that the physical production served as a barrier to learning the game.  The rules are hard to slog through.  The graphics designer didn’t use the space on the cards effectively and the action illustrations and iconography on the board is inconsistent and confusing.  For a game without much in the way of innovative or unusual mechanics, it was just much harder to get into than was probably necessary.

Even with all of these problems, we probably could have sailed through the game if an adequate player’s aid had been included in the box.  And that’s the crux of my dissatisfaction:  once again, a publisher refused to include something like this, even for a game that cried out for a good aid.  It continues to be a huge mystery to me why publishers so rarely include player aids.  The cynical side of me thinks that they assume that some kind soul will put together something appropriate and post it on the Geek, so why should they bother to do it themselves?  If that is indeed their reasoning, it’s flawed for several reasons.  First, there’s no guarantee it will happen.  Second, even if it does, they might not do a good job or include inaccurate information.  Finally, even if a good aid does eventually get posted, it doesn’t help the early adapters, whose opinions and ratings are thought by some to have a disproportionate affect on sales.  Sorry for the rant, but it’s upsetting to have to struggle through a game because the publisher didn’t take the time to present their product in the most helpful way.  It could have easily turned a negative experience—I’ll be very surprised if any of us plays Zhanguo again—into a positive one.  But as they say, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression and What’s Your Game just blew their one chance with us.

Xalapa:  This is designed by Lauge Luchau, who gave us Uluru back in 2011.  It’s not technically an Essen game, since it was released back in March.  But since it has fewer than 30 ratings on the Geek, I’m willing to bet that most people’s first real exposure to it was at the fair.  Anyway, like Uluru, this is a speed game which requires the players to lay out pieces in unusual relationships.  This time, each player has a player board with a 6×6 array and different animals and colors shown in some of the squares.  Seven different tasks are laid out randomly for all the players to try to achieve by placing glass stones on some of the squares of their board.  For example, one task might be that the same number of geckos be covered on your board as you have blue spaces covered.  Or that you must have exactly two of the center spaces covered.  The object is to simultaneously achieve as many of these tasks as you can with the fewest number of stones.  Once one player is satisfied with her layout, she flips a 30 second timer and the rest of the players frantically try to finish up their efforts before time runs out.  For each task you don’t achieve, you get 3 penalty points.  You also get a penalty point for every stone you use.  After 7 rounds, whoever has the fewest total penalty points wins.

Obviously, this will be a game whose appeal depends upon how well the players are able to “see” these relationships.  Some people will really struggle with them and I can’t imagine Xalapa will be much fun for those folks.  But I liked it quite a bit.  It turns out I’m pretty good at both Uluru and this game, but more than that, I’m very impressed by the originality of these designs.  Luchau has now come up with two puzzle games that aren’t like anything else out there and that is always going to win my admiration.

One interesting thing about this title is that a player can often succeed by deliberately ignoring some of the tasks and focusing on the rest.  Not only does that simplify the process, but it means that he doesn’t risk screwing up the tasks he achieved earlier by laying out stones under time pressure.  I know that multiple times, I decided to leave well enough alone, even though I knew that some tasks hadn’t been addressed.  It seemed to work well for me.  This is different from Uluru, where we got to the point that you would usually lose ground for anything less than perfection.  Maybe we’ll get to the same level of expertise with Xalapa as well, but for now, it gives the game a different feel than the earlier Luchau game and might mean that good judgment is just as important as speed in laying out your stones.

Hellweg Westfalicus:  For our second play of Schacht’s latest, we used the Warehouse and Privileges “expansion”.  For the first half of the game, I was really enjoying the modified gameplay.  However, the effect of the Privilege cards then began to be felt and to us, at least, they appeared to be out of whack.  For one thing, the Additional Carriages card seems overpowered.  Not only does the player winning it get two extra carriages, but they come already “stored”, so with a little preparation, she can build an extremely strong road network at an early stage of the game for a single Stock Up action.  This seemed to give the player who got the card a significant advantage, out of proportion to the effort required to obtain it (or so it seemed to us).

An even bigger issue was the other three cards.  Any player who acquires all three of these (and it’s really not hard to do so) can set up a loop which allows him to place two items on the board each turn, plus earn 2 Thalers, while still carrying out an action.  This just seemed too good to turn down (except on rare occasions) and kind of made a mockery of the Storage action.  Because of this, we all had good road networks on the board at an early stage (or were able to easily modify our networks on the fly), and all of the Merchandise cards had been bought by the end of the 8th month.  It just seemed to make the game too easy.  I want to post a question on the Geek and ask Herr Schacht if we are playing the game correctly and if this is what his intent was with the design.  Hopefully, I can get an answer, because the game shows enough promise that we’re considering playing it without the cards!

So that’s the summary for Week 3.  There are still no games I’d call great on the list, although at least AquaSphere has the potential to get there (and Xalapa was a very pleasant surprise).  Tomorrow, we’re going to try to get Clinic, Tragedy Looper, and Mad King Ludwig played, among others.  Tune in again next week, as the search for Essen greatness continues!

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7 Responses to The Essen Experience: Week 3

  1. Hey guys, while Larry Levy is one of my all time favorite people to game with, and I feel like I know the rest of you pretty well, I think I have to comment on disliking ZhanGuo because of the lack of publisher provided player aids. When I received the game, I looked through the rules, and as is my usual custom, I tried to see what was in the rules that the players would need for a smoother experience. So I printed out (two sided) the page with the explanations on it four times, provided those print outs to the players and our games so far have been fine. Now ZhanGuo might not be a game for you anyway, but I think it’s a little over the top to criticize it just for not having pre-printed player aids when in fact you could have done the same thing I did.

    I have to say though, that I have a player in my group that doesn’t do well with verbal explanations of rules. He’s much better if he has something in front of him to look at, so I’m a little more aware of this issue than most. I remember a long time ago when Larry was discussing Shipyard, the two of us talked about how different our sessions were because I printed all the stuff out and his session didn’t include print outs. If publishers realized this, I think we’d see more print outs but many times games are negatively reviewed without really realizing the problem with the game is that people were not able to make fully informed decisions about what to do.

    I agree that we should not have to depend on BGG-user provided player aids, they are just as likely to be bad than good. But if the publisher provides downloadable rules with the information easily printed on a single sheet, I’m likely to cut the publisher some slack.

    • huzonfirst says:

      Jennifer, it’s a very fair comment. I freely admit that we could have put more effort into understanding ZhanGou. And if this had been February and it was the only new game of the session, we undoubtedly would have. Shoot, I’ve been known to create my OWN player aids for games I’m about to teach, just to ensure that the first session goes smoothly.

      But it’s not February, it’s November, and ZhanGou was one of several new games we played that day (and one of half a dozen that Ben had tried to prepare for prior to the session). Ideally, that wouldn’t make a difference, but, of course, in reality it does. Given all those new designs, I don’t think it’s too surprising we only relied on the equipment in the box to help us learn the game. We found it lacking and it certainly seemed to affect our first play of it.

      Now in some ways, that isn’t fair, me criticizing the components because of WHEN we played the game. But publishers must KNOW that at this time of year, much of their intended audience is up to their eyeballs in new games and is less likely to put extra effort into assimilating the rules to their new possessions. Hell, there are still many gamers who insist on learning games by reading the rules out loud, which I’m sure you’ll agree is far from ideal. So it’s just not that unusual for a game to be played under less than perfect circumstances. That’s why it’s completely in a publisher’s best interests to make this experience as easy on the players as they can. And a well-designed player aid can be a HUGE factor in making a group’s first game a positive experience. They are under no compulsion to do so, but if they don’t, and they don’t put sufficient effort into making other aspects of the game user-friendly, then they run the risk of having players dislike their first play of the game. And if they’re like us, there probably won’t be a second play.

  2. Jacob Lee says:

    Thanks for this thread! I was most interested in reading about ZhanGuo because I plan to order it when it becomes available in Canada. I’ve read a lot about this game because it has been one of my most anticipated leading up to Essen. What you described is the first I’ve read from among the many reviews and comments I’ve come across. That may be why I’m not swayed yet. The only thing you mentioned that worries me is “inconsistent” iconography. Again, this is the only time I’ve read that about this game. Now I have to go research if it really is inconsistent or just inconsistent to you . . .

    • huzonfirst says:

      Jacob, I’m glad you’re not overly influenced by what I wrote. I’m just relating what our experience with the game was. Based on the good ratings the game is receiving, it appears to be in the minority. Won’t be the first time we go against the tide and it won’t be the last.

      I had issues with several of the components, although if there had been time to prepare prior to the session (as I mentioned in the response above to Jennifer), there’s a good chance none of them would have been that serious. But the iconography I’m referring to is in the gameboard’s summary of the actions, right next to the “75” space on the scoreboard. I was trying to relate these to the actions on the fly as we were playing the game and they weren’t nearly as helpful as I would have liked. As you can see if you check out one of the pictures from the Geek, it’s not really obvious which of the illustrations are referring to the actions and which are the explanations. Moreover, some of the explanations are to the right of the actions and some share a space. It just seemed overly confusing. This may not seem like much, but given that I was struggling to do this during the course of the game, it made what should have been a useful guide into something less than helpful.

      If your plan is to buy this game, carefully read the rules, and go over the components ahead of time, then I wouldn’t be too concerned about picking up the game. I’ve bought games that were more confusing than ZhanGuo but, because I thought they had promise, I was willing to put in the effort to decipher everything and ensure that my fellow players understood the game as well as possible. The issue here was a game with less than ideal rules and components, no time to work through them ahead of time, and a consensus that the game wouldn’t be that good for us even if we did understand it. But if this is a game you think is well suited for you, I wouldn’t worry too much the icons. (However, it would be prudent to check them out for yourself, just as you suggest doing.)

  3. Dan Blum says:

    This is actually the third game Luchau has designed with the same basic idea; Dimension is the other one. Dimension looks the coolest but I thought it was kind of dull when played with the rules in the box. Luchau posted a rules change since then which I haven’t tried.

    • Dale Yu says:

      all 3 are cool ideas but fall flat with me for the same reason. The player who is 5% quicker at solving will still be the first person to solve >75% of the time – and while the rules try to balance this out – it still generally makes it an un-fun experience

      • huzonfirst says:

        I found this was less of an issue in Xalapa, Dale. Because complete solutions are much rarer (at least they were in our game), it then becomes a strategic decision of how good you want your decision to be. Consequently, it isn’t always the “best” player who turns over the time first. I won our game, but I usually didn’t declare first.

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