The Half Dozen (or is it more?) Decent Essen Games

Nearly twenty years ago now, Mike Siggins wrote in one of his excellent Essen wrap-ups in Sumo: “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.”  While the difference in the activity in the hobby seems to have changed, I’ve found Mike’s assessment of a half-dozen decent games as a very accurate way to look at Essen – no matter how much the event has grown, I still tend to look for, and find, around six decent games each year.  There are exceptions – 2013 brought far more than six games to my collection – but it’s usually spot-on.

Still, I was curious – does this metric apply to others?  And, of equal interest to me – which are the half-dozen decent games from this year’s Essen?  So I sent out a note to the Opinionated Gamers, receiving a half-dozen replies – plus ten.

As to the first question, the responses were essentially unanimous – Mike’s standard applies just as much in 2014 as it did back in 1995.  Most responses indicated that the precise number might differ a little from year-to-year, but coming up with exactly six games felt like the right number.  Some folks indicated that six wasn’t necessarily a natural breakpoint in 2014, but the numbers suggested were all clustered in the same area, ranging from four to eight.

So, what did your Opinionated Gamers see as the decent games of Essen 2014?  Surprisingly, given the diversity of opinions, there was one game which was listed by more than half of responses – Abraca…what?  This was a bit of a surprise, as while I’ve seen the game well received by most groups, I wouldn’t have expected it to stand out sufficiently to necessarily make top-six lists.  Another game, Deus, did nearly as well, appearing on seven lists; that was less of a surprise as I’ve frequently heard this listed as a hit for folks.  The third most frequently mentioned game was Mysterium, followed by a four-way tie for fourth between The Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Colors of Kasane, Fresh Fish, and Hyperborea.  Other games mentioned on multiple lists include Alchemists, Aquasphere, Boom: Runaway, Coup: Guatemala 1954, Five Tribes (which might have been listed more had more folks considered it to be an Essen release), Hansa Teutonica: Britannia, La Isla, Mangrovia, Nations: The Dice Game, Orleans, Patchwork, Ravens of Thri Sahashri, Rolling Japan, Terra Mystica: Fire and Ice, Versallies, Villannex, and Witness.

Of course, many of the Opinionated Gamers writers are still working their way through the Essen backlog.  Will Abraca…what? and Deus remain at the top of the heap as folks continue playing more releases?  I suspect they will both remain near the top, given the breadth of support so far, but beyond that the other games will vary quite a bit.  Ravens of Thri Sahashri, for instance, has only been played by two Opinionated Gamers so far – but both listed it; perhaps with wider exposure it will be recognized by more as one of the half-dozen decent games of Essen 2014.

So – what are _your_ half-dozen decent games from Essen 2014?

Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:

Greg Schloesser:  I am still making my way through the Essen releases, and am waiting on many more to arrive.  The only one I’ve really enjoyed so far is Castles of Mad King Ludwig.  La Isla is also good, but I don’t think it is going to elevate beyond “good”.  I have high hopes for several others, but so far I’ve not been terribly impressed by this year’s crop of games.

Larry:  Actually, I usually find considerably more than half a dozen “decent” games from each year’s Essen.  The key, of course, is how one defines decent.  I’ve chosen to define it as a game I’m quite happy to play (will hardly ever veto) and will sometimes suggest.  Taking that standard, I looked back at my ratings from 1999 (when I first began seriously playing German games) to 2013.  Unfortunately, I don’t know which games were Essen titles, but it’s pretty safe to say that most years at least 75% of the notable games debut during Essen.  Anyway, the number of my “decent” games per year varies from 8 to 21.  That’s a significant variance.  Using my 75% rule, it’s looks like even the worst years have at least 6 decent designs, but the best ones have two or three times that many.  By the way, my number of decent games tends to increase over time.  I attribute that mostly to the fact that more games are released today than there were 15 years ago and that number has been steadily increasing.  It also seems that there are considerably more games I consider good, but not great these days than there used to be.

What if I chose to define “decent” as games that I give an OG rating of “I love it”?  In that case, the number of games would fall below Mike’s half dozen standard.  Most years, I have fewer than 6 games I love which appeared over the course of the entire year, much less at Essen.  The number of great games, though, has stayed fairly constant per year over the 15 years I considered.  For me, at least, greatness doesn’t vary with time, but decency does!

W Eric Martin: Joe presented us OG writers with this quote from Siggins and asked for a list of a half-dozen games that fit the category. I supplied that list, but my list of decent games would easily hit double digits, decent being a low bar to clear on the way to excellence, supremacy and rapturous bliss.

Also, the categorization of which games qualify as Spiel releases has blurred in the past couple of years, with European titles spilling over into Gen Con (Abyss) and U.S. releases washing up in Essen (Red7) and limited releases that make you wonder whether or not something qualifies as released or not (both Five Tribes and Samurai Spirit at Gen Con 2014). I don’t tend to worry about such things, but they do become issues for those making lists.

Lorna: Well I easily find at least a half dozen games I consider decent at each Essen. I have a reasonably broad palate and enjoy different types of games for many reasons. To me the expansion of the the hobby has certainly brought so much more opportunity for any given individual to find games they like. I love that designers from so many countries are entering the market, it’s not just Germany but designers from the 4 corners of the world that are all making their mark. Their cultural and individual perspectives make the world of board gaming so much more interesting to me now I can’t imagine going back. There are so many more of each type of theme to choose from, new takes on old mechanisms, new mechanisms etc, that I suspect if you can’t find at least a dozen games you consider decent you aren’t looking hard enough.


Dale: Like Lorna, I also generally don’t have a problem finding six games that I consider at least decent.  For me, this exercise is more about paring the list down to ONLY six!  Now, I’ll admit, that I may have a slight numbers advantage in this process as I’ve already played 94 “Essen 2014 releases” – though the definition of this is a bit loose.  In any event, I think even the most jaded Eurogamer would find at least 6 decent games in a pool that large!   (I also had to abstain from rating/ranking a number of games this year that I have personally worked on…)

Though ratings are sure to change over time, and many of my ratings may only be based on between one and three plays, I currently have 11 Essen 2014 releases that are “I love it!” and 32 games that are “I like it”.  My overall impression of 2014 is that there are a lot of good to really good games but thus far very few stand-out “instant classic” games that I feel that I’ll definitely be playing ten years from now.  I’ve been very happy with the variety of games I’ve played thus far.

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: six is a good number but seven, eight, five could be good as well. Of course, the real problem about Essen 2014 releases are Essen 2015 releases. I think some games need time to consolidate and there are a lot of games I really would like to play more than 3-4 times but the newcomers are knocking on the door. I was lucky to have sons that are growing up looking the piles of games stored on the stairs in my home and sometimes asking me to play something not really new. The second problem is to have a real good definition of Essen’s releases … nowadays games are released almost with continuity during the year especially if I wait the localization.

It would be great to have time to play a game at least 5 times in an year and some games are like good balsamic vinegar needing time to make emerge their true flavor.

I’m still waiting to play most of the Essen’s releases but if I could stop the time today there are some titles impressing me and I’m sure I would like to play for many years:

Hyperborea: is one of the best games wisley shaking german mechanic and strong theme. Some new real good ideas, something old smartly refreshed with a gorgeous outfit.

Richard I: probably the greatest 2014 surprise. A game that really works well with up to 8 players working in team but rushing for a solo victory. A really balanced game of strategy and planning. Great

Versailles: one of the few novelty in the crowded worker-placement group. A tense and well designed games often ending in an engaging last point challenge.

Imperialism: Road to Domination: a well designed and well themed game with a strong core mechanics and all the needed special effects. Really good.

Dark Tales: a light 2-4 players games with a nice mechanic and a great outfit. Not a really deep strategic games but a filler I’m sure I would like to play and play again.

Tiny Epic Kingdoms: not really an Essen release but I got my copy close to Essen. A well designed filler with strategy and theme that you can bring almost everywhere. Great

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10 Responses to The Half Dozen (or is it more?) Decent Essen Games

  1. So where’s the combined list?

    • Joe Huber says:

      In the body of the article; in list form, it would be:

      The Castles of Mad King Ludwig
      Colors of Kasane
      Fresh Fish

  2. Ben (chally) says:

    Personally, I think people might be a little generous with the descriptor “decent.” It is certainly hard to come up with a half-dozen games each year that I still consider worth owning 12 months later. And if I don’t own a game, that means I’d be comfortable never playing it again.

    This year, I see Coup: Guatemala 1954 lasting all the way to next winter. I certainly hope that will also be true of Tragedy Looper, just because it is so different and interesting, and Mysterium, because it is better than a similar game currently on my shelf. But after that, there’s just a string of maybes: Five Tribes, Alchemists, Aqua Sphere, and Red7 will all require sufficient group buy-in just to get them played enough to potentially turn into favorites.

  3. jeffinberlin says:

    Maybe it should be, “6 Games from this year that I will happily pay MSRP for and not trade/sell within the next 2 years.”

    For me, that’s usually 2-3 games each year. I don’t know if any of these games will be that for me, but I want to try Abraca…what?, Mysterium, Deus, and Fresh Fish (having not played the original).

    • > Maybe it should be, “6 Games from this year that I will happily pay MSRP for…

      That’s 0 for me each year. Although usually there’s about one worth paying online price from Germany and paying international shipping to get it to US. This year it was Yunnan.

  4. So far I’ve got 3 games that I’d happily play MSRP for and will probably be in my collection in 2 years (18OE, Panamax, and Red7) but none of them are Essen releases. That said, it’s way too early for me to rate the Essen releases. I have hope for Wir Sind Das Volk and Bucket King 3D, and possibly Swedish Parliament 2014, Arkwright and Fresh Fish. For those that have not played the new version of Fresh Fish, I haven’t played the original but this new version seems to play differently enough that I would consider it a new release.

  5. lambolt says:

    Given the amount of time and pleasure received by owning a record (OK, let’s pretend to be old fashioned and ignore that we just have digitally streamed stuff now), I still find it a mix of shocking, amusing and depressing that given the low number of plays boardgames seem to receive on average, that the criterion for a decent game is one you might not sell or trade within 2 or 3 years. I think it says a lot about the reality of the boardgaming “hobby” and it’s not for me. Favourite records are essentially the same (notwithstanding changing perception) yet most people who own music listen to it hundreds if not thousands of times over many years – boardgames, which after all are supposed to provide a varying experience each time, indeed, that’s one of their selling points isn’t it? are just consumed and disposed of with life cycles that are an embarrassment to the idea that people are “interested” in games. Rote buying of boxes full of new stuff, when it’s patently clear that the vast majority of them are just minor variations of the same old ideas and principles and trying to pretend that there’s value in that seems like insanity to me. You only need go back every single year to the games that are “in vogue” for discussion and see how much interest and discussion they are generating now, and that is from people that I know are very experienced, knowledgeable and adept with the games they’re playing. What are you all trying to get out of each years “new and shiny” things, and why are you not still talking about and discussing the games that only N (where N = 1, 2, 3 etc etc) years ago you were all telling us were great new games. What are you hoping to find, and how are you powering your geometric time expander to open up your free time to be able to accommodate all these new essential experiences. In a culture where it seems like you should get a badge of honour now for playing a game more than 3 times it’s hard to see what the goal is other than just to cycle through a new bag of toys every year for the sake of it. Why does every game site and blog HAVE to buy into this obsessive turnover compulsion, is it just another example of how we as people are slaves to our habits. Why is that detailed retrospective, analysis, proper criticism and discussion of games over time contributes less than 1% to the signal of the woo hoo heres this years new and totally awesome 300 games absolutely not just like last years lot. It would be less tragic if the majority of these games that get touted as being really meritorious didn’t totally disappear from discussion and analysis sites within a year or two, nevermind trying to seek out discussion of games that have stood the test of time for a decade or more. Its a damned shame that Tigris & Euphrates was released close to 2 decades ago and still hasn’t been touched by a Euro design since, if anything, we get further and further away from it every year. It’s a shame we can’t look back on 15 years worth of articles and analysis of Tigris instead of the utterly interchangeable prattle about thousands of new games, the vast majority of which aren’t worth the bother of even opening. Oh, Happy New Year bah humbug.

    • I don’t think the music biz (or even the film industry) does a very good job of proving your point, as there are infinitely more throwaway albums and films every year as there are one-and-done games. I also think you missed the point of the article, which was to claim that there are a consistent number of new games every year that deserve to be played in the future rather than quickly forgotten.

    • :D Lee!! Great to hear from you! And, as always, I love reading what you’ve got to say. Like Jeff says, I think the point of the article is that there are, around 5 or 6 new games each year that are “worth owning” and that sounds about right to me. .

      As far as the lack of detailed analysis of games, I also wish there was more, but it’s unfair to compare it to music. Music can be analyzed in isolation where game analysis needs not only repeated game play, but repeated game play with the same people. That’s tough. Even if you individually decide to reduce your consumerism, finding 3 other people who simultaneously agree to reduce their consumerism and do it so much that the collective consumerism reduces to a point that is low enough that there is any benefit. While that’s possible, it’s tough.

      I’m also not convinced many games lend themselves to the same level of analysis as a game like Chess or Go. Take Agricola or Race for the Galaxy, both games I’ve played well over 100 times. While people could do (and very likely have done) detailed analysis of the card combinations, is that really something you’d find interesting? Twilight Struggle is a game I’ve only played a handful of times (and Vassal scares me — I really need to figure out how to use it sometime) but I suspect it would fit into the same category. I just don’t know that I’d find a detailed strategic analysis interesting in the same way that I found analysis of Chess openings, tactics, and endgames interesting twenty years ago. That said, I do wish there was deeper analysis of how a game feels. Like music, such a review would be subjective, but for me at least, it would be much more interesting than a re-hash summary of the rules. And I am finding more reviews on BGG to be less a rules re-hash and more impressions (albeit very initial impressions) of games.

      And lastly for me, the games that I’d put in my “Best 5” list are the ones that do something different. Red7 creates a fun traditional card game experience (for me at least) in a single 5-minute hand. Is it better or sufficiently different than 6 Nimmt (the only game that comes to mind of similar length and compactness)? I’m not sure, but the pretty colors are more likely to catch my kids’ attention. 18OE may be as transformative to 18XX as Settlers was to modern boardgaming in its elevation of components. There will always be people who prefer the elegance of the old 18XX games but I expect that 18OE may be a beginning to “prettier” 18XX games (for better or worse). It’s also (when playing a short scenario) one of the better games for introducing new players. Since all the companies start at the beginning and there’s no “buying in privates”, a lot of the stuff that makes many of the 18XX games difficult is removed. And again, the pretty colors will draw more people to this niche hobby within a niche hobby. These are just two of my “best 2014 games”. Others will have different ones and it’s entirely possible that there may be 5 or 6 games that are sufficiently different than the pack that they will still be played by some people 20 years later.

      On a side note, take Bucket King 3D. It doesn’t do anything particularly different. However, it’s cute, colorful, fun and short. I suspect that 3 years ago it’ll be forgotten by the vast majority of people. However, right now, it’s fun. Isn’t there a lot of music that fits that same criteria? If I get 20 – 30 plays out of Bucket King 3D and then replace it this time next year, I’ll certain feel like I got my money’s worth out of it. It’s not a deep game. It’s not worthy of analysis. It’s just fun.

      P.S. Miss you, my friend!

    • Joe Huber says:


      I can only speak for myself – but I play (but usually don’t buy) lots of new games not to find a game that will be gone in two years – but to find the much smaller set of games that will stick around 5, 10, 20 years or more. I’m always very impressed by those who can figure out accurately which games will really work for them without playing them; I’m always discovering games I enjoy, which didn’t _sound_ appealing to me, and games which sound very appealing but which don’t work at all for me. A third of the games I played in 2014 I first played in 2004 or before; that’s about what I’m ideally looking for. But – while I’m interested in _exploring_ the depths of a game, often I’m not so interested in writing about it.

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