We’re coming to the end of the reviews generated by our Essen Review weekend now. A bit more winnowing, a bit more culling, but some keypers (ahem) as well. There are more coming still, being in the hands of friends, but they just haven’t got to the table yet. And there are so many more out there we’ll never get to. We don’t want really want or need to get to all of them mind you, but it’s fun trying.
For the record, of the fifty-one 2018 titles I got to, I gave seven of them an 8:
- Brass: Birmingham
- Crown Of Emara
- Key Flow
- Underwater Cities
And I gave three of them a 4 or lower:
- The Estates
- Fast Forward: Fortune
I was pleasantly surprised by this thinky filler. It’s in the Hey, That’s My Fish vein of taking the tile that you move off, but moves it away from territory denial and into set collection instead. Each tile has two elements – animals (majorities in each will score) and symbols (for bonus movement points, or a majorities race, or one that scores point on a geometric scale). If you want to play it seriously, you need to pay real attention to what everyone’s picking up and where they intend to go next. But the game is enjoyable in friendly mode as well, because it replaces that cut-throat denial nature with a friendly gather-stuff-and-let’s-see-how-it-plays-out feel. Some tiles adjust the values of what each animal scores, so that’s another consideration to play with if you like that kind of thing. If you don’t, go for the symbol scores instead. Options are open to suit different play preferences, and that flexibility is a positive in a game that can play relatively quickly if you want it to.
CARSON CITY: THE CARD GAME (2018)
Your initial plays are hampered by too much explaining – all the different scoring systems (this goes with that at Sussan), to begin with and throughout, and then for each character as it’s revealed in each of the 22 rounds (they’re all unique). The second issue is that the game is laden with the dreaded simultaneous blind bid mechanic, meaning you can never be sure what you’re going to get – each player must simply make the best of whatever’s left. Sure, there are rounds where you don’t care and can bid low, and rounds you do care and bid high, but in the main, your scoring feels just too much out of your hands. Unless of course you’re totalling up the mass of scoring at the end, in which case the scoring is in your hands for entirely too long while the other players watch a Western to pass the time. The scoring variety is also the main strength however, and it may well lead to ongoing interest once your group has the hang of it so I’m not writing it off entirely!
This felt like fresh Euro. The main point of interest was that the dice selection felt non-mean. The chosen dice have two functions – the pips indicate your bid for card selection (and card synergies are the bread and butter) and the colour indicates which of the four income tracks you’ll score. If you get to take three dice of the same colour, you’ll score that same form of income three times! And that, my friends, felt fresh. It meant you always felt like you had a good option and an interesting decision. The other plus is that the game only went four rounds, so all your choices mattered. I’m not sure there’s a wealth of different strategies to explore, for the game is mostly about bidding smartly for cards that riff off what you’ve built and then exploiting your income strengths. It somehow manages to find that sweet spot of providing plenty to think about but with little downtime, which is sweet indeed.
GINGERBREAD HOUSE (2018)
A by-the-numbers light Euro. Play tiles to earn resources. Spend resources to buy VP cards from the draft. Repeat for 13 rounds. It has a nice mini-Java-esque approach of playing tiles on top of tiles, building up your house. There are the inevitable bonus cards for buying cards of this type, or your tiles this many levels high, and the like. There’s a fair bit of luck in what tiles you draw (which will drive your future resources) vs what cards come out when (re what resources they require), but it’s not inappropriate for the game’s length. It works, it’s pleasant, it’s non-objectionable, I can see why it’s been produced, but for the older hands at play, there’s not much to explore here either.
KEY FLOW (2018)
All the nice things about Keyflower in waaayy less time. Get cards 7 Wonders style, play a building card, or a one off resource creator card, or play a meeple card to trigger a building (which to start with usually means triggering your home building to move resources off their creator cards over to building cards that will convert the resources into points or other benefits). You’re trying to maximise a select few things, as directed by the end-game bonus cards that you have sight off from the beginning (you get one for free, the others will go into the draft). It’s still make the most of whatever you get and try to collect different things than your neighbours, but the decisions you make need to be focused, so each play feels important. It goes pretty fast, packs some oomph, there are enough cards to ensure you see different things each game, and I liked it a lot.
Ahh, this is the game that Villa Paletti always wanted to be and should have been. The stupid win condition (where you win if the player after you crashes) is replaced by co-op mode where you’re setting up the next player to succeed. There’s a decision to make each turn on how challenging a turn you want and how much risk to take, The actual placement is just as fun, but it’s a satisfying shared achievement when the tower gets as high as it needs to be for the win. As a bonus, you can play Jenga afterwards for the tower deconstruction! Although I rate this and Villa Paletti the same (because I only play this style of game occasionally), this is the better, more interesting, and more fun version.
OH MY GOODS! (2015)
Clever and interesting, but plastering over a layer of perhaps too much randomness to climb higher up the replay ladder. You build resource converter buildings (from cards in your hand). At the beginning of the round, half the resources available this turn will be flipped from the deck. You decide which of your buildings you’ll attempt to fire up – do you play safe with a low scoring building that almost has all the resources it needs, or will you gamble on a higher scoring building that needs more resources? Then we flip for more resources and see what scores, supplementing from the hand if needed. There are interesting building decisions, trying to build stuff that will parlay stuff you’ve already built into better scoring stuff (read me an engine), but on the other hand it can be pretty random getting that engine firing. The good news is that it comes in at a nice timeframe where the randomness can leave an itch to want to play again at some point.
PILE-UP RUSH (2017)
Team based real-time dexterity game that hits the right spots. One side plays up to 3 pieces on the base, and flips the timer. Then the other teams adds up to 3 pieces on top, flips the timer, and turns continue to alternate, adding pieces to the pile. A team gets points if they get their last piece on, or if the other team crashes the pile, or lets the timer run out. Either way, they discard a piece from the other team’s collection (usually the easiest to place), making future rounds harder and faster. First team to 4 points wins. It’s only a small base, and not many pieces, but they’re wide and varied, so rounds go fast, points are gathered quickly, and it’s all over in a perfect fun-filled timeframe where you can share glory or commiserations with your partner. A nice game, and I’d be tempted to rate higher if there was a touch more variety from game to game.
SPACE CADETS: DICE DUEL (2013)
Some fun for when you have 6 players and a real-time dice rolling team game is called for. Which isn’t often, but it’s nice to have up your sleeve when the time comes (Strand Cup used to be an option here.) This channels the Space Alert vibe, having to co-ordinate the allocation of dice to the right places at the right time to load torpedoes, move to somewhere in range to fire the torpedoes, set up shields, etc. The dice rolling is constant and semi-frantic, but you need to get your head up along the way to make sure you’re building the right things at the right time, especially when you have tractor beams available to put the enemy ship exactly where you want them. It has the potential for going a little long, but eliminating the healing-the-ship option should fix that. With “commands” and “requests” for energy being thrown around frenetically, it captures the feel of a hyper-busy bridge in the throes of battle nicely, and good fun is had along the way.
SPOTLIGHT ON: TUPPEN
This is quite the fun card game that I imagine a lot of people don’t know given its lack of ratings and comments on BGG. I’m told it has Dutch / German pub heritage, where the loser of the round buys the next round. There’s a lot of luck with the cards, with only 4 cards in the hand plus benefits to leading in the first, but the ability to bluff people out of the round by knocking and driving up the score being played for (backgammon-style) is what makes the game, as the winner of the hand is whoever wins the last trick. That’s all it comes down to. So, can you drive other people out and win with a nothing card? Does he have the Ace or is he bluffing? Anyway, there are lots of laughs along the way with bluffs called and made, and we’ve had good fun with it over the years.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Jeff Allers: I picked up MENARA in Essen and wonder why someone hasn’t thought of a cooperative dexterity game before (maybe someone already has, but I hadn’t heard of it). In any case, it’s the best thing since chocolate met peanut butter. It’s not only a Villa Paletti-killer (which hasn’t seen any playing time in my circles since it won Spiel des Jahres ages ago), it’s now my preferred (non-flicking) dexterity game of all time. Elegant mechanics, great team-building tension and beautiful to look at. Publisher Zoch has gone back to its dexterity roots (Bausack, Bamboleo, Hamster Rolle, Gulo Gulo, Riff Raff, and the aforementioned Villa Paletti) and this one may be their best ever.
Alan How: I’ve only played Carson City: The Card Game, but it works really well and is a solid little filler. For me it’s a 7. I want to get some multiplayer games in to check this style of game out.
I was a play tester for Key Flow, so maybe I’m slightly biased, but I’d agree with Patrick’s thoughts. The simultaneous play is a major plus for me, as well as only needing to focus on your neighbours for options to place your Keyple cards. My rating would be 8 or 9. I’ve also found it easy to teach to newcomers and it is far easier to appreciate the options in this game over Keyflower. The cards are unusual size so more difficult to find sleeves for those that are concerned about these things.
Oh My Goods works really well and it’s only downside was it was over too quickly for me. I’ve picked up the expansions but not yet tried them out yet to see if the games last a bit longer. Pretty enjoyable engine building fun though. A least a 7.
Mitchell Thomashow: I’ve played Coimbra about a dozen times as a two player game. I find it very compelling with sufficient variety from game to game. Once you know the cards you have a good idea as to what’s available and what you can plan for. And you can get it all done in an hour. Most importantly, the game is fun! (8)
We’ve played Key Flow about a dozen times as well. The drafting action is compelling. It’s a good two player game but I think it’s better with 3. Others have pointed out that there are too many scoring opportunities and they just explode on you in the last round. There have been some suggestions (I believe Jonathan) for mitigating that. This is the smoothest and most accessible of the Keyflower collection. (8)
Jeff Lingwall: Space Cadets Dice Duel was a game I wanted to love so much …. but the niche is so small that it just never gets played. Escape: The Curse of the Temple does the real-time dice genre in a little simpler, cooperative format that worked better for us. (7)
Larry: Coimbra is very good and the best thing about it is it’s very elegant dice selection mechanism. Another great game from that wonderful crop of Italian designers. I love it.
Key Flow is also excellent. Keyflower is a wonderful design, but there’s too much going on for me to deal with. Key Flow focuses things much better by taking away the auction. I came up with a variant where you keep two of your Winter scoring cards during the Winter Is Coming interphase instead of one and it’s worked so well that it’s the only way we play now. I love it.
Oh My Goods is another clever design from Pfister, but it’s really hard to set up your building combinations in time before the game ends. I understand the second edition of the game introduced some new rules that made long chains of buildings more feasible, but I’ve never had the chance to try it out. I like it.
Brandon: Gingerbread House was one of the surprises of all the Essen time releases. A nice gateway, thematic tile placement game, with fun little micro transactions to drive the victory points.
Menara is easily in my Top 10 games of 2018, a wonderful production from the folks at Zoch and it works wonderfully. I love how the towers can grow separate from each other but the necessity to bring them together for architectural sturdiness is quickly learned.
Fraser: What Larry said about Oh My Goods.
I have enjoyed Gingerbread House, it is reasonably lightweight, but has some things going on in terms of positioning your tiles for future moves. It has been very popular with the people I have taught it to, including non-gamers and casual gamers.
Matt Carlson: I do enjoy the real time dice games so am a fan of both Escape the Curse of the Temple and Space Cadets: Dice Duel. Escape is cooperative, so that is nice, but Dice Duel has the advantage of a stronger interdependence between players. Trying to communicate more involved topics (than just “I need suns”) during Dice Duel makes the game seem even more frantic (which is a good thing.) Dice Duel is best with a full, or nearly full complement, so I prefer Escape with fewer people. The expansion with its “fighter ships” is an excellent way to even out lopsided teams as well as add some variety. Dice Duel captures much of what I like about the original Space Cadets game, but in a shorter, more intense timeframe.
I love these articles! I walk away with a couple of titles to bug my dealer into getting (Key Flow and Menara). I don’t really see how I would have noticed these without OG. That makes for a lot of thanks from me.
Oh My Goods! falls a little short for me. I like the idea of it and think there is possibly a great game in there but the actual plays seem to end up being less interesting and more frustrating as things often don’t go your way (and the workers mechanism is very rigid so hard to make that better). The revised end of game scoring (where all your buildings get a chance to fire even without activation) was a step in the right direction but that it was added later does seem to show it was put out a little under-cooked.
Only have one learning game of Coimbra but I enjoyed it a lot.