Essen ’18 Days Three & Four: What’s was hot, and thoughts on the year in gaming… (Chris Wray)


Essen 2018 is now complete!  I’m taking a brief break from packing to write this blog post.  Many of the Opinionated Gamers left today (Sunday), but I don’t fly out until Monday morning.  

Below I talk about what was hot at Essen 2018, and offer some thoughts on the year in gaming overall.  I’ll have several mini reviews in a post coming in a few days.

What’s Hot

As always, I discuss the Fairplay and Geekbuzz lists.

Here’s the final Fairplay list of this evening, in the same order they appear on the list:

  • Belratti
  • City of Rome
  • Lift Off
  • Coimbra
  • NEOM
  • Meeple Circus
  • Carpe Diem
  • Tudor
  • Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra
  • Spring Meadow
  • The River

The Fairplay list was a wild ride this year.  Game surged onto it, then fell off, then surged back on again.  In the end, to make the list a game had to have 30+ votes with an average rating of 3.5+.  That’s really not much.  I suspect the vote count requirement did more to keep games off the list than the actual ratings, which means heavier games were at a material disadvantage.

But let’s talk about the #1 game on the list: Belratti.  It’s great — I did a mini-review of it Friday — but what a shocker that a small box, cooperative, image association game would capture one of the most coveted honors of Spiel ’18.  I had been excited for Belratti for weeks, but I thought it would be an obscure pickup, not one that would seemingly snag the honor of topping the FairPlay list.

Here are the top 20 on the BGG buzz list:

  • Azul Stained Glass of Sintra
  • Teotihuacan: City of Gods
  • Coimbra
  • Everdell
  • Chronicles of Crime
  • Blackout: Hong Kong
  • Gùgōng
  • Newton
  • Railroad Ink: Deep Blue Edition
  • Dice Settlers
  • Architects of the West Kingdom
  • 7 Wonders Armada
  • Underwater Cities
  • Brass: Birbmingham
  • Barrage
  • Shadows: Amsterdam
  • Nemeton
  • Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game
  • Railroad Ink: Blazing Red Edition
  • Fuji

I generally say that if a game is on both lists, it is having a good convention.  But in the end, that only applied to two games: Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra and Coimbra.

As I said Thursday and Friday, I think the games with the best showing are Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra and Teotihuacan.  The latter probably fell in the FairPlay rankings due to it selling out, but when I asked people who had been playing a lot of games what was exceptional, Teotihuacan was the one mentioned.

Beyond either Geekbuzz or FairPlay, I will add a few games to the list of what I see as hot: FuturopiaMagnastormPandoria, Reykholt,  and The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr.  Those were in and out of the FairPlay and/or Geekbuzz list, plus I saw quite a few copies floating around the convention.

So who won Essen ’18?  The eggertspiele/Plan B/Next Move group is, in my mind, the clear winner.  Two of their games, Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra and Coimbra, are the only two that made both FairPlay and Geekbuzz.  Blackout: Hong Kong sold out and was one of the hottest games of the convention.  And Azul, Reef, and Century: Eastern Wonders were all doing well.

But let’s call 2018 what it was: a down year…

This was a down year in terms of game quality.

Compare the list of games above to, for example, the top games from the Gen Con and Essen release seasons of 2015-2017.  In 2015, we had Pandemic Legacy Season 1, Through The Ages: A New Story of Civilization, 7 Wonders Duel, Food Chain Magnate, and Codenames.  In 2016, we had Terraforming Mars, Great Western Trail, Star Wars: Rebellion, Scythe, Arkham Horror: The Card Game, and A Feast for Odin.  Last year, we had Gaia Project, Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition, Pandemic Legacy: Season 2, Azul, and Clans of Caledonia.  All of those games cracked the BGG top 50.

Which of the above titles of 2018 will stand up to those?  To me, not many will.  Are any of the 2018 titles going to crack into the BGG top 50?  As I sit here today, my guess would be that Teotihuacan does.  I suspect Gùgōng, Underwater Cities, and Blackout: Hong Kong have a chance, but only time will tell.

One of the major themes of Essen 2018 was, to me, a lack of innovation.  Which designs from this year will push the hobby forward?  I clearly haven’t played many of the games yet, but I’m so far having difficulty seeing which games could even be good candidates.  (The most innovative game I’ve seen, for the curious, is Fuji, which I did a mini review of on Friday.)

And where are the family strategy games, the SdJ contenders?  So far, I don’t see anything from this year vying closely for the Spiel des Jahres.

My friend Brandon Kempf said on Twitter that this being a down year was predictable, meaning we should have seen this coming in advance of Spiel.  In response to people here in Essen saying that there wasn’t much exciting, he said: “Look folks, this is just a consequence of too many games being pushed through the pipeline, cashing in. Gen Con games were not all that exciting & Essen Games aren’t either. There are some good games, but nothing exceptional.”  Brandon’s point was that games are being rushed through production because the marketplace is so saturated.  He went on to say that we, as a hobby, have become accepting of mediocrity in board games.

I think he’s right.  More than 1,400 games were released at Spiel 2018.  Very, very few of those will prove memorable.

That’s not to say there aren’t solid games.  I’m merely saying that, in totality, 2018 appears to have been a down year.

What I played…

I played quite a few games over the past couple of days, but I need to finish packing, so I’ll put several mini reviews in a post tomorrow or Tuesday.


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18 Responses to Essen ’18 Days Three & Four: What’s was hot, and thoughts on the year in gaming… (Chris Wray)

  1. jeffinberlin says:

    As a game designer, more and more, I’m looking to work with publishers who don’t want to push too many titles out the door every year. I’m so thankful to Bernd that he didn’t try to do that with Pandoria, which was 99% finished a year ago and could have been in Essen 2017. Instead, he kept working hard on it, blind-playtesting it, and made some seemingly minor tweaks that truly polished the game.

    I hope consumers will demand that kind of hard work and dedication from all publishers in the future.

    • Yes!

      I am absolutely loving Gunkimono and I think that working with Renegade in this instance was a good choice, but they’ve moved on to promoting other things so fast I worry that most folks won’t get a chance to play it because of their release schedule for games. Too many games that match the same demographic, they can’t support them all, at least it seems that way to me from the outside.

      Now I’ve got Pandoria to learn and play and I look forward to seeing more and more folks find out about it and I hope that Bernd, and yourself, know that we appreciate all that work that goes into creating something and making it as good as possible, from beginning to end, and supporting it all along the way.


  2. Jacob Lee says:

    Thank you for all the Spiel coverage! I love finding new updates in my inbox! Even if 2018 is a down year and not many games push the hobby gamers have to recognize that OG continues to do so with your excellent, consistent work. Your articles compel me to seek out – and purchase – games I would miss otherwise. I have a nice crop of games on my wishlist to hand over to my supplier.

  3. Chris Wray wrote: ‘Compare the list of games above to, for example, the top games from the Gen Con and Essen release seasons of 2015-2017. In 2015, we had Pandemic Legacy Season 1, Through The Ages: A New Story of Civilization, 7 Wonders Duel, Food Chain Magnate, and Codenames. In 2016, we had Terraforming Mars, Great Western Trail, Star Wars: Rebellion, Scythe, Arkham Horror: The Card Game, and A Feast for Odin. Last year, we had Gaia Project, Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition, Pandemic Legacy: Season 2, Azul, and Clans of Caledonia. All of those games cracked the BGG top 50.”

    Of the games listed above, I loved playing Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, and I still greatly enjoy playing Codenames and Azul, but beyond that I played 7 Wonders Duel and Terraforming Mars once and the other titles exactly zero times. (PL:S2 is on hold due to medical issues in someone else’s family.)

    Of the titles listed above, I think Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra is at least as good as Azul, Carpe Diem is a fine design that I’ve played twice, and I’m highly anticipating Fuji. Beyond that, I could pass on everything else on those two lists — but that’s pretty much the same “hit” rate for me as in the earlier years when it comes to popular games. Besides, 2018 brought us The Mind, so it will always stand out in my book.

    Chris Wray wrote: “Brandon’s point was that games are being rushed through production because the marketplace is so saturated. He went on to say that we, as a hobby, have become accepting of mediocrity in board games.”

    Wait, shouldn’t that be the other way around? The market is saturated because games are being rushed through production? As for accepting mediocrity, I think it’s only a matter of differing tastes.

    • Joe Huber says:

      While I agree that the collective view of BGG is of interest – I do think it’s too early to believe that it’s a fair comparison; most of BGG hasn’t seen any of the new Essen releases. Even for me personally, it’s too early – but while I can safely say that 2018 won’t stand up to 2015 for me, it’s on par with 2016 and 2017 by all current indications.

      And – I think _all_ gamers are less accepting of mediocrity (for them) over time. As a practical matter, if one believes that the rate of incoming gamers is growing, there might be _more_ gamers accepting mediocrity, but not an increasing percentage.

    • Yes, it should be that games are being rushed through the process to get to market, thus saturating an already saturated market. At least it seems that way from the outside looking in. It’s really like most companies are acting like they have to strike while the iron is hot, and it’s hot right now.

      And yes, the mediocrity thing could have been worded a lot better, it was more of a reaction to the “media” at Essen Spiel being disappointed with what games were being offered, when in honesty a week’s worth of rule book reading told the same. There are good games being released, there are an awful lot of 1 or 2 play games out there. I believe Scott Nicholson kind of better compared it to the Atari 2600 crash. As usual, Scott says things a lot better than I.

      And yes, differing tastes will always be a thing among those critical of anything, right? But at some point, good just won’t be good enough.

  4. Aaron Downing says:

    I couldn’t agree with Chris more about the overall lackluster feeling of this Essen. In previous Essens, I was literally bent over and broken by the weight of the games I was lugging back to my hotel room, particularly in 2015. 2015 was a banner year at the con with TIME Stories (remarkable at the time), Potion Explosion (my wife’s favorite game of all time), Pandemic Legacy, 7 Wonders Duel, Bloody Inn, Codenames, the brilliant Elysium, Forbidden Stars, Isle of Sky, Lanterns, Scythe (for demo at 2015 Essen and KS), Specter Ops, etc. There was so much to be excited about! 2016 and 2017 were a bit more of a treasure hunt, but I still managed to come away with some games that became perennial favorites. I had 20-30 games in my “must have” category on Tabletop Together. This year I had four…and they were all expansions. A lot of the excitement has moved to Kickstarter for me. Hopefully, the 2019 Spiel will prove different!

  5. Brandon here.

    I do want to say something about my comment, I’m still excited about new games coming, I’m still a gamer who scours releases for the new exciting game, and there are games from this year’s Gen Con & Essen crop that have been really quite good, but nothing really that excels or makes me think that I’ll be playing it next year at this time. There are a couple possibilities from Gen Con, we’ll see how they hold up and we’re about to start digging in to those Essen titles that are making it back.

    I also do really believe that most publishers are working their butts off to get out games that they feel are worthy of your time, or at least worthy of someone’s time. I don’t think that publishers really feel like they are shortening the development cycle, or saying yes to games that in the past would have been a no purposefully, but it certainly seems that way from the outside looking in.

    I am curious what everyone kind of thought the game of the show was for them. From here looking in it seems like Teotihuacan was getting an awful lot of love. A game that probably ~5% of the gaming population would ever even find interesting or want to play it? Myself, it looks like I align more with the Fairplay list than the BGG list so that’s what I have been paying attention to, and seeing something like Meeple Circus on there kind of threw me for a loop and I kept wondering what they were doing to promote that so heavily again this year.

    I’m looking forward to playing the new Azul title, I’m excited to play Fuji and Magnastorm from Feuerland. I’m even looking forward to playing that game with the weird Aardvark, Rat, Warthog art faker, Belratti. But will I be as excited about those next year, as I still am when I play a game of Carcassonne? We’ll see.

  6. Marcel says:

    While I agree that 2018 wasn’t a great year for new games, I’m not buying the “rush” argument. Most companies aren’t publishing more games than they did in other years, there’s just so many more companies around these days (and then there’s Kickstarter, which is a story in and of itself).
    So the powerhouses of old, like Kosmos, Hans im Glück and Days of Wonder for example, have had the same people working on the same number of games in the same amount of time, and yet they didn’t produce anything noteworthy this year (at least for me).
    I can only hope this was just a blip, and 2019 will be better than ever. Meanwhile, only having a few new games means I can spend more gaming time on old favourites, so I’m not even complaining.

    • jaxommm says:

      We have really adored our plays of Underwater Cities. It’s a theme we haven’t explored before and the game has some fantastic hooks.

    • So maybe it isn’t a question of rushing a lot of titles as much as just developing things that won’t shake the tree or innovate so to speak?

      I am looking forward to seeing what people think of Lift Off! as more people get to it and as it hopefully gets to the English speaking audience. But even Hans Im Gluck is kind of doing “Shovelware” a lot of the time, expanding First Class and Carcassonne and Stone Age this Spiel for example.

      I really liked quite a few ’17 games so I am hopeful that ’18 is kind of just a “cooling off” year so to speak. But with this influx, it’s even harder to find anything that should stand out. So we may never know.

    • huzonfirst says:

      Very good point, Marcel. The companies that have been around for more than a couple of years aren’t really producing any more games than they normally do. So even if one thinks this is an off year, it’s hard to say it’s because companies like these are rushing things through the pipeline.

      (Personally, I wonder if the issue is that there’s SO many games out there that it feels like an off year simply because the *percentage* of notable games is lower than usual. It’s not obvious to me that the *number* of interesting games is any less than usual. But that may just be me.)

      • Marcel says:

        It also depends how you define “interesting”. In terms of OG ratings, there were plenty of “I like it” games this year, but so far not a single “I love it” (but a few that might get there if I play them more, and of course there are a lot of games I haven’t played at all yet). For me, an “I like it” game just doesn’t cut it anymore, hence my lower enthusiasm for this year’s crop.
        Zero is only two below my average for the last couple of years though. I’m just hard to please I guess. ;-)

  7. People claiming Essen had a down year just means it’s the week after Essen.

    > “Last year, we had Gaia Project, Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition, Pandemic Legacy: Season 2, Azul, and Clans of Caledonia.”

    Of those 5, 3 are either rehash or new edition of older games. One light abstract game, and one strategy game. That’s representative of a great year???? 2018 is far above that low bar: Teotihucan, Underwater Cities, Gugong, Forum Trajanum, Backout: HK, Coimbra, Newton, Pandoria, Captains Of The Gulf, Monster Lands, Blue Lagoon, Discover, Prehistory, The Estates, Valparisa, Railroad Ink, The River, Ceylon, … and if we’re including rehashes, there’s AuZtralia and Wildlands (off the top of my head).

    Will any of those crack top 50? I dunno. I suspect so. But maybe not. Obviously not many can. But these things are hard to predict until games hit wider distribution. In any case, the only really good (original) games of Essen 2017 for me are Caledonia, Ganges, Pulsar, Altiplano, Heaven & Ale, and Santa Maria. I expect 2018 to hold up as well.

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