The Essen Experience: Week 4

Once again, Ben, KAS, and Larry (Tom would join us in the evening) intrepidly plowed our way through more of our Essen haul last Saturday.  What with BGG.con coming the following week (sadly, I will not be attending, but the rest of them will be) and the non-gaming event known as Thanksgiving following the week after (bloody game-hating Pilgrims!), this may have been my last shot at new game playing for a while.  Did we make it count?  Read on, Macduff!

Clinic:  This game about building and running a medical clinic is from designer Alban Viard.  Viard is best known for his many Age of Steam expansions; lately, he has been producing abstract city-building games with a strong spatial element.  This is easily his most ambitious title.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a game with so many strong thematic elements where the gameplay routinely trashes that theme.  Because all the aspects of running a medical practice are here:  doctors, nurses, patients, operating rooms, etc.  And then you play the game and you find that it’s frequently advantageous for players to let their patients get sicker before treating them.  Or that nurses and staff members are sometimes more expensive to hire than doctors.  Or that players often care more about the length of hospital corridors and the availability of parking spaces than they do about healing the sick.  Or that highly trained doctors have much more difficulty treating less seriously sick patients than poorly trained ones do.  Or that those same highly trained doctors get stupider every turn.  And on and on.  Unless you have a particularly jaundiced view of the medical profession, that’s hardly realistic.  It’s a Euro, so you just have to accept things and enjoy the game, but those who were more attracted to the title’s theme than to its mechanics should probably stay far away from this one.

Thematic foibles aside, this has quite a bit going for it.  There’s a lot to think about and there are a large number of approaches to winning, several of which weren’t even explored in our first game.  There’s nothing hugely innovative about the mechanics, but the game doesn’t really feel like any other I’ve played.  Much of the interaction is via hate drafting, but it’s viable, without being so frequent that you can’t carry out a plan.  I think we all found the game reasonably absorbing.

Unfortunately, there are also quite a few rough patches.  It’s a long game:  our first attempt went well over 3 hours and while that should go down with more experience, it would be a challenge to get this played in the listed 2 hour duration.  Turn order seems overly powerful.  Since it’s determined by reverse VP order, players’ fortunes can careen wildly from rags to riches to rags again.  Moreover, there doesn’t appear to be anything close to compensating for the random turn order on the first turn.  This is made even more problematic by what appears to be some severely unbalanced building options.  For example, the Laboratory appears to be extremely powerful, yielding the lucky owner up to 3 VPs a turn while providing free training of his doctors.  On the other hand, the gardens don’t seem to be worth building at all.  The rules are quite hard to get through and there are some areas where we just had to guess at the designer’s intent.

Overall, I liked the game, but it does seem that it could have benefited from additional development.  Hopefully, with a revised ruleset and some rulings from the designer, this title will be able to live up to its considerable promise.  Otherwise, given its duration and other issues, it may wind up DOA.

Fresh Fish:  Friedemann Friese’s 1997 game Frisch Fisch gave us the first glimmer of how creative a mind was hidden under all that green hair.  Its main feature, the expropriation rule, is one of the most remarkable and original mechanisms I’ve ever encountered in gaming.  It’s also one of the toughest rules to implement I’ve ever seen; even experienced players often mess it up and it represents an enormous barrier for learning the game.  Consequently, the design is much admired, but only rarely played.

Fresh Fish is Friese’s attempt to streamline his earlier creation, similar to the design work he did when he turned Funkenschlag into Power Grid.  And just as with that earlier effort, I think it’s very much a success.  Instead of the easily explained, but very hard to visualize expropriation rule, the new game has a very simple mechanic that also automatically places roads on the board.  Remarkably, it manages to serve much the same function as the original rule, but this one is a cinch to explain and to implement.  That means the players are free to worry about all the delightful and vicious strategies of this auction and placement game and not have to spend all their time figuring out which spaces get turned into roads.  It also means that the game packs just as many interesting decisions into a considerably shorter timeframe.

Normally, I strongly dislike blind bidding, but here it’s absolutely the right choice.  Otherwise, it would be too risky for players to try to bid an opponent up; the ramifications of winning a bid for an unproductive item are just too devastating.  So this is another smart move by Friedemann to retain this from the original game.

Like Frisch Fisch, in Fresh Fish the order in which the tiles come up can be critical and can easily decide the game.  In the original title, that could be frustrating, particularly after expending all that brainpower on figuring out the expropriations.  In the new design, it’s not ideal, but it’s now a feature of a much quicker playing and lighter game.  In other words, by simplifying his creation, Friese has let the gameplay match the weight of the design, which simply makes it the better game.

Do I miss the old expropriation rule?  A little bit—it was so clever and so original.  But honestly, it’s better in theory than in practice; I will not miss having four players stare at the board, trying to figure out if we’ve missed any spaces which should have been turned into roads.

So, at long last, is this my first great game from the fair?  It’s kind of on the cusp.  There’s no question that I thoroughly enjoyed my first play of the new version.  On the other hand, I’m not completely certain that this has staying power or high replayability.  More than anything, I think I’m just in awe that Friedemann has once again been able to rework one of his earlier masterworks and make it even better.  I mean, come on—it’s not supposed to be that easy!  Taking all that into account, I think I’ll call this “great” for now and see what future plays will bring.

Tragedy Looper:  This is a “one vs. everybody” deduction game from Japan.  The concept is similar to the one in Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow:  the players are trying to stop a “tragedy” from occurring and must relive the events of the day until they succeed (or until they run out of attempts and lose).

The game consists of a bunch of scenarios, each of which features four locations and several different characters.  One player is the Mastermind, who opposes the rest of the players, who work together as a team.  Each player (including the Mastermind) has a hand of cards and the two sides will each play a total of 3 action cards onto characters or locations each turn.  Actions include things like moving the character to another location or assigning them tokens for things like Goodwill, Paranoia, and Intrigue.  Based on these actions, a tragedy may occur, including occurrences such as murder, suicide, Villa Paletti winning the SdJ—stuff like that.  Only the Mastermind knows what conditions will lead to what results at the beginning of the scenario.  The other players will need to try different things to see what will happen.  Because if a tragedy does occur, that “loop” (attempt) will end immediately and everyone gets to start over.  Only now, the allied team has more information and can try to avoid the mistakes of the past.  If the allied players can go through an entire loop without triggering a tragedy, they win.  If, instead, all of their allotted loops end with a tragedy, the Mastermind wins.

The fun of the game, for the allied team, is trying to figure out what the rules of the scenario are, by trying different things and attempting to frustrate the objectives of the Mastermind.  In that regard, it’s as much an induction game as a deduction game.  The nice thing is that the Mastermind has just as active a role (in fact, it probably requires much more skill) by giving the others as little information as possible, while still ensuring that tragedies occur.

The game is deliberately obscure, but some of the things which are intended to be clear are more confusing then you’d like, including idiosyncratic names for the character states and icons on the tokens which can be hard to distinguish.  The biggest issue for me, though, is that much of the game comes down to the allied players trying to guess which cards the Mastermind has placed on the characters and the Mastermind trying to bluff the other players about his intentions.  As I’ve mentioned before, those kinds of guessing games just don’t interest me.  In this case, at least, I was able to let my teammates take over when the guessing took place, but it meant that I was pretty unengaged for the last part of the game.  The game is quite clever and I can see why it’s well rated, but while I could be talked into playing it again, I’d be just as happy to let the other table deal with trying to rewrite history.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig:  This is the follow-up to Ted Alspach’s hit game Suburbia (which has recently cracked the top 50 on the Geek:  congrats, Ted!).  I’ve only played Suburbia once, as a prototype, and I found all the information, in both my and my opponents’ displays, to be completely overwhelming, so I’ve never been tempted to try it again.  Castles has less stuff going on, but unfortunately, I had similar problems.  Basically, you’re building a castle composed of wacky buildings of different types, where each building has its own arbitrary list of which buildings it wants, and doesn’t want, to be connected to.  My 50-something eyes had way too much trouble distinguishing the building icons from across the table (although, to be fair, my 30-something opponents didn’t seem to share that difficulty).  Consequently, I just focused on my own display and pretty much ignored my fellow players.  The problem with that is that you begin each turn by drawing and pricing seven buildings, and the central concept of the game is to take your opponents’ desires when coming up with the optimal prices.  I tried to use common sense when pricing my choices, but needless to say, there were a few instances where an opponent was able to buy a building at a bargain price.

In addition to my inability to take in all the details, there appears to be a reasonably high luck factor in the game, both from when buildings are exposed and from which bonus cards you draw.  It all adds up to a game that I’m not that anxious to play again.

If you’ve been following these articles, you may have noticed a disturbing pattern of games whose level of detail seem to overwhelm me.  On the one hand, I’d say that there’s been a recent trend of games that utilize heaps of details, as opposed to designs that derive their complexity from the depth of their more elegant mechanics.  However, it’s also made me wonder if perhaps my fading eyes and/or my aging brain might be restricting the number of titles that I’m able to appreciate.  I will say that I don’t have any problem judging an opponent’s position at a glance in older games like Puerto Rico or Castles of Burgundy.  But the number of times this has happened over the past month is a bit disquieting.  Even if it is the case, there continues to be plenty of new games that I do enjoy, so I’m not ready to head for the Old Gamer’s Home just yet.  I’m hoping it won’t be a problem for many years, but it’s something to keep an eye on.  In the meantime, I’ll steer clear of Mad King Ludwig, while congratulating Ted (and Dale!) for what appears to be another hit design.

Coup:  Guatemala 1954:  I’m not a big fan of Social Deduction games.  One of the few I’m willing to play is Coup, mostly because it’s simple, it’s fast, and for some reason I’m pretty good at it (I usually avoid risky moves and accusations early on, letting my opponents do the dirty work for me).  Anyway, this is a standalone, expanded version of Coup, by the same designer, which contains 25 roles, instead of the original’s 5 roles.  The roles are arranged in 5 categories and each game, you choose one role from each category.  Other than that, the game is pretty much the same.

Most of the roles are considerably more complicated than the ones in basic Coup.  Here’s a case where I feel that simpler is better.  It just feels like most of the charm and elegance of the original game is lost.  I’m okay with the new game for a hand or two, but then I’m ready to move on.  That was not the case with Tom, a big fan of Coup, who somehow hadn’t been aware of the existence of the new game.  He was practically beside himself with ecstasy!  I’m pretty sure he would have played nothing but the new version for the rest of the night if we’d let him!

The roles in the new game seem reasonably balanced, well thought out, and certainly provide a good deal of variety (there are over 3000 combinations possible).  If you’ve played a ton of Coup and are looking for something similar, this would be a fine choice.  I’ll just stick to the original, though.

Rolling Japan:  Another play of our new favorite filler.  This time, we played with the rules in the box.  (In our accidental variant, only spaces with X’s in them count against you; the actual rules say to add up spaces with X’s and blank spaces.)  I think the correct version is a little more interesting to play.  With the variant, you want to completely fill up a color’s spaces as quickly as possible, so that you aren’t forced to place an X there; with the actual rules, you want to spread your numbers out, since your goal is to place as many numbers as possible.  Spreading your numbers out seems more challenging to me.  However, with these rules, we wound up with a four-way tie!  Although the variant had always produced close contests, we hadn’t seen a tie in our two games.  Not much in the way of data, but it does seem as if the actual rules would produce more ties (since you’re trying to avoid closing out colors, giving the players similar opportunities for placing numbers).  Since my one concern about the game is that ties would be common (and since the rules give no tiebreaker), I think we’ll be sticking to our variant.  If anyone else tries this both ways, I’d love to hear what you think of the two versions.

So after four weeks, it’s still a pretty mixed bag.  At least I finally got to play a game I consider to be great (thank you, Friedemann!).  Of the others, Orleans, AquaSphere, Xalapa, La Granja, and the Britannia expansion to Hansa Teutonica are winners.  I had gotten to play Five Tribes earlier, but I still consider it an Essen game and I definitely enjoyed that as well.  And, of course, there’s still a ton of new games I’m looking forward to that I’ve yet to play, including KanBan, Deus, Hyperboria, The Staufer Dynasty, and the Nations Dice Game.  Who knows, if I can find enough poor souls who also can’t make it to Dallas this week, maybe I’ll be able to try one of them this weekend.  If I do, I’ll be sure to tell you all about it!

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4 Responses to The Essen Experience: Week 4

  1. Dale Yu says:

    Larry – (I’ll try to use a larger font so you can read this)
    glad you tried Castles. I didn’t think it would be your sort of game… Though from reading your weekly columns, i’m starting to think your sort of game is “non-Essen-release”!

    I am looking forward to trying Fresh Fish. It has almost made our table two weeks in a row and then something else snuck in.

    I still have two big gamedays coming up in the next three weeks, but I’m already ahead of you as far as games that I feel really good about.

    • huzonfirst says:

      Thanks for the large font, Dale. I was able to read it just fine after I magnified my screen up to 200%.

      In case it hasn’t been obvious, these are just my personal views about the games, including Castles and Suburbia. Just about eveyone else I know likes both games, and in some cases, they love them. I don’t see anything mechanically wrong with either of them, other than they both feature more detail than I can take in without slowing the game to a crawl. So I avoid playing them, but as far as I can tell, they’re both very successful designs.

      Although I wish there were more of the new games that appealed to me, I’m not completely surprised this has turned out to be an off year for me. 2013 was one of the best Essens for me since I entered the hobby and that often is a result of a bunch of games that I like just happening to fall in that particular fair. So in cases like that, it’s not that uncommon that the years surrounding the good year contain fewer games I love. Certainly, there were very few titles that I was really looking forward to during the leadup to Essen. It also doesn’t help that my two most anticipated games, Mike Fitz’s Baseball Highlights and Wallace’s Ships, were both delayed to early 2015. So if that list of games I gave at the end of the article doesn’t contain a few winners, this may turn out to be an historically bad year for me. But the great thing about our hobby is that, even for a crazed Cult of the New disciple like myself, there are so many great games to play that a one year slump just isn’t that big a deal. Besides, now there’s reason to think that 2015 may start off with a bang!

  2. Dan Blum says:

    Note that the new version of Fresh Fish includes the original game rules as a variant, so you don’t have to choose – you can play either way with the new set. (You can’t make a board identical to the original board with the new tiles, but close enough.)

  3. So far from what I’m hearing/seeing, this seems to be the Spiele year of the solid releases. Nothing extraordinary but lots of good stuff. Even Fresh Fish is more a reboot than a new game. I have yet to plan Han but I’d put that in the same bucket. My only exceptions, 18OE and Panamax, were both released earlier this year.

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