Essen Day Two: Thoughts from a First Time Attendee

Note: This is my first time attending Essen, so in my entries this week I’m discussing the convention from the perspective of a first time attendee.  I’m also providing snap reviews of games: below I talk about 504, 7 Wonders Duel, and Mombasa.  These are just first impressions: I’m sure the OG will follow-up with full reviews in the coming weeks.  

Today was all about playing new games and gauging the hotness.  I played about a dozen different games today, and three really stood out: 7 Wonders Duel, Mombasa, and 504.  All are doing phenomenally well at the convention: on the BGG hotness list, 7 Wonders Duel is #1, 504 is #2, and Mombasa is #26.  On the Fair Play list, Mombasa is tied for #2, 7 Wonders Duel is tied for # 7, and 504 is not currently ranked (although it was earlier in the day, so I suspect it is just outside of the Top 12).  

As for my on-the-ground impressions about the hotness, the BGG list and Fair Play seem to be doing a good job of conveying the hot games.  I don’t know much about the Fair Play list, but the BGG list is subject to location bias (and low voter turnout), but the games on it now seem to match my on-the-ground-impressions.

I ask almost everybody I meet what their favorite game is so far.  The most common answer is that they haven’t played many games… more on that below.  But the most common answers so far have been Codenames, 7 Wonders Duel, 504, and Mysterium.  At one point tonight half the tables in the Moevenpick (my hotel) were dedicated to Codenames, and earlier in the night, 7 Wonders Duel had an outsized presence.  Among those more inclined towards heavier Euros, a game called Signiore (which I haven’t tried) is getting a lot of buzz.

I actually haven’t heard of much selling out.  Over at Bezier Games, the expansion Castles of Mad King Ludwig: Secrets sold out by 1:00 yesterday.  (No surprise: the expansion is top notch.)  Over at 2F-Spiele (Friedemann Friese’s company), Power Grid: The Stock Companies also sold out.  Many of the Japon brand games sold out on pre-order or shortly after the convention started (as apparently happens every year).  I don’t know about the German editions of 504, but I know the English editions will likely be gone very early in the morning (and impressive feat, since Stronghold reportedly had 900 on hand).

Essen: More about shopping for games than playing games…

The biggest difference between Essen and Gen Con, at least to me, is the type and number of games that get released.  But the second biggest difference would be in how many games actually get played: there’s a lot of open gaming at Gen Con, but almost none at Essen.

I ate lunch with an AEG developer today, and it was his first time at Essen too, although he’s spent a lot of time at Gen Con.  We were joined by a British woman who attended Essen but not Gen Con.  The conversation turned to the differences between the two events, and the AEG guy and I both commented that we were surprised by how few games get played: there is almost no open gaming at Essen, although you do find a few people playing on the floor.  The convention hall closes at 7:00, and after that, the gaming happens at the area hotels (or, for a lot of the German families, at home).  My hotel has opened a large room for gaming, although it is a bit crowded.

There’s also a difference in how demos are conducted: at Gen Con, I often just got showed a few rounds of the game, but at Essen, I’m typically seeing the entire game, or at least most of it.  The booths are bigger, though, so at many publishers, I’d guess it washes out to a similar number of games demoed.  But at smaller booths, you may have to wait a while to get a demo.  

Inital Impressions of Games

504

As game reviewers, how do we ever tackle 504?  The most prolific game reviewers typically don’t do 500 game reviews in a year.

Going into the convention, I was deeply skeptical of the game (or game system?).  I bought a copy because I admired the ambition of the idea, and I’m a fan of Friedemann Friese, but I fully expected gameplay to fall flat.  In short, I thought I’d either get (a) 504 minor variants of 1 game, or (2) 504 games of varying quality (which would, on average, be mediocre at best).  Fortunately, after my first play (and watching another), and after reading the rulebook, I’m able to strike my first concern: this likely is 504 different games, or somewhere close to it.  Unfortunately, I can’t tell anything about the quality of the other 502 games I haven’t seen.  What I can say is that I enjoyed my one play, which is #163 (Pick Up & Deliver, Roads, and Privileges).

Here’s the idea behind 504: there’s a common set of rules to all games, but the central mechanics are determined by a flip book.  You pick three elements: the scoring and end-game condition, the way income is determined, and another mechanic “for additional flavor.”  

504

In our game, you scored points by picking up goods at one city and delivering them to another.  Easy enough.  But how many spaces your cart could move in a round could be upgraded, and you could build networks to make movement less costly.  These networks also provided income, so you had to balance your spend on your network and the ability of your cart.  It had a bit of a flavor of engine building.

The game was fun, and it was surprisingly easy to learn.  The component quality was excellent, and the game looks beautiful.  (One exception to this: the game uses paper money, which always annoys me.)  There was perhaps a bit too much downtime between turns, but that was likely just because it was a learning game.

So I enjoyed my one play, and the game that I played would be fun to try again.  But there are 503 other worlds to try, so I’ll likely say adieu to world 163 after my one play.  I can’t speak to the other 503 games, but I do know that the system seems fun, and it’ll get some more plays from me.   And Friedemann Friese (and Stronghold Games) deserve serious props for taking on such an ambitious project.

My Initial OG Rating: I like it.

7 Wonders Duel

If Delta Airlines changed their luggage policy, and I suddenly found myself only able to bring back one game, at this point it might be 7 Wonders Duel.  I got to see it at Gen Con, but I got my first complete play in this evening.  I loved it so much that I just had to get in another play, so I did.  

7 Wonders already has a two-player version.  For real… it is in the rules… you can go check!  I’ve tried it once.  It was clunky but manageable.  7 Wonders Duel fixes that, bringing the joy of 7 Wonders to a 2-player game.  And if you know how to play 7 Wonders, you can pick up how to play Duel in just a few minutes.

But this isn’t just 7 Wonders for two-players: there actually seems to be a bit more game depth to 7 Wonders Duel than there is to 7 Wonders.  I say that with great reluctance: I’ve played 7 Wonders a couple hundred times (it was an overwhelming favorite of my law school classmates), and I love that game, but there are some cool elements in 7 Wonders Duel that take gameplay to the next level.

Here’s how it works: you start by drafting wonders.  You get four each: pictured below are the four I had in my first game.

7 Wonders Duel Wonders

Then you build the card tableau which will be used for drafting.  In the first age it is a pyramid shape, in the second age it is an upside down pyramid, and in the third age it looks more like a column.  

7WD Tableau

You take cards, with each player being free to take any card that isn’t partially covered in the tableau.

There are three ways to win: by getting to the end of the military track (military just advances you along the track in this game), by getting 6 science tokens, or by having the most points when the last card is taken.  

7WD Track

The game has a few cool mechanics.  The cost of buying resources from the bank is 2 plus the total of that resource your opponent has.  The military duel is a fascinating one (and indeed it is how I lost my first play).  And there’s a lot of strategy in how you unfurl the tableau.

Overall, I think there’s actually more game here than there is in 7 Wonders.  As the title suggests, this is a tense duel.

My Initial OG Rating: I love it!

Mombasa

I’m a big fan of the medium-weight Euro, and Mombasa is a bit heavier than my sweet spot, but nonetheless I enjoyed my demo and subsequent play enough to buy a copy of the game.  (Also, is Alexander Pfister a rising star?  Mombasa is a hit thus far.  Broom Service won the KdJ.  Port Royal was pretty fun.  And Isle of Sky got a positive review from Dale, John, Craig, and Karen.)

There’s a lot going on in the game, and I can’t even begin to scratch the surface here, although I’m hoping to write a review in the coming weeks.  In short, the game has elements of deck building mixed with worker placement.  The way cards enter and leave your deck depends on a unique mechanic (as far as I can tell): each round, when you select cards, you assign them to one of the spaces on your board, and they move up to piles above the board in that order.  At the end of your turn you can pull down one of the piles, making for some tough (but interesting) choices.

The game is a bit difficult to learn (it took 30 minutes to get the rules explained to us), but I found it very intuitive after that.

So who will enjoy Mombasa?  Fans of heavier Euros, particularly the no-luck crowd, you like worker placement (the primary mechanic) and deck building (the secondary mechanic).  And I have to give this game props for using a new mechanic in a clever and streamlined way.
My Initial OG Rating: I like it.

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